Vittorio Gassman, one of Italy's most indomitable theatre and cinema icons, died Thursday at age 78 from a heart attack. The actor, who defined an era of Italian cinema and was known as much for his dramatic roles as his comedic gems, appeared in such classic films as I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal On Madonna Street), Profumo Di Donna and We All Loved Each Other So Much.

Born in Genova in 1922 to a German engineer and an Italian housewife, Gassman studied acting briefly at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, leaving in 1943 when he was given his first theatrical role in Dario Niccodemi's "Enemy."

After establishing his name as a local stage actor, Gassman made his cinematic debut in 1945 in Giovanni Paolucci's Preludio d'Amore, soon thereafter moving to Hollywood where he appeared in War And Peace and Beautiful But Dangerous. In America, he married Shelley Winters, his second of four wives.

In 1958 Gassman got his big break in Italy, in Mario Monicelli's I Soliti Ignoti, a comedy about five inept burglars, including Marcello Mastroianni, and the legendary Toto, trying to pull off a heist. The film was later remade in the US by Louis Malle as Crackers.

Throughout his fifty-year career, Gassman worked with the Italy's most renowned directors, including Monicelli, Dino Risi, Ettore Scola and Lina Wertmuller. He also founded his own theatre company and championed the causes of independent film and quality television against overt commercialism.

"With [Gassman's] passing ends one of the most beautiful and important periods in history and cinema," said Wertmuller.

Although based in Italy Gassman would continue to work in America: in 1978 he appeared in Robert Altman's The Wedding, and more recently in Barry Levinson's Sleepers.

Gassman won numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including the Cannes Palme d'Or in 1975 for Profumo Di Donna, later remade in the US as Scent Of A Woman starring Al Pacino. He was also awarded the career Golden Lion award in 1996 at the Venice Film Festival.

Gassman, who appeared in relatively few films in the past ten years, was still performing, teaching and writing actively in the theatre and television until the time of his death. His recent readings of Dante's Divine Comedy were one of the mostly widely watched events in Italian television.

"Gassman's bond with Italy's biggest directors created characters that accompanied our lives and recounted the changes and identity of our country," said Italy's former cultural minister Walter Veltroni.

His funeral is scheduled to be held on Sunday.