How Tony Sirico’s Criminal Past Prepared Him To Play Paulie Walnuts On ‘The Sopranos’

When The Sopranos (which is available to stream on HBO NOW) had hit its stride, it had made household names out of a handful of actors that had made their livelihood playing bit parts in mostly mafia-themed movies. One notable example was Genaro Anthony Sirico, who played Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri, a hilarious, quirky, tough-as-nails enforcer for the Soprano crime family with an unforgettable hairdo.

Sirico had originally auditioned for the role of Uncle Junior, along with Frank Vincent, who’d later be cast as big bad Phil Leotardo, and Dominic Chianese, who landed the role. After getting a call from showrunner David Chase to tell him he’d lost out on the part he’d auditioned for, he was instead offered the part of Paulie. Sirico agreed, only on the condition that his character wouldn’t turn out to be a rat. While a seemingly unusual request for a struggling actor, it turns out that Sirico’s resume included a bit more than playing tough guys on screen. Namely, he made a living as one.

Until Goodfellas, he had more arrests than acting credits

Growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Sirico was first arrested at the age of 7 for stealing nickels from a newspaper stand and ultimately racked up 28 arrests in total. His early life of crime came from the people he grew up with, namely, the “mob-type people” he was surrounded by. “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’d also describe his longtime neighborhood as the kind of place where “you either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole” to prove yourself. Sirico, incidentally, had both.

By 1990, he had appeared in 27 movies. His 28th would be a bit part in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas as the stylish Frankie “The Wop,” who’s probably best remembered for sticking a mailman’s head in a pizza oven.

Despite his multiple arrests, he was only convicted twice

After years of nefarious activity, Sirico was eventually found guilty of robbing a Brooklyn after-hours club, and did a 13-month stint in 1967. Four years later, he pleaded guilty to a felony weapons possession, and served 20 months after being given an indeterminate sentence that could’ve lasted up to four years. He was once referred to as a “danger to society” by a New York City judge, and a psychiatric report from Bellevue hospital claimed he suffered from a “personality disorder.”

A whopping 15 pages of the transcript from his 1971 sentencing is available online, which is well worth the read, particularly given prosecutor Gerald Hinckley’s rather colorful narrative of Sirico’s criminal exploits.

He was inspired by an acting troupe of ex-cons

While serving his 20 months in Sing Sing, a performance troupe of ex-cons known as Theater of The Forgotten came to entertain the inmates. At the time, Sirico likened them to Bob Hope; instead of visiting army bases, they visited prisons. “When I watched them, I said to myself, ‘‘I can do that,’ ” he’d recall years later.

After his release in 1971, he reached out to his friend Richard Castellano (better known as Pete Clemenza from The Godfather), who helped him get his first role, an extra in the 1974 mob movie Crazy Joe, about the downfall of real-life gangster Joe Gallo, which may sound familiar to Sopranos fans. Along with the new role came a Screen Actors Guild card, and a chance at a new life.

He made his living because of typecasting

The same year he appeared in Crazy Joe, he was cast as a featured extra in The Godfather, Part II, playing one of the notorioius Resato brothers (the other being another then-unknown actor, Danny Aiello). It was his first speaking role, saying the line “There’s a cop!” on camera.

In the 30-plus years since, he became part of what he and co-star Vincent Pastore (who played The Sopranos’ Big Pussy) called the ‘Gangster’s Actors Guild,’ a loosely associated group of actors who played every two-bit hoodlum and gangster part that was available. “Probably the only acting experience they’ll ever get is as gangsters. They were born to play gangsters,” said author Alan Rucker, who added “you’ll always see them as gangsters.”

Some of Paulie’s story was inspired by Sirico’s own life

In the show’s penultimate episode, ‘The Blue Comet,” where tensions between the New York family escalate into full-scale war, Paulie says, “I lived through the ’70s by the skin of my nuts when the Colombos were goin’ at it.” There’s a desperate sincerity to his delivery, possibly due to the fact that Sirico was reportedly considered an associate of the Colombo crime family, who had three wars around that time — two in the 1960s and one in the early 1970s.

The similarity between Sirico and his infamous character doesn’t end there. In a 2002 interview, as the show’s fourth season was airing, he said, “when I look in the mirror in the morning, I don’t know if I’m lookin’ at Tony or Paulie. We got cross-pollinated.” While his criminal past certainly helped lend some authenticity to his performance, much of Sirico’s present-day life went into the character as well. He’d lived with his mother for most of his life, and the writers would listen to him talk about her. In the end, just as Sirico grew up watching mobsters and emulating their style, the writers of The Sopranos took Sirico’s day-to-day problems and wrote them into the show, further blurring the line between him and his most famous character.

(Via The Smoking Gun, Cigar Aficionado and LA Times)