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Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY

TAORMINA, Sicily - James Gandolfini, whose portrayal as a brooding and conflicted crime boss during six seasons of The Sopranos made him a household name, was looking forward to reconnecting "with his Italian roots" when died in Italy on Thursday morning, the director of a film festival who spoke to the actor just hours before his death has said.

Gandolfini, who was 51, was touring Italy ahead of an appearance at the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, where he was to receive an award Saturday and participate in a round table conversation on American cinema along with film director Gabriele Muccino and actress Marisa Tomei. Mario Sesti, Taormina's artistic director, said he spoke to Gandolfini late Wednesday local time.

"He was so happy to be in Italy, to reconnect with his Italian roots, and he was very excited to come here and receive this award," Sesti said, adding that the festival planned to change Saturday's round table discussion into a homage to Gandolfini.

Both of Gandolfini's parents were born and raised in Italy, but the actor was a native of New Jersey.

At the time of his death, Gandolfini was traveling with his 13-year-old son, Michael, and, according to the Italian news agency AGI, he suffered a heart attack in the bathroom of his hotel and was still alive when the ambulance arrived. His son was reported to have alerted hotel staff.

The Policlinico Umberto hospital, Rome's largest and best-equipped hospital, issued a brief statement saying that Gandolfini was dead on arrival at the hospital and that it will now conduct an autopsy.