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 suspected heart attack.

In his early screen work he was usually cast as a heavy, with his role in Tony Scott's 'True Romance' the most memorable. But it wasn't until his turn in 1995's 'Get Shorty' as Bear -- where he showed that his gruff exterior could hold a soft heart -- that showed that 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 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 it was as much the writing was great, it was 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.' The passing of James Gandolfini is a horrible shock, as he seemed to have way too many more great performances in him.