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. He was 79.

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

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 on July 29, 1942, 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, his brother Robert Sirico said.

“I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of mob-type people,” he told the publication Cigar Aficionado 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 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), 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 told The New York Times 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 Schirippa’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 in the Daily News interview. 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.”

Vimal Patel contributed reporting.

Related Articles

Back to top button