Complex paracrine interactions exist between endothelial cells and cardiac myocytes in the heart. Cardiac endothelial cells release (or metabolize) several diffusible agents (e.g., nitric oxide [NO], endothelin-1, angiotensin II, adenylpurines) that exert direct effects on myocyte function, independent of changes in coronary flow. Some of these mediators are also generated by cardiac myocytes, often under pathological conditions. This review focuses on the role of NO in this paracrine/autocrine pathway. NO modulates several aspects of "physiological" myocardial function (e.g., excitation-contraction coupling; myocardial relaxation; diastolic function; the Frank-Starling response; heart rate; beta-adrenergic inotropic response; and myocardial energetics and substrate metabolism). The effects of NO are influenced by its cellular and enzymatic source, the amount generated, the presence of reactive oxygen species, interactions with neurohumoral and other stimuli, and the relative activation of cyclic GMP-dependent and -independent signal transduction pathways. The relative physiological importance of endothelium- and myocyte-derived NO remains to be established. In pathological situations (e.g., ischemia-reperfusion, left ventricular hypertrophy, heart failure, transplant vasculopathy and rejection, myocarditis), NO can potentially exert beneficial or deleterious effects. Beneficial effects of NO can result from endothelial-type nitric oxide synthase-derived NO or from spatially and temporally restricted expression of the inducible isoform, inducible-type nitric oxide synthase. Deleterious effects may result from (1) deficiency of NO or (2) excessive production, often inducible-type nitric oxide synthase-derived and usually with concurrent reactive oxygen species production and peroxynitrite formation. The balance between beneficial and deleterious effects of NO is of key importance with respect to its pathophysiological role.