Tony Sirico, ‘Sopranos’ actor who played Paulie Walnuts, dies aged 79


Tony Sirico, 'Sopranos' actor who played Paulie Walnuts, dies aged 79

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

The lines appear to be from a script for the groundbreaking series, which aired from 1999 to 2007, won 21 Emmy Awards and is hailed as one of the greatest shows in television history. But the words are taken verbatim from a 1970 police indictment documenting the reasons for Mr Sirico’s arrest on racketeering and weapons charges.

Long before he found fame as the silver-haired enforcer for New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini), Mr. Sirico was a real thug who was arrested 28 times and served two jail terms, totaling almost three years .

Memories of his past life were never far from the surface as Mr. Sirico portrayed Paulie Walnuts throughout the six seasons of The Sopranos, creating one of television’s most unforgettable characters. Mr Sirico was 79 when he died on July 8 at an assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The death was announced in a statement by his brother Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest in Michigan. He was reportedly suffering from dementia.

Prior to The Sopranos, Mr. Sirico had played a mobster in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and appeared 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, starring Sylvester Stallone and Ray Liotta.

‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Field of Dreams’ star Ray Liotta has died aged 67

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

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

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

He got his nickname when he thought he was hijacking a truck loaded with televisions. It turned out to be carrying nuts.

Mr. Sirico wore a small ring in real life, just like Paulie. When the show’s wardrobe staff chose a shirt for him, he said he had one just like that at home. On the show, while sitting outside a meat market that was an informal mob clubhouse, Paulie opened an aluminum reflector that lightened the tan on his neck and face.

And then there was his hair: a pompadour, first styled in the ’50s, now highlighted by two silver wings slicked back at the sides. Mr Sirico refused to let anyone touch his hair and spent hours combing and spraying it before filming a scene.

His character killed more people than anyone over the course of the show — nine — but there was a lot more to The Sopranos than mob violence. It was about families, both criminal and nuclear; about being part of a fading culture that cannot adapt to change; and about the problems of addiction and depression.

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

Mr. Sirico once said, “If Paulie can’t swear, he can’t talk,” and he delivered some of the show’s funniest lines, always in a serious, deadpan style usually punctuated by profanity. In one episode, he was cooking lunch for his friends when he paused for a long discussion about the dangers of wet shoelaces.

“Why would they be wet?” he asked while everyone ate. “You use public toilets? Are you standing at the urinal? …You look at the women’s panties, you could eat maple walnut ice cream off the toilets…But the men? Ha! …Even if you tie your shoes and don’t pull your shoelaces through your urine…”

Perhaps Mr. Sirico’s most memorable episode occurred in season three when he and fellow mobster Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli) travel to New Jersey’s desolate Pine Barrens in the dead of winter in pursuit of a Russian rival.

Paulie gets his orders from Tony Soprano, who says: “Bad connection so I’ll talk fast. The guy you’re looking for is an ex-commando. He single-handedly killed 16 Chechen rebels.”

Paulie: “Get out of here.”

Tony: “Yeah, nice, right? He was at the Home Office. The guy is some kind of Russian Green Beret. This guy can’t come back to tell this story. You understand?”

The phone connection breaks down and Paulie explains the situation to Christopher: “You wouldn’t believe that. He killed 16 Czechoslovaks. Guy was an interior designer.”

Christopher: “His house looked like S—.”

They chase the Russians on foot through the snow, wearing light leather jackets and no hats or gloves. (The scene was shot in 11 degree weather.) Christopher shoots at the fleeing Russians, but only manages to kill a deer.

As Paulie runs through the woods, he falls to the ground, ends up with snow in his tousled hair, then looks down at his foot in despair and says, “I lost my shoe.”

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1942 and grew up in the heavily Italianate Bensonhurst section. His father was a longshoreman and later ran a candy store, his mother was a housewife.

Young “Junior” Sirico, as he was then known, was first arrested by police at the age of 7 for stealing change from a kiosk. As a teenager, he was shot in the leg and back while kissing another boy’s girlfriend.

“Where I grew up, everyone was trying to prove themselves,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “You either had a tattoo or a gunshot scar. I have both.”

He served in the army, then returned to Brooklyn and admired the style of the gangsters in his neighborhood.

“So I hooked up with these guys,” he later said, “and suddenly I’m a stickup artist. I’ve robbed every nightclub in New York.”

In 1967 he was imprisoned for the first time.

“I was a gun packer,” he told the Times. “The first time I went to jail they searched me to see if I had a gun – and I had three of them on me. They would ask why I was pregnant and I would say I live in a bad area. It was true.”

In 1970 he entered the Sing Sing maximum security 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 taking acting classes. One of his teachers had to remind him not to bring his gun to class.

“Everything I do is inspired by one actor – James Cagney,” he said in 2012.

Mr. Sirico was an extra in the 1974 organized crime film Crazy Joe and then began getting roles in commercials and television shows, usually cast as a crook or a cop.

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

Mr Sirico had an early marriage that ended in divorce. The survivors include two children; two brothers; a sister; and at least two grandchildren.

When Mr. Sirico landed the role of Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos,” he said he’d do anything but turn on his friends as informants — in part because he still lived in his old neighborhood of Brooklyn. He only once asked for a script to be changed when Paulie was called a “bully.” He had no problem with his new description as “Psycho”.

The success of “The Sopranos” landed Mr. Sirico other roles, including a voice-over part as the talking dog on “Family Guy” in 2013. He also raised millions of dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Wounded Veterans and other charities.

Unlike many of his associates, Paulie Walnuts survived all six seasons of The Sopranos. The character made Mr. Sirico a popular character around the world, particularly in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He even found friends among his former enemies in the police force.

“I ran out of my local OTB” — an off-track horse racing bet — “and a police officer stuck a ticket under the windshield wipers of my double-parked car,” Mr. Sirico told the New York Daily News in 2000. “When he saw me he tore up the ticket and asked for a signed picture that I have in the trunk… In a year it’s like I got a life transplant. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m Tony Sirico from Bensonhurst.”

You May Also Like