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Tony Sirico, actor much-loved by audiences for playing Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos – obituary

Tony Sirico as Paulie Gualtieri, with (back, from left) , Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore and Steven Van Zandt, fellow Sopranos cast members - Capital Pictures
Tony Sirico as Paulie Gualtieri, with (back, from left) , Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore and Steven Van Zandt, fellow Sopranos cast members - Capital Pictures

Tony Sirico, the actor, who has died aged 79, achieved screen immortality as Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri, veteran associate of the New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, in HBO’s landmark television series The Sopranos (1999-2007).

Amid an unmatched rogues’ gallery, this was a peach of a part, which Sirico filled to tetchy perfection. A preening peacock with a vicious wit combined with an endless supply of malapropisms, Paulie brushes up well enough to be companionable; but he is also superstitious, vain – with his elaborately dyed hair and salon-buffed nails – and thin-skinned. As the New Yorker critic Nancy Franklin observed, Paulie’s “angry comic flair is only one notch on the dial away from his murderousness.”

That sense of explosive threat was central to the episode “Pine Barrens”, widely regarded as one of finest hours in the history of television, in which Paulie and Tony’s similarly irascible nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli) lose their way while trying to dispatch a Russian gangster in snowbound woodland. Peaking with a scene in which Paulie loses one of his slip-ons, it was the show in a nutshell: gripping, stressful and wildly, blackly funny.

The role of Paulie drew on Sirico’s own waywardness. He was arrested 28 times in his early life, the first time aged seven for swiping loose change from a newsstand. After military service, he left the mother of his two children for a new girlfriend and gave up a construction job to become a hired gun for the Colombo crime family: “I was very unstable. I wasn’t thinking right. So I hooked up with these guys and all of a sudden I’m a stick-up artist. I stuck up every nightclub in New York.”

He was convicted twice, once for weapons possession, the second time for extortion and coercion. A psychiatric report assessed Sirico as having a “character disorder”; the judge deemed him a danger to society. He was sentenced to four years in Sing Sing, eventually serving 20 months. It proved a pivotal experience.

After six months without his girlfriend visiting, Sirico realised his relationship was over. Despairing, he attended a performance by Theater of the Forgotten, a touring troupe comprised of ex-convicts. Coupled with his ability to win over fellow inmates (“I used to stand up in front of cold-blooded murderers… and make ’em laugh”), it persuaded Sirico to consider a new, legitimate career path.

Upon release, he gained a mentor in the playwright-turned-actor Michael V Gazzo; during one early workshop, Gazzo advised his pistol-packing charge to “leave the gun at home”. Thus disarmed, Sirico landed extra work in two of Gazzo’s projects: the B-picture Crazy Joe (1974) and then, more propitiously, The Godfather Part II (1974), for which Gazzo would be Oscar-nominated.

Twenty-five years later, David Chase, a Godfather buff, approached Sirico to read for the part of Tony’s Uncle Junior in his Sopranos pilot: “An hour after I got home, I got a call from Chase. He said, ‘You want the good news or the bad news?’ I said, ‘Give me the bad news.’ He said, ‘You didn’t get Uncle Junior. But… would you be willing to do a recurring role? I have a character called Paulie Walnuts’.” Sirico agreed on one condition: that Paulie would never be “a rat”.

Handed a single line in the pilot, he proceeded over six seasons to shape a character who was both representative of an entire criminal milieu and indelibly singular. “When I look in the mirror in the morning, I don’t know if I’m looking at Tony or Paulie,” Sirico reflected. “We got cross-pollinated.”

Sirico: he liked to say that learnt how to walk and talk watching James Cagney - RW
Sirico: he liked to say that learnt how to walk and talk watching James Cagney - RW

He was born Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr on July 29 1942, the third of three sons of Gennaro and Marie Sirico, Sicilian migrants who had settled in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of East Flatbush (his older brother is Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who formed the libertarian Acton Institute).

The movies were an early influence: “I learned how to walk and talk watching [James] Cagney. It’s that, it’s the power, it’s the glamour.” His own roles, inevitably, featured a high proportion of “made men”: his first onscreen credit came as the Al Capone associate Frankie Rio in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell (1977).

He fell in with the writer-director James Toback, meeting a bloody end at Harvey Keitel’s hands in Fingers (1978), before featuring in Toback’s Love & Money (1981), Exposed (1983), The Pick-Up Artist (1987) and the documentary The Big Bang (1989), in which Sirico denied killing anybody during his criminal years.

He could, however, be witnessed pushing a postman into a pizza oven in Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), and he bulked out seven roles for Woody Allen, starting with Bullets Over Broadway (1994). He was a boxing trainer in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), an escaped convict in Everyone Says I Love You (1996), and later appeared in Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), Café Society (2015) and Wagon Wheel (2017).

The Sopranos: James Gandolfini and Tony Sirico in the foreground - Moviestore/Shutterstock
The Sopranos: James Gandolfini and Tony Sirico in the foreground - Moviestore/Shutterstock

The Sopranos gave him renewed clout, two Screen Actors Guild ensemble wins, and the opportunity to mock his screen persona. He played a mobster in A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa (2008); reunited with his Sopranos co-star Steven Van Zandt for the Scandi comedy-drama Lilyhammer (2013-14); and voiced the Griffins’ new attack dog Vinny on Family Guy (2013-16).

Dementia slowed him, but his final credits, on two long-shelved projects, demonstrated his range: a hardnosed pawnbroker in Respect the Jux (2022) and a high-school coach alongside Christopher Lloyd in the comic fantasy Super Athlete (set for release this year).

Offscreen, he practiced karate and did charity work; he also launched his own Sopranos-inspired cologne, Paolo Per Uomo, in 2008. As he told one interviewer: “I’m proud of what I do. I remember when I got that first part [in Godfather II], and Coppola told me I was a real character, with a line of dialogue and everything. Oh, let me tell you, I was strutting. I was thinking, ‘I got a name. I got a name!’ ”

He is survived by a daughter and a son.

Tony Sirico, born July 29 1942, died July 8 2022