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By Phil McCausland

Joseph Mascolo, the actor who portrayed iconic "Days of Our Lives" villain Stefano DiMera, died on Wednesday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 87.

Best known for his role as criminal mastermind on the NBC series, Mascolo got his start in theater before appearing on television. He earned a primetime Emmy nomination as Poppa in the NBC mini-series "Poppa and Me."

"It is with great sorrow that we share the news of the passing of our dear friend and beloved member of the Days of our Lives family, Joseph Mascolo," "Days of Our Lives" executive producer Ken Corday said in a statement. "The smile on Joe's face is something we'd all come to find comfort in, and he will be sorely missed. 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."

Actor Joseph Mascolo is seen in this 2015 file photo attending the "Days Of Our Lives" 50th Anniversary Celebration at Hollywood Palladium on Nov. 7, 2015 in Los Angeles.Vivien Killilea / Getty Images

Mascolo also appeared on film in such movies as "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Jaws II," "Shaft’s Big Score" and "Heat" with Burt Reynolds, who described the soap opera star as "one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets."

But Mascolo is best remembered for his role on "Days of Our Lives," which he continued for 18 years. Though he left the show in 2001 to join the cast of CBS's "The Bold and the Beautiful," Mascolo returned to his original soap in 2006 and continued in the role until 2016.

He is survived by his wife, a son, a step-daughter, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

"Joseph was a big ol' bear with a puppy dog heart," his wife, Patricia, said in a statement. "I'm so blessed to have had these many years with him. I will miss him every day."