By Will Robinson
December 09, 2016 at 10:40 PM EST
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
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Joseph Mascolo, who played the iconic soap villain Stefano DiMera in Days of our Lives, died Thursday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 87 years old.

“Joseph was a big ol’ bear with a puppy dog heart,” his wife of 11 years, Pat Mascolo, said in a statement. “I’m so blessed to have had these many years with him. I will miss him every day.”

Though he had a long career before dropping into fictional Salem, Mascolo is best known for manufacturing twists as Stefano on Days. The evil DiMera family patriarch was created in 1982 by head writer Pat Falken-Smith, who tailored the role for Mascolo after seeing him on the miniseries The Gangster Chronicles. He appeared on over 1,600 episodes from the ’80s to as recently as July 2016.

“The smile on Joe’s face is something we’d all come to find comfort in, and he will be sorely missed,” executive producer Ken Corday said in a statement. His larger than life presence, kind heart, and unwavering positivity has impacted us all for decades, and will live on in the memories of his many fans. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time.”

Mascolo was born in 1929 in West Hartford, Conn. and initially pursued becoming a classical musician. He excelled, earning a scholarship the University of Miami and was on the cusp of accepting a Fulbright Scholarship to study orchestral conducting. A Miami drama coach’s suggestion led Mascolo to pass on the Fulbright and train under legendary acting coach Stella Adler in New York City.

His first Broadway break was as understudy to Neville Brand in Night Life by Sidney Kingsley. His real debut came in 1966 with Tyrone Guthrie’s Dinner at Eight. Mascolo was an understudy-turned-star of Jason Miller’s 1973 Pulitzer-winning play, That Championship Game.

Mascolo frequently returned to the stage throughout his career, even as he started appearing in movies (such as Jaws 2 and a pair of Burt Reynolds films, Sharky’s Machine and Heat) and television. His non-Days TV appearances spanned All in the Family, Kojak, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and a brief star turn on The Bold and the Beautiful in the 2000s before a Days return.

Mascolo is survived by his wife; his son, Peter; his stepdaughter, Laura; his sister, Marie; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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