Tony Sirico: Sopranos star who played Paulie Walnuts

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‘Half a wise guy’: Siricco in 1990, around the time of his breakout movie role in ‘Goodfellas’  (Getty)
‘Half a wise guy’: Siricco in 1990, around the time of his breakout movie role in ‘Goodfellas’ (Getty)

“I have an arsenal of weapons and an army of men, and I’m going to use them,” Tony Sirico, who played the mob henchman “Paulie Walnuts” in the HBO crime drama The Sopranos was once quoted as saying, “and ... I’m going to come back here and carve my initials in your forehead. You better learn a lesson. You better show me the respect I deserve.”

The lines seem to have come from a script for the groundbreaking series, which aired from 1999 to 2007, won 21 Emmy Awards and is acclaimed as one of the greatest programmes in television history. But the words are taken verbatim from a 1970 police charging record, documenting the reasons for Sirico’s arrest on extortion and weapons charges.

Long before he became renowned for playing a silver-haired enforcer for New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini), Sirico was a real-life hoodlum who was arrested 28 times and spent two stints in prison, totalling almost three years.

The memories of his earlier life were never far from the surface as Sirico portrayed Paulie Walnuts throughout the six-season run of The Sopranos, creating one of television's most unforgettable characters. Sirico was 79 when he died on 8 July at an assisted-living facility in Florida.

Before The Sopranos, Sirico had played a mobster in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), had acted in several films directed by Woody Allen, including Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You, and appeared in the 1997 police corruption drama Cop Land with Sylvester Stallone and Ray Liotta.

When he auditioned for The Sopranos, Sirico was 55 and living with his mother in a small apartment in Brooklyn. He tried out for two roles and was told by David Chase, the show’s creator, that he didn’t get either of them.

“He said, ‘No, I got you in mind for somebody else,’” Sirico said on CNN’s Larry King Live in 2001, “and along came Paulie Walnuts.”

The character’s formal name was Peter Paul Gualtieri, who had been a trusted lieutenant of Tony Soprano’s late father, Johnny Boy Soprano. During the show’s first season, Paulie Walnuts described his life in this way: “I was born, grew up, spent a few years in the Army, a few more in the can and here I am, a half a wise guy.”

He got his nickname when he thought he thought he had hijacked a truck loaded with televisions. It turned out to carrying nuts.

Sirico wore a pinkie ring in real life, the same as Paulie. When the show’s wardrobe staff picked out a shirt for him, he said he had one just like it at home. On the show, while sitting outside a meat market that was an informal mob clubhouse, Paulie would flip open an aluminium reflector, brightening the tan on his neck and face.

And then there was his hair: a pompadour first sculpted into place in the Fifties, now highlighted by two wings of silver slicked back on the sides. Sirico refused to let anyone touch his hair and spent hours combing and spraying it before shooting a scene.

Old school: Paulie Walnuts (Sirico) takes Christopher (Michael Imperioli) to task in ‘The Sopranos’ (Shutterstock)
Old school: Paulie Walnuts (Sirico) takes Christopher (Michael Imperioli) to task in ‘The Sopranos’ (Shutterstock)

His character killed more people than any other during the course of the show – nine – but there was much more to The Sopranos than mob violence. It was about families, both criminal and nuclear; about being part of a fading culture failing to adapt to change; and about the problems associated with addiction and depression.

When Tony Soprano revealed he was seeing a therapist, Paulie admitted he had, too: “I had some issues.”

Sirico once said, “If Paulie can’t curse, he can’t talk,” and he delivered some of the show’s funniest lines, always in a serious, deadpan style, usually punctuated by profanity.

Perhaps Sirico's most memorable episode came in the third season, when he and his fellow mobster – Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli) – journey to New Jersey’s desolate Pine Barrens in pursuit of a Russian rival in the dead of winter.

Paulie receives his orders from Tony Soprano, who says, “Bad connection, so I’m going to talk fast. The guy you are looking for is an ex-commando. He killed 16 Chechen rebels single-handed.”

Paulie: “Get... outta here.”

Tony: “Yeah, nice, huh? He was with the interior ministry. Guy’s some kind of Russian Green Beret. This guy cannot come back to tell this story. You understand?”

Sirico (right) with ‘Sopranos’ co-star James Gandolfini, in 2006 (FilmMagic)
Sirico (right) with ‘Sopranos’ co-star James Gandolfini, in 2006 (FilmMagic)

The telephone connection goes dead, and Paulie explains the situation to Christopher: “You’re not going to believe this. He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator.”

Christopher: “His house looked like s***.”

They chase the Russian on foot through the snow, wearing light leather jackets and no hats or gloves. (The scene was filmed in -23C weather.) Christopher shoots at the fleeing Russian but succeeds only in killing a deer.

Running through woods, Paulie tumbles to the ground, ends up with snow caked in his mussed hair, then looks forlornly at his foot, saying, “I lost my shoe.”

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr was born 29 July 1942, in Brooklyn and grew up in the heavily Italian Bensonhurst section. His father was a dockworker and later ran a candy shop, and his mother was a homemaker.

Young “Junior” Sirico, as he was then known, was first detained by the police when he was seven for stealing change from a newsstand. As a teenager, he was shot in the leg and back when he kissed another boy’s girlfriend.

“Where I grew up every guy tried to prove himself,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “Either you had a tattoo or a gun scar. I have both.”

He served in the Army, then returned to Brooklyn, admiring the style of the gangsters in his neighbourhood.

Clan-do attitude: Sirico (far left) with some of the ‘Sopranos’ cast, 2005 (Shutterstock)
Clan-do attitude: Sirico (far left) with some of the ‘Sopranos’ cast, 2005 (Shutterstock)

“So I hooked up with these guys,” he later said, “and all of a sudden I’m a stickup artist. I stuck up every nightclub in New York.”

He first went to prison in 1967.

“I was a pistol-packing guy,” he told the Times. “The first time I went away to prison, they searched me to see if I had a gun – and I had three of ’em on me. They’d ask why I was carrying and I'd say I live in a bad neighbourhood. It was true.”

In 1970, he entered the maximum-security Sing Sing prison in New York, where he saw a troupe of actors who had been inmates. “I thought, ‘I can do that,’” he said.

When he was released after 20 months, he began to take acting lessons. One of his teachers had to remind him not to bring his gun to class. He was an extra in the 1974 organised crime film Crazy Joe, then began to get parts in commercials and TV shows, usually cast as a crook or a cop.

“I have been in over 40 films and god knows how many TV shows, and I have had a gun in my hand in most of them,” Sirico said on Larry King Live. “But I don’t feel bad about it, Larry. I pay the rent and mortgage.”

Sirico had an early marriage that ended in divorce. Survivors include two children, two brothers, a sister and at least two grandchildren.

When Sirico took the role of Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, he said he would do anything except rat out his friends as an informant – in part because he still lived in his old Brooklyn neighbourhood. He demanded a script be altered only once, when Paulie was called a “bully”. He had no problem with his new description as “psycho”.

The success of The Sopranos brought Sirico other roles, including a voiceover part as a talking dog on Family Guy in 2013. He also raised millions of dollars for charities.

Unlike many of his associates, Paulie Walnuts survived all six seasons of The Sopranos. The character made Sirico a popular figure around the world, and especially in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. He even found friends among his one-time enemies on the police force.

“I ran out of my local OTB” – an off-track betting booth for horse races – “and a cop was putting a ticket under the wipers of my double-parked car,” Sirico told the New York Daily News in 2000. “When he saw me, he tore up the ticket and asked for an autographed picture, which I carry in the trunk ... In one year, it’s like I got a life transplant. Sometimes I gotta remind myself I’m Tony Sirico, from Bensonhurst.”

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

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