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James Gandolfini, dead at 51

Ben Brumfield and Livia Borghesi | 6/20/2013, 7:22 a.m.
The body of actor James Gandolfini was transferred to a hospital morgue in Rome early Thursday, where it awaits an ...
Actor James Gandolfini is pictured in one of his last public appearances on June 10, 2013 - the Stella by Starlight Gala that benefits the programs of Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Gandolfini died June 19, 2013 in Rome, Italy. Patrick McMullan

— The body of actor James Gandolfini was transferred to a hospital morgue in Rome early Thursday, where it awaits an autopsy.

By law, medical examiners in Italy are required to carry out the postmortem 24 hours after the body's arrival in the morgue, a hospital spokesman said.

Before Italian authorities can release his remains for transport back to the United States, the U.S. Embassy in Rome must issue a death certificate.

Gandolfini was not alive when he arrived by ambulance at the Policlinico hospital late Wednesday, spokesman Antonio Spasola said.

No one from the embassy or Gandolfini's family has contacted the morgue yet, he said.

Though the cause of death is not yet known, his managers believe that a heart attack killed the man who portrayed Tony Soprano, a washed-up mob boss prone to keeling over from panic attacks.

He was 51.

Possible health risks

"This is young to have a heart attack, even when you look at any pre-existing health conditions," CNN's chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta said. Usually, first heart attacks don't strike until the victim is over 60.

But risk factors such as obesity, smoking, lack of exercise and stress can cause them to occur earlier in life, Gupta said.

"He loved his food. He didn't push back from the table," said journalist Larry King, who spent time with the actor on and off camera.

Photos and anecdotes indicate that Gandolfini enjoyed cigars.

Though intense outbursts of adrenaline-infused anger were a mainstay of Tony Soprano's character, he was a far cry from Gandolfini.

Colleagues described him as funny, kind and gentle. He had a reputation for often being reserved and quiet. He didn't seek publicity, avoiding press coverage, journalists have said.

Tributes poured in on social media, describing Gandolfini as jovial and likable.

Even after Sopranos fame, he was very down to earth, said iReporter Pat Tantalo, who worked on the set of a 2006 movie Gandolfini starred in.

He lit up the room with a big smile the first time he walked into the production office, Tantalo recalled.

"We instantly connected. He planted his huge mitts on my shoulders and called me a little bull."

Tantalo posted a goodbye tribute on CNN's iReport website with a photo of Gandolfini's arm slung around his shoulder. Both men are smiling ear to ear.

They exchanged telephone numbers and spent some of their evenings sitting around together on a deck by a lake smoking cigars and telling stories.

"It was like we had been friends forever," Tantalo said.

IReporter Shana O'Neil met Gandolfini when he was shooting in her office in 1994. She remembers him as "Jersey through and through," a trait he did share with mobster Tony Soprano.

But he was so much friendlier, O'Neil said. "I just always think of him as that guy."

His Sopranos fame, she said, changed nothing about the way she remembers him.

Artist to the core

Gandolfini was well-respected by his peers.

"He was a genius," said David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos." "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."

He was a perfectionist in front of the camera and on stage, said Matthew Warchus, who directed Gandolfini in a theater performance of "Gods of Carnage" in 2009.

In spite of his glowing success, stage fright consumed him, Warchus said. He struggled with "his (own) passionate need to get things right."

Gandolfini is survived by his wife, Deborah, and their 9-month-old daughter, Liliana. He is also survived by a son, Michael, from another marriage.

CNN's Hada Messia and Livia Borghese contributed to this report

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