Last week brought the death of Tony Sirico, the 79-year-old character actor best known for his role as Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri on The Sopranos, yet another beloved celebrity to pass on while Dracula-esque war criminal Henry Kissinger still insolently draws breath at the age of 99.
Aside from his work on the Sopranos, as Tony Soprano’s pathologically vain and sort of annoying but always loyal soldier, Paulie (in my opinion one of the greatest television characters of all time), Sirico was once a real-life gangster with the lengthiest rap sheet of anyone in the Sopranos cast — including a 20-month stint at Sing Sing for extortion, coercion, and weapons possession*.
That Sirico was an actual tough guy, but was nonetheless game to play a character who was the butt of almost every joke on The Sopranos (to a large extent Pauly was the Sopranos‘ Kramer) makes his performance that much more remarkable.
Professional thespian though he might’ve been during the Sopranos run, Sirico (pronounced suh-REE-co, according to costar Joseph Gannascoli) could still summon his old powers of intimidation when necessary. Robert Iler, the actor who played Tony Soprano’s son, AJ Soprano, explained as much during an interview on my Sopranos podcast, Pod Yourself A Gun.
In fact, as Iler, who was 12 or 13 when he started working on The Sopranos tells it, Sirico was a big part of the reason Iler never got “messed with” when he was working the entertainment industry.
“When all the molesting stuff gets talked about,” Iler told us, “and people always say to me, did anything happen like that on your set? And I’m like, you think Tony Sirico was standing around, if there were people eyeing me the wrong way, like ‘Oh, Rob looks really cute today,’ Tony Sirico is just gonna stand there and not do anything?”
“Once we did the second or third episode, Tony Sirico just came over to me and said ‘Hey, uh, if anyone ever… bothers you, or anybody says anything, you tell Uncle Tony, okay?’And that’s how I felt in f*cking school too. Like I was 13 years old and I was like oh, this kid thinks he’s gonna mouth off to me? I’ll have Tony Sirico come down. No matter how old you are, you see somebody that has like black hair here, and silver hair on the sides — and just the way he always had a handkerchief in his pocket — you go like this dude will f*ck you up.”
It’s a credit to Sirico that his performance on the Sopranos feels like it came from a seasoned comedic actor, not a real-life former tough guy whose *1971 sentencing transcript includes a lengthy speech by prosecutor Gerald Hinckley, who had this to say about him:
“The defendant was indicted for extortion, coercion and possession of a gun as a felony, Your Honor. Those charges consisted of various threats that the defendant made to Mr. John Addison. He was the owner of a discotheque at 59th Street in Manhattan. The defendant entered that discotheque on several occasions, refused to pay at the door, refused to pay for any services or products he received in the discotheque, and when he was confronted by Mr. Addison and asked to pay, and ordered to pay, he told him, Mr. Addison, that he doesn’t pay any place, that he’s Junior Sirico, and that Mr. Addison better learn how to give him the respect he deserves, otherwise he knows what to do with Mr. Addison. He told Mr. Addison that he knew how to take care of guys like Mr. Addison, ‘you hit them over the head with a baseball bat, and they come around.'”
The sentencing speech goes on to accuse Sirico of threatening to carve his initials in the disco owner’s forehead, before being arrested with a .32 automatic in his waistband, that the prosecutor alleged he planned to use on him (Sirico having blamed the disco owner for putting the cops onto him). So it sounds like he wasn’t just going to discos and playing tough for the free drinks! I wouldn’t have tried to molest Robert Iler with this guy around either.
The most earnest of RIPs to Tony Sirico, a brilliant actor who successfully turned his life around and who was, at one point, a pretty scary dude.