Tony Sirico, the late actor known best for his role in the drama series, The Sopranos, as mobster Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri, was perfect for mafia roles. Throughout his acting career, Sirico was generally typecast for gangster roles, appearing in more than a dozen mob movies, including Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas.
As an actor in such positions, Sirico required very little training, at least in the traditional sense of the word. Born into a working-class family in 1940s Brooklyn, New York, Sirico was thrown into a tough childhood in an eat or get eaten lifestyle. Speaking to the LA Times in 1990, he explained: “Where I grew up, every guy was trying to prove himself. You either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole.”
In the 1960s, Sirico and his brother Jerry fell in with a rough crowd, namely the Colombo crime family. As an associate of the real-life mob family, Sirico learnt a great deal more than three Francis Ford Coppola blockbusters could teach you. He learned about the inner workings of a family-run crime organisation – the power structure, etiquette and a quintessential demeanour. But most poignantly, the high price of such a lifestyle.
Before his acting career took off in the mid-1970s, Sirico was arrested 28 times and spent two stretches in prison. His charges included those of illicit substances and gun possession, and violent misconduct. One of his more significant charges is detailed in the below affidavit. It describes an incident in 1970 when Sirico refused to leave a discotheque on 69th Street in New York City. After violent threats, he was found in possession of a loaded gun and a capsule of barbiturates.
After securing his first acting role as an extra in 1974’s Crazy Joe, Sirico was gradually folded into a safer lifestyle. Up until the 1990s, he hadn’t secured any major roles in high-grossing features, but with Goodfellas, he gained significant exposure as a highly convincing mobster.
Earlier this week, we were also met with the sad news of James Caan’s passing at 82. The actor, famed for his career-defining role as Sonny Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather films, was a longtime friend of Sirico’s. He was once quoted as saying of the Sopranos actor: “He’s been able to romanticise his past, throw in a few bangles and sparkles and use it as an actor. What you see is really him – he just adds a little pepper, a little cayenne, to spice it up.”
In the late 1990s, aged 55, Sirico’s big acting break came when he was cast for David Chase’s The Sopranos. The highly acclaimed drama series aired for six seasons between 1999 and 2007, over which time, Sirico bagged two Screen Actors Guild Awards, both for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series.
Prior to his call-up for The Sopranos, Sirico had been destitute, sleeping in a cot at his mother’s house in Brooklyn. Thanks to this career-defining role, Sirico had a comfortable end to his life and will remain in our hearts and minds for many years to come.
Recapture some of Tony Sirico’s best moments from The Sopranos and see his court citations, below.