Tony Sirico, who portrayed The Sopranos’ quirky gangster Paulie Walnuts, passed away on Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 79.
His manager, Bob McGowan, announced his passing. There was no explanation provided.
Paul Gualtieri, better known by his alias Paulie Walnuts, was one of Tony Soprano’s most devoted, overly sensitive, and careless guys. He once hijacked a truck full of nuts while expecting television sets. When it came his turn to speak during a drug addict’s intervention, Paulie was the kind of guy who would punch the drug addict in the face.
He loved his mother (even though he later discovered that she was actually his aunt), and she loved him because he made the financial arrangements to maintain her in a pricey nursing facility.
Paulie disliked cats, slept with hookers, wore track suits, and watched television on a chair that was covered in plastic. She was also afraid of germs. On a chilly night in the Pine Barrens when there was nothing else to eat, he could appreciate a nice ketchup packet but loathed having to pay an over $900 restaurant tab.
With his past as a street person who had been detained 28 times and spent 20 months in New York’s infamous Sing Sing jail, Sirico brought authenticity to the role.
In an interview with Deadline for the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos, executive producer Terence Winter recalled Sirico as Junior Sirico, which was his name at the time. He was the real deal—a frightening mobster.
Sirico initially went on stage to try out for Junior. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, called him after three rounds of testing to introduce him to Paulie Walnuts, another role he had written for him.
And who is he, I ask? You’ll like him, according to David. And let me just say that I adored him. In the same interview with Deadline, Sirico stated. I continue to be Paulie. I am unable to return home. Paulie is who I am until I die.
In 2001, Paulie posed with a baseball bat casually draped over his right shoulder for the Rolling Stone cover featuring the Sopranos cast. No hairstylist was permitted to touch Mr. Sirico’s thick, luxurious hair, which had two silver wings on either side. He manually blow-dried it and sprayed it.
In brief glimpses, those acquainted with Woody Allen movies recognized Mr. Sirico’s face. Beginning with Bullets Over Broadway (1994), in which he played the right-hand man of a formidable gangster turned theater producer, he appeared in several of them.
In Mighty Aphrodite (1995), he played a boxing coach. In Everyone Says I Love You (1996), he played an escaped prisoner. In Deconstructing Harry (1997), he played a jailhouse cop. And in Wonder Wheel (1998), he played a gun-toting criminal in Coney Island (2017).
On July 29, 1942, Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born in Brooklyn, the son of stevedore Jerry Sirico and Marie (Cappelluzzo) Sirico. Junior, as he was known, recalled that his first run-in with the law involved him robbing a newsstand of some nickels. His brother Robert Sirico noted that although he attended Midwood High School, he never received a diploma.
After premiering on HBO in January 1999, The Sopranos immediately gained popularity, became a water cooler favorite, and won four Emmys. Each of the New Jersey-set mob story’s seven episodes—including the last one—would receive an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. Despite being broken into two halves, Season 6 only received the award in 2008 for its final season. Despite Sirico never receiving a Supporting Actor nomination, The Sopranos would win 21 Emmys throughout the course of its run.
In a number of movies, including Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Sirico also portrayed gangsters, such as Tony Stacks. For the films Mob Queen, Love and Money, Fingers, The One Man Jury, Defiance, and The Last Fight, he was likewise mobbed up.
He stated to the magazine Cigar Aficionado in 2001, “I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of mob type guys. I constantly observed them, paying attention to their movements as they walked, drove, and approached one another. Particularly as a child, they had an air about them that was really alluring.
He briefly worked in construction before succumbing to temptation. In James Toback’s documentary The Big Bang, he claimed, “I started running with the wrong type of folks, and I found myself doing a lot of awful things” (1989). Things that are bad like armed robbery, extortion, coercion, and possession of illegal weapons.
He witnessed a group of performers who were all former inmates who had stopped by Sing Sing, the maximum security prison in Ossining, New York, to perform for the inmates, while spending 20 months of a four-year sentence there. He told The Daily News in 1999, “When I watched them, I thought to myself, “I can do that.”
After The Sopranos, Sirico made a few humorous ads for Denny’s restaurants where he kind of played the part but wasn’t identified as such. Because that isn’t a real breakfast, he attempts to pay with false money in one instance. In another, he uses a chain and his automobile to remove the huge Ultimate Breakfast sign from another restaurant. He also starred in an advertisement for the then-DVD service Netflix as a threatening wisecrack who persuades a non-customer to change his ways. “Late charges?” he asks.
According to Bob McGowan, Sirico’s manager of 25 years, Tony was a highly dependable customer. McGowan, a former Marine who has known Sirico for many years, continued, “He was an Army veteran, a member of the Wounded Veteran Project, and he always gave to charity.”
He provided The Sopranos at least one admirable insight from the underworld. He was certain that his persona would never be represented as a rat or as someone who would inform on his criminal family. Additionally, he hesitated to have his character murder a lady. Paulie strangled an elderly nursing home resident with a pillow when she stopped him from stealing her life savings, but he was pleasantly surprised that once the program was shown, no one in the old neighborhood seemed to think less of him.
Early on, though, he had a tendency to forget that he had turned away from the dark side.
In an interview with the Daily News, Mr. Sirico said, “I was this 30 year old ex con villain sitting in a class full of fresh faced, serious theater kids.” After I made a disturbance, the teacher leaned over to me and said, “Tony, leave the pistol home.” I hadn’t even realized I was carrying a gun with me after carrying one for so long.
According to the family, Sirico is survived by his two children, Richard Sirico and Joanne Sirico Bello, as well as grandchildren, brothers, nieces, nephews, and a large number of other relatives.
On July 13, at 10:00 a.m., at the Basilica of Regina Pacis, Sirico’s brother, Fr. Robert Sirico, will offer a Mass of Christian Burial. The family requested that memorial contributions be given in Sirico’s honor to the Acton Institute, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and Wounded Warriors.