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Photo: Tony Sirico/HBO

The Hollywood Insider would like to pay our condolences to the Sirico family and everyone who loved him. We will always remember you Tony for your contribution to Cinema, TV and the world. 

A Rough But Formative Start

Man, what a rough end to a week for icons of the Gangster genre. First, the world was crushed to hear of the passing of Sonny Corleone himself, James Caan, but the news came shortly thereafter that we also lost legendary actor Tony Sirico, who rose to fame for playing the wise-cracking mafia member Paulie Walnuts in the masterpiece series that is ‘The Sopranos.’ 

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Sirico was a fascinating actor and person, bringing a signature style and wit to his iconic role that made him feel intrinsically tied to the part of Paulie. The raw truth is that Sirico used inspiration from his own real life to help form the character and used his own life experiences in many other roles he would take on throughout his impressively prolific career. 

Tony Sirico was born in New York City in 1942 and was raised in the Brooklyn borough of New York in a family of Italian descent. Sirico had a very rough start getting going in life, ultimately finding himself arrested 28 times for crimes ranging in severity from assault, disorderly conduct, and robbery. Eventually, he found himself locked up, serving a four-year sentence in Sing Sing prison in New York for extortion and a felony weapons charge, a far cry from the Hollywood success he would later find. However, during this incredibly dark period in his life, Sirico would ultimately find his purpose and passion in life, acting. 

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While in Sing Sing, Sirico and his fellow inmates were treated to a play performed by a theater group made up of ex-convicts, which opened his eyes and inspired him to go after a new life. After serving only 20 months of his four-year sentence for good behavior, Sirico was out with a new lease on life and a one-track mind to become an actor. 

Tony Sirico – Act What You Know

After his release from Sing Sing, Sirico set off to begin his new life and began working with an acting coach, Michael Gazzo, of eventual ‘Godfather Part 2’ fame. Gazzo was a member of the Actors Studio in New York, where he trained many actors. Gazzo had a strong impact on helping Sirico get started in the business. Within a few years, Sirico was already booking parts in big projects. Sirico’s first role in the business came in the way of 1974’s ‘Crazy Joe’ in which he was an extra. He would also appear as an uncredited extra in (what I consider the best film of all time) ‘Godfather Part 2’, cementing himself firmly in the mix among the most in-demand performers when it comes to a mafia film. 

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Sirico would continue to have a nice run in of parts in the mafia and other genres of movies such as: ‘Fingers’, ‘The One Man Jury’, ‘Defiance’, ‘So Fine’, ‘Love and Money’, ‘Exposed’, ‘The Pick Up Artist’, ‘Hello Again’, ‘Cookie’ and ‘Catch Fire.’ His next biggest film to date was 1990’s Martin Scorsese-directed masterpiece, ‘Goodfellas.’ A small part, but one that he stands out in nonetheless, all but securing a future for him amongst a group of actors who would later become a part of his next and most important “family.” 

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Woke Up This Morning…

As the tributes have been flying in hard and fast remembering Sirico’s work as an actor, he continues to be referred to as “AKA Paulie Walnuts.” While it is bizarre to refer to someone by their character’s name and not the name of the actual person that died, this kind of tribute speaks volumes to the impact and love that so many people had for the seminal character of his career, Paulie Gualtieri Walnuts. 

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Considered one of if not the greatest show of all time, depending on who you talk to, ‘The Sopranos’ rose to prominence for its strong writing and ability to create incredibly three-dimensional and complicated characters that felt like people in the real world. No easy task to achieve, and one that undoubtedly stands to testify to the show’s strength. One of these characters was Paulie, brought perfectly to life by Tony Sirico. Sirico brought an incredibly intimidating yet fully loveable presence to the part of one of mob boss Tony Soprano’s chief lieutenants. You could feel the authenticity of Sirico’s past and upbringing in New York City coming through in the role, and he had a masterful way of disarming a scene with a pitch-perfect wit. 

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He would often serve as the comedic relief of the very serious and high-stakes show and proved himself to be game for the task time and time again. Sirico portrayed the character in an extraordinary way that shines through only ever so often, where the character feels like someone you know, hence the tributes referring to him by his character’s name. He played Paulie to a masterful level, making an impact on so many he let into their homes. Sirico seemed so at home and at peace in the role, almost playing a version of himself. 

With so many remembrances and kind words coming out from his fellow cast mates like Lorraine Bacco and Stevie Van Zandt, one that stood out was that of Robert Iler. He was a child at the time of filming and played the part of Anthony Junior, Tony Soprano’s son. Iler mentioned in an article this week how Sirico pulled him aside on set one day and, in an authentic and meaningful way, told him to come to Sirico if he had any troubles on the set. Iler recalled it in a way that spoke to the quality of the man Sirico was and how he was able to channel that into the wise-cracking, but fiercely loyal member of the Soprano family.

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After the end of ‘The Sopranos’, Sirico continued to enjoy the fame of his incredible once-in-a-lifetime role. However, this did not stop him from continuing with the passion he found all those years ago inside the walls of Sing Sing. He continued to appear in many films and television shows over the next two decades, even appearing in the recent ‘Respect the Jux’ released in 2022, and a few films yet to be released. 

Sirico was laid to rest in his native New York City, with many loved ones and fellow performers in attendance to remember their dearly departed friend. Luckily, he leaves behind a bountiful legacy of film and television projects, and for any who have not yet started, it would be a great time to finally binge ‘The Sopranos’ to see why all are remembering him by the name Paulie Walnuts. 

By Mark Raymond 

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.

I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV, media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.

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