Tony Sirico, who has died aged 79, was an American actor who achieved televisual immortality as Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri, veteran associate of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, on HBO’s landmark The Sopranos (1999-2007).
Amid a near-unmatched rogues’ gallery, this was a peach of a part, filled to tetchy perfection. A preening peacock with a vicious wit, Paulie Walnuts brushed up well enough to be companionable; there were endless, quotable retorts, and sly asides on his dyed hair and salon-buffed nails. Yet 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 threat was central to the Season 3 episode “Pine Barrens”, widely regarded as one of modern TV’s finest hours, in which Paulie and Tony’s similarly irascible nephew Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) become disoriented while trying to off a Russian rival in snowy 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, even away from its main narrative throughline.
The role 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 quit a steady construction job to become a hired gun for the Colombo syndicate: “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 had a “character disorder”; the judge deemed him “a danger to society”. He was sentenced to four years in Sing Sing, eventually serving twenty months. These 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 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: B-picture Crazy Joe (1974) and then, more propitiously, The Godfather Part II (1974), for which Gazzo would be Oscar-nominated.
25 years later, Godfather buff David Chase 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 become “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, idiosyncratically 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 crosspollinated.”
He was born Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. on July 29, 1942, the third of three sons to 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, for better or worse: “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 Al Capone associate Frankie Rio in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell (1977).
He fell in with writer-director James Toback, meeting a bloody end at Harvey Keitel’s hands in Fingers (1978), before featuring in the filmmaker’s Love & Money (1981), Exposed (1983), The Pick-Up Artist (1987) and the documentary The Big Bang (1989), where 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 the boxing trainer in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), the 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 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 Sopranos co-star Steven Van Zandt for Scandie comedy-drama Lilyhammer (2013-14); and he voiced the Griffins’ new attack dog Vinny on Family Guy (2013-16).
Dementia slowed him, but his final credits, on two long-shelved projects, reiterated his range: a hardnosed pawnbroker in Respect the Jux (2022) and a high-school coach alongside Christopher Lloyd in 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 (Paulie for Men), 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 two children, Richard and Joanne.
Tony Sirico, born July 29, 1942, died July 8, 2022.