Beloved character actor James Gandolfini, best known as Tony Soprano on HBO's classic mafia series 'The Sopranos,' has passed away suddenly at the age of 51 after a heart attack.

HBO released a statement confirming Gandolfini's passing and saying:

We’re all in shock and feeling immeasurable sadness at the loss of a beloved member of our family. He was special man, a great talent, but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect. He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility. Our hearts go out to his wife and children during this terrible time.  He will be deeply missed by all of us.

Added 'The Sopranos' creator, David Chase, in a statement:

He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time. A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, 'You don't get it. You're like Mozart.' There would be silence at the other end of the phone. For Deborah and Michael and Lilliana this is crushing. And it's bad for the rest of the world. He wasn't easy sometimes. But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can't explain and never will be able to explain.

In Gandolfini's early screen work he was usually cast as a heavy, with his role in Tony Scott's 'True Romance' being the most memorable. But, it wasn't until his turn in 1995's 'Get Shorty' -- where he showed that his gruff exterior could hold a soft heart -- that he showed he was better than just playing Thug #2 types. His supporting work was steady, but it was in 1999 that he became a legend.

At the time, HBO had been having more success with comedies than dramas, and some were worried that the premise (a mob boss who sees a psychiatrist) would be overshadowed by the same year's 'Analyze This,' which featured Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal. But, it was the success of David Chase's 'The Sopranos' that ushered in the HBO we know today.

Over the 86 episodes of 'The Sopranos,' Gandolfini created one of the greatest characters in television history, and, as great as the writing was, it's Gandolfini's performance that made the character indelible. Actors often hope they get one great role, and if Gandolfini had done nothing else, this would be enough to ensure his legacy.

More recently, he appeared in three films this last fall with 'Killing Them Softly,' 'Not Fade Away' (with David Chase directing) and 'Zero Dark Thirty,' while he also appeared this spring in 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.' The passing of James Gandolfini is a horrible shock, as he seemed to have many more great performances in him. He will be missed.

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