Tony Sirico, ‘Sopranos’ actor who played Paulie Walnuts, dies at 79

“I’ve got an arsenal of guns and an army of men, and I’m going to use them,” said Tony Sirico, who played mob henchman Paulie Walnuts on HBO’s crime drama ‘The Sopranos. “, “and… I’m gonna come back here and carve my initials on your forehead. You better learn a lesson. You better show me the respect I deserve.

The lines appear to be from a script in the groundbreaking series, which aired from 1999 to 2007, won 21 Emmys and is acclaimed as one of the greatest programs in television history. But the words are taken verbatim from a 1970 police charging brief, documenting the reasons for Mr. Sirico’s arrest on extortion and weapons charges.

Long before he became famous for playing a silver-haired enforcer for New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini), Mr. Sirico was a real thug who was arrested 28 times and spent two spells in prison, totaling nearly three years. years.

Memories of his previous life were never far from the surface as Mr. Sirico portrayed Paulie Walnuts throughout the six-season run of ‘The Sopranos’, creating one of television’s most unforgettable characters. Mr. Sirico was 79 when he died July 8 at an assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The death was announced in a statement from his brother Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest from Michigan. He reportedly suffered from dementia.

Prior to ‘The Sopranos’, Mr. Sirico had played a mobster in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ (1990), starred in several films directed by Woody Allen, including ‘Bullets Over Broadway’, ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ and ‘Everyone Says I Love”. You,” and appeared in the 1997 police corruption drama “Cop Land” starring Sylvester Stallone and Ray Liotta.

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When he auditioned for “The Sopranos,” Mr. Sirico was 55 and living with his mother in a small apartment in Brooklyn. He tried out for two roles and David Chase, the show’s creator, told him he didn’t get either.

“He said, ‘No, I thought of you for someone else,'” Mr. Sirico said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 2001, “and Paulie Walnuts came along.”

The character’s official name was Peter Paul Gualtieri, who had been a trusted lieutenant to Tony Soprano’s late father, Johnny Boy Soprano. During the show’s first season, Paulie Walnuts described his life as follows: “I was born, I grew up, I spent a few years in the army, a few more in the club and I behold, a half-wise man.”

He got his nickname when he thought he had hijacked a truck loaded with televisions. It turned out to be wearing nuts.

Mr. Sirico wore an ear ring in real life, the same as Paulie. When the show’s wardrobe team picked out a shirt for him, he said he had one like this at home. On the show, while sitting outside a meat market that was an informal crowd club, Paulie opened an aluminum reflector, lightening the tan on his neck and face.

And then there was her hair: a pompadour first sculpted in place in the ’50s, now highlighted by two silver wings slicked down the sides. Mr Sirico refused to allow anyone to touch his hair and spent hours combing and spraying it before shooting a scene.

His character killed more people than any other over the course of the series – nine – but there was much more to “The Sopranos” than mob violence. These were families, both criminal and nuclear; to be part of a declining culture that fails to adapt to change; and on problems associated with substance abuse and depression.

When Tony Soprano revealed he was seeing a therapist, Paulie admitted that was the case too: “I had some issues.”

Mr. Sirico once said, “If Paulie can’t curse, he can’t talk,” and he delivered some of the funniest lines on the show, always in a serious, deadpan style, usually punctuated with profanity. In one episode, he was cooking lunch for his buddies when he stopped for a long dissertation about the dangers of wet shoelaces.

“Why would they be wet? he asked as everyone ate. “Do you go to the public restroom? Are you standing at the urinal? …You look at the ladies’ jeans, you could eat maple-nut ice cream from the restroom… But the men’s? He h! …Even if you keep your shoes tied and you don’t drag your shoelaces in the urine…”

Perhaps Mr. Sirico’s most memorable episode came during the third season, when he and fellow mobster – Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli) – traveled to New Jersey’s desolate Pine Barrens in the pursuit of a Russian rival in the dead of winter.

Paulie takes his orders from Tony Soprano, who tells him, “Bad connection, so I’m going to talk fast.” The guy you’re looking for is an ex-commando. He killed 16 Chechen rebels single-handedly.

Paulie: “Get out…out of here.”

Tony: “Yeah, nice, huh? He was at the Ministry of the Interior. Guy is a kind of Russian green beret. This guy can’t come back to tell this story. You understand?”

The phone connection is cut and Paulie explains the situation to Christopher: “You’re not going to believe this. He killed 16 Czechoslovaks. Guy was an interior designer.

Christopher: “His house looked like s—.”

They pursue the Russian on foot in the snow, dressed in light leather jackets and without hats or gloves. (The scene was filmed in 11 degrees.) Christopher shoots the fleeing Russian but only manages to kill a deer.

Running through the woods, Paulie falls to the ground, finds himself with snow stuck in his tousled hair, then looks sadly at his foot, saying, “I lost my shoe.”

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born July 29, 1942 in Brooklyn and grew up in the heavily Italian section of Bensonhurst. Her father was a dockworker and later ran a confectionery, and her mother was a housewife.

Young “Junior” Sirico, as he was known then, was first arrested by police at the age of 7 for stealing change from a newsstand. As a teenager, he was shot in the leg and back when he kissed another boy’s girlfriend.

“Where I grew up, every guy tried to prove himself,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “You either had a tattoo or a gun scar. I have both. “

He served in the army, then returned to Brooklyn, admiring the style of his neighborhood gangsters.

“So I met these guys,” he later said, “and all of a sudden I’m a heist artist. I went to every nightclub in New York.

He first went to prison in 1967.

“I was a gun-packing guy,” he told The Times. “The first time I went to jail they searched me to see if I had a gun – and I had three on me. They were asking why I was carrying and I said I live in a bad neighborhood. It was true.”

In 1970, he entered the maximum security prison of Sing Sing in New York, where he saw a troupe of actors who had been detained. “I was like, ‘I can do this,'” he said.

When he was released after 20 months, he started taking acting lessons. One of his teachers had to remind him not to bring his gun to class. He was an extra in the 1974 organized crime film “Crazy Joe” and then started playing roles in commercials and TV shows, usually cast as a con man or a cop.

“I’ve been in over 40 movies and God knows how many TV shows, and I’ve had a gun in most of them,” Mr. Sirico said on ‘Larry King Live’. . “But, I don’t blame myself, Larry. I pay the rent and the mortgage.

Mr. Sirico had an early marriage that ended in divorce. Survivors include two children; two brothers; a sister; and at least two grandchildren.

When Mr Sirico took on the role of Paulie Walnuts in ‘The Sopranos’, he said he would do anything but report his friends as an informant – in part because he still lived in his old neighborhood from Brooklyn. He demanded that a script be changed only once, when Paulie was called a “bully”. He had no problem with his new description of “psycho”.

The success of “The Sopranos” landed Mr. Sirico other roles, including a voiceover as a talking dog in “Family Guy” in 2013. He has also raised millions for charity.

Unlike many of his associates, Paulie Walnuts survived all six seasons of “The Sopranos.” The character made Mr. Sirico a popular figure around the world, and especially in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He even found friends among his former enemies in the police.

“I ran out of my local OTB” – an off-track betting booth for horse racing – “and a cop was putting a ticket under the windshield wipers of my double-parked car,” Mr Sirico told The New York Daily News in 2000. “When he saw me, he tore up the ticket and asked me for an autographed photo, which I carry in the trunk… In a year, it’s as if I had had a transplant of life. Sometimes I have to remember that I’m Tony Sirico from Bensonhurst.

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