Tony Sirico, who played gangster in ‘The Sopranos’, dies aged 79


Tony Sirico, who played gangster in 'The Sopranos', dies aged 79

Tony Sirico, the actor who played eccentric mobster Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, died Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he resides. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by Bob McGowan, his manager. No reason was given.

Paulie Walnuts—that was Paul Gualtieri’s nickname because he once hijacked a truckload of nuts (he expected TV sets)—was one of mob boss Tony Soprano’s most loyal, oversensitive, and ruthless men. Paulie was the kind of guy who would attend an intervention for a drug addict and slap the guy in the face when it was his turn to speak. He loved his mother (although he found out she really was his aunt), and she loved him because he wrote the checks to put her in an expensive nursing home.

Paulie wore tracksuits, slept with hookers, had a germ phobia, hated cats, and watched TV in a plastic-covered chair. He hated being stuck with a nearly $900 restaurant check, but on a cold night at the Pine Barrens he could look forward to a tasty packet of ketchup when there was nothing else to eat.

When the “Sopranos” cast appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in a group shot in 2001, Paulie stood with a baseball bat slung casually over her right shoulder. No barber on the “Sopranos” set was allowed to touch Mr. Sirico’s hair – dark and luscious with two silver “wings” on either side. He blow-dried and sprayed it himself.

Even fans of Woody Allen films were familiar with Mr. Sirico’s face at first sight. He appeared in several of them, beginning with Bullets Over Broadway (1994) in which he played the right-hand man of a powerful gangster turned theater producer. He was a boxing coach in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), an escaped convict in Everyone Says I Love You (1996), a sober prison cop in Deconstructing Harry (1997), and a Coney Island gunslinger gangster in Wonder Wheel. (2017).

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born on July 29, 1942 in Brooklyn to Jerry Sirico, a stevedore, and Marie (Cappelluzzo) Sirico. Junior, as he was known, recalled getting into trouble for the first time when he stole coins from a newsstand. He attended Midwood High School but didn’t graduate, his brother Robert Sirico said.

“I grew up in Bensonhurst, which had a lot of mob-like people,” he told the Cigar Aficionado publication in 2001. “I watched them all the time, watched how they walked, the cars they drove, how they approached each other. There was something fascinating about them, especially for a child.”

He worked in construction for a while but soon gave in to temptation. “I started running with the wrong guys and found myself doing a lot of bad things,” he said in James Toback’s documentary The Big Bang (1989). Bad things like armed robbery, extortion, coercion and criminal gun ownership.

While serving 20 months of a four-year sentence at Sing Sing, the maximum security prison in Ossining, NY, he saw a troupe of actors, all ex-convicts, stop there to perform for the inmates. “When I looked at them, I said to myself, ‘I can do that,'” he told The Daily News in 1999.

He was an uncredited extra in The Godfather: Part II (1974) and made his official film debut in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell (1977), directed by Larry Buchanan, the self-proclaimed director of schlock. Mr. Sirico followed with more than a decade of small television and film roles, crowned by his role as flashy mobster Tony Stacks in Goodfellas (1990).

His first advocate among directors was Mr. Toback, who hired him in a crime drama Fingers (1978) with Harvey Keitel; a romantic drama Love & Money (1981), starring Ray Sharkey and Klaus Kinski; and a comic drama The Pick-Up Artist (1987) starring Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr. and the documentary.

Before The Sopranos, he was a cop in Dead Presidents (1995), a suburban thug in Cop Land (1997), and a Gambino crime family capo in the TV movie Gotti (1996).

When “The Sopranos” aired in 1999, it became huge and widely shared. Sirico soon knew that he was very famous. “If I’m with five other Paulies,” he told the New York Times in 2007, imagining a fairly unlikely situation, “and someone yells, ‘Hey, Paulie,’ I know it’s for me.”

After the HBO series ended in 2007, he often collaborated with his “Sopranos” co-stars.

After playing Bert for Steve Schirippa’s Ernie in a Sesame Street Christmas special (2008), he appeared with Steven Van Zandt on Lilyhammer (2013-14) and with Michael Rispoli on Friends and Romans (2014 ) on ) and with Vincent Pastore and others in the film Sarah Q (2018).

He also voiced a street dog named Vinny in the animated series Family Guy (2013-16).

He appeared in crime drama Respect the Jux earlier this year.

Mr. Sirico married and divorced early. He leaves behind two children, Joanne Sirico Bello and Richard Sirico; a sister, Carol Pannunzio; two brothers, Robert Sirico and Carmine Sirico; and several grandchildren.

He brought at least one admirable lesson from the mob world to The Sopranos. He insisted that his character should never be portrayed as a rat, someone who would spy on his crime family. He didn’t want his character to kill a woman either – Paulie suffocated an elderly nursing home resident with a pillow when she interrupted his theft of her life savings – but was pleasantly surprised that people in the old neighborhood didn’t seem to think him any less, after the episode aired.

However, early on he sometimes missed the fact that he had rejected the dark side.

“I was this 30-year-old ex-con villain who sat in a class full of fresh, serious drama students,” Mr. Sirico recalled in the Daily News interview. The teacher “bent over to me after I made a scene and whispered, ‘Tony, leave the gun at home.’ After packing a gun for so many years, I didn’t even realize I had it on me.”

Vimal Patel contributed reporting.

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