Tony Sirico dies aged 79: how have his ‘Sopranos’ co-stars reacted?
Actor Tony Sirico, who played Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri in the acclaimed HBO series ‘The Sopranos’, died in Florida on Friday, his family has confirmed.
Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr, better known as Tony Sirico, has died at the age of 79 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The actor, who played Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri in the acclaimed HBO television series The Sopranos, passed away early on Friday, his brother Robert confirmed on social media. “It is with great sadness, but with incredible pride, love and a whole lot of fond memories, that the family of Gennaro Anthony ‘Tony’ Sirico wishes to inform you of his death on the morning of July 8, 2022,” Robert Sirico said.
“You either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole - I had both”
Born in July 1942 in New York to a family of Italian descent, Sirico’s career was dominated by his roles as gangsters on both big and small screen. “What you see is what you get”, he always pointed out to the directors who asked him to try playing another type of character. And he had plenty of opportunity to learn how to get into the role, because before entering the world of acting he had links to mafia activities and was even arrested 28 times, the first at age seven for stealing coins from a newsstand.
“Where I grew up, every guy was trying to prove himself. You either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I had both.” He added: “I was a pistol-packing guy. The first time I went away to prison, they searched me to see if I had a gun - and I had three of ‘em on me. They’d ask why I was carrying and I’d say I live in a bad neighborhood. It was true. In our neighborhood, if you weren’t carrying a gun, it was like you were the rabbit during rabbit-hunting season.”
From prison to acting acclaim
Sirico’s criminal life saw him sentenced to 13 months in prison in 1967 for a robbery in a New York nightclub, and in 1971 he would spend another 20 months behind bars for possession of weapons. He was given four years, but finally served just over a year and a half. “After all the times I was pinched, I knew every judge in town,” he said. According to the US media, Sirico worked for the Colombo family, one of the most significant organised crime groups in New York.
His passion for acting came about in a curious fashion, because it blossomed when he saw a theatre company made up of ex-convicts in prison. “I watched ‘em and I thought, ‘I can do that,’” he told the LA Times. “I knew I wasn’t bad looking. And I knew I had the guts to stand up and bull people. You get a lot of practice in prison. I used to stand up in front of these cold-blooded murderers and kidnappers - and make ‘em laugh.” When he got his freedom back, he started working as an actor and a model.
Sirico appeared in movies such as Goodfellas, Cop Land and Mickey Blue Eyes, and also featured in several Woody Allen films, including Bullets over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite. Among his TV credits are an appearance in Miami Vice and voice parts in the cartoons Family Guy and American Dad!, but he landed the biggest role of his career when he joined the cast of The Sopranos, appearing in all six seasons of the series.
Sirico initially auditioned for the role of Uncle Junior - which went to Dominic Chianese - before being offered the part of Paulie, reportedly telling Sopranos creator David Chase that he’d take the role as long as he didn’t “become a rat”. Running from 1999 to 2007, the series enjoyed critical acclaim - winning 21 Primetime Emmy Awards and five Golden Globes - and frequently tops polls ranking the greatest TV series of all time.
“Truly irreplaceable” - co-stars pay tribute to Sirico
Reacting to Sirico’s death on Instagram, Michael Gandolfini, whose late father, James Gandolfini, played the lead role of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, paid tribute to the “one of a kind” actor. “Tony Sirico was one of the kindest, fiercely loyal, and heartfelt men that I’ve ever known,” wrote Michael Gandolfini, who plays Tony in the Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark. “He was always Uncle Tony to me, and Tony always showed up for me and my family. I’ll deeply miss his pinches on my cheek, and his infectious laugh. He was a phenomenal actor and an even better man.”
Steven van Zandt, who appeared in The Sopranos as Silvio Dante, tweeted: “A larger than life character on and off screen. Gonna miss you a lot my friend. Deepest condolences to the family.” Fellow series co-star Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti, wrote on Instagram: “Tony was like no one else: he was as tough, as loyal and as big hearted as anyone i’ve ever known. I was at his side through so much: through good times and bad. But mostly good. And we had a lot of laughs. We found a groove as Christopher and Paulie and I am proud to say I did a lot of my best and most fun work with my dear pal Tony. I will miss him forever. He is truly irreplaceable.”