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By Cindy Clark and Gary Levin, USA TODAY

James Gandolfini, who personified the New Jersey mobster in HBO's acclaimed series The Sopranos, died Wednesday, apparently of a heart attack, while on vacation in Rome, the network said. He was 51.

"We'reall in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a belovedmember of our family," the network said in a statement. "He was aspecial man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and lovingperson who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equalrespect. He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, hiswarmth and his humility. Our hearts go out to his wife and childrenduring this terrible time. He will be deeply missed by all of us."

Gandolfini had been expected to appear at the 59th Taormina Film Festival in Sicily on Thursday, reports Variety.

Thebeefy actor, who played Mob patriarch Tony Soprano in the award-winningdrama that ran for six seasons, had small film and theater roles whenhe was cast by David Chase in the drama, which became the network'stop-rated series soon after premiering in 1999. He was a New Jerseynative with deep Italian roots; both his parents were born and raisedthere.

Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards as best actor in the role,played opposite Edie Falco's Carmela, and helped establish thenetwork's reputation as a home for edgy, complex series.

After theshow ended its run in 2007 with an elliptical finale, Gandolfinicontinued his relationship with the network, producing a documentaryabout veterans of the Iraq War and last year's Hemingway & Gellhorn, about the life of author Ernest Hemingway. He was also set to co-star in Criminal Justice, a new drama for which a pilot episode had been shot. And he played the protagonist's dad in Not Fade Away, Chase's feature-film debut about a 1960s New Jersey garage band that was released last December.

In 2009, Gandolfini hit Broadway in the Tony Award-winning comedy God of Carnage. He also recently appeared in the films Zero Dark Thirty -- in which he played the director of the CIA -- and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

He is survived by his wife, Deborah Lin, a son, Michael, and an 8-month-old daughter.

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