Tony Sirico: He Played the Eccentric Gangster Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos”

From a New York Times obit by Anita Gates headlined “Tony Sirico, Who Played a Gangster on ‘The Sopranos,’ Dies at 79”:

Tony Sirico, the actor who played the eccentric gangster Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos,” died Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Paulie Walnuts — which was Paul Gualtieri’s nickname because he once hijacked a truck full of nuts (he was expecting television sets) — was one of the mob boss Tony Soprano’s most loyal, oversensitive and reckless men. Paulie was the kind of guy who would participate in an intervention for a drug addict, and when it was his turn to speak, punch the guy in the face. He loved his mother (although he found out she was really his aunt), and she loved him because he wrote the checks to keep her in an expensive nursing home.

Paulie wore track suits, slept with hookers, was phobic about germs, hated cats and watched television in a chair covered with plastic. He hated being stuck with an almost $900 restaurant check but could appreciate a tasty ketchup packet on a cold night in the Pine Barrens when there was nothing else to eat.

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

Mr. Sirico’s face was also familiar, in quick glimpses, to fans of Woody Allen films. 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 trainer in “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995), an escaped convict in “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996), a matter-of-fact jailhouse cop in “Deconstructing Harry” (1997) and a gun-toting gangster on Coney Island in “Wonder Wheel” (2017).

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born in Brooklyn, the son of Jerry Sirico, a stevedore, and Marie (Cappelluzzo) Sirico. Junior, as he was called, remembered that he first got into trouble when he stole nickels from a newsstand. He attended Midwood High School, but did not graduate.

“I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of mob-type people,” he said in 2001. “I watched them all the time, watched the way they walked, the cars they drove, the way they approached each other. There was an air about them that was very intriguing, especially to a kid.”

He worked in construction for a while but soon yielded to temptation. “I started running with the wrong type of guys, and I 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 felony weapons possession.

While serving 20 months of a four-year sentence at Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison in Ossining, N.Y., he saw a troupe of actors, all ex-convicts, who had made a stop there to perform for the inmates. “When I watched them, I said to myself, ‘I can do that,’” he said.

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), from Larry Buchanan, the self-proclaimed director of schlock. Mr. Sirico followed that with more than a decade of small television and movie roles, capped by his part as the flashy mobster Tony Stacks in “Goodfellas” (1990).

His first advocate among directors was Mr. Toback, who put 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), with Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr., as well as the documentary.

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

Once “The Sopranos” hit the air in 1999, it became enormously and widely popular. Mr. Sirico soon knew he was very famous. “If I’m with five other Paulies,” he said in 2007, imagining a fairly unlikely situation, “and somebody yells, ‘Hey, Paulie,’ I know it’s for me.”

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

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

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

He appeared in a crime drama, “Respect the Jux,” this year.

Mr. Sirico married and divorced early. He is survived by two children, Joanne Sirico Bello and Richard Sirico; a sister, Carol Pannunzio; two brothers, Robert Sirico and Carmine Sirico; and several grandchildren. He lived in Fort Lauderdale.

He brought at least one admirable lesson from the mob world to “The Sopranos.” He insisted that his character never be portrayed as a rat, someone who would snitch on his crime family. He was also reluctant to have his character kill a woman — Paulie smothered an older 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 less of him after the episode was shown.

Early on, however, it sometimes slipped his mind that he had rejected the dark side.

“I was this 30-year-old ex-con villain sitting in a class filled with fresh-faced, serious drama students,” Mr. Sirico recalled. The teacher “leaned over to me after I did a scene and whispered, ‘Tony, leave the gun home.’ After so many years of packing a gun, I didn’t even realize I had it with me.”
Also see the Washington Post obit by Praveena Somasundaram and James Bikales headlined “Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts on ‘The Sopranos,’ dies at 79.” The opening grafs:

Actor Tony Sirico, known for his role as Paulie Walnuts in the popular American television show ‘The Sopranos,” died Friday at 79.

Sirico — who grew up around the Italian mobsters he later portrayed in a number of films and shows — died Friday morning at an assisted-living facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., according to Bob McGowan, his manager of 25 years. McGowan said he did not know the cause of death.

“He was a really good guy,” McGowan said, adding that Sirico “always gave to charities” and visited hospitals to comfort children.

In a Facebook post the actor’s brother, Robert Sirico, said: “The family is deeply grateful for the many expressions of love, prayer and condolences and requests that the public respect its privacy in this time of bereavement.”

Michael Imperioli, Sirico’s co-star who played Christopher Moltisanti on “The Sopranos,” posted a photo of the duo on Instagram Friday evening, writing that he was “heartbroken today.”

“We found a groove as Christopher and Paulie and I am proud to say I did a lot of my best and most fun work with my dear pal Tony,” Imperioli’s post said. “I will miss him forever.”

On “The Sopranos” — which Rolling Stone rated as the greatest TV show of all time in 2016 — Sirico played the violent henchman to mobster Tony Soprano, shaking down rivals and doing his boss’s dirty work when asked.

Sirico was a natural fit for the part, having grown up in the Italian mob world himself. Born in New York City in 1942, he was arrested 28 times beginning at age 7, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990.

“After all the times I was pinched, I knew every judge in town,” he told the publication. “In our neighborhood, if you weren’t carrying a gun, it was like you were the rabbit during rabbit-hunting season.”

“He was that person,” McGowan said of Sirico’s character on “The Sopranos.” “He grew up with that world.”

During his last prison stay in the early 1970s, the Times reported, he saw a performance by a group of ex-con actors that inspired him.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Sirico played the kind of gangsters he grew up around, appearing in minor roles in some of the most influential mobster films, including Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” He had acted in 27 films by 1990 and died in 13 of them, he told the Times that year.

He landed the role as Paulie on “The Sopranos” in 1999, ultimately appearing in nearly every episode of its six-season run.

McGowan said Sirico was an Army veteran and longtime supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project. In 2010, Sirico and his “Sopranos” co-star James Gandolfini joined chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen for a USO tour visiting troops across the Middle East….

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