‘Sopranos’ Creator David Chase on Tony Sirico: ‘Everything He Got, He Made It His Own’
Towards the end of a long conversation about the late Tony Sirico, who so memorably played Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, the show’s creator, David Chase, told Rolling Stone, “The fans loved him. They were crazy about him!”
Why was that?
“You know what it was: him!” Chase said plainly. “He was great. He was always surprising, or outrageous.”
Chase had lots of fond memories of Sirico, who died on July 8 at age 79. Below, he discusses the “precious little separation” between Sirico and his wiseguy alter ego, how Sirico’s long-ago criminal past may have informed his performance, and how many of Paulie’s tics were borrowed from the man who played him.
[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
What do you remember about casting Tony as Paulie Walnuts?
I don’t remember his audition. He read for Junior, and I do recall the phone call where I said, “You’re not Junior, but I have this other idea.” But I’m pretty sure he only had one line in the pilot, where Tony’s at the garbage dump and Paulie’s hitting golf balls and says, “T! Dick’s looking for you!” The reason that’s interesting to me, is that from such an inauspicious beginnings came such a great character.
You said once that you enjoyed writing for Paulie because he had such an unusual worldview and that amused you. How much of that just came from enjoying writing for Tony Sirico?
Oh, yeah. There was precious little separation between the two. It was because of what he did with that stuff. You’d write a line, and then he’d do it, and the look on his face would be so incredibly laughable, and funny. And you’d want to do more. The way he spoke. Here’s something I just thought of now: Everything that he got, he made his. Everything. He made it his own.
There were actors on the show, like Jim Gandolfini, who didn’t like being confused with their characters. But Tony always seemed to take pleasure from being associated with Paulie. Is that fair?
Yes, that’s fair. Certainly, not like Jim. [Tony and Paulie] were close. We had a lot to work with there, from that actor. But he got better and better. He really did. He was doing serious drama the last two or three seasons. It was strange, whatever he did. That’s what’s so great about him: You couldn’t really define it. What made him so great? He seemed so real: “I’m looking at something real here. This is Paulie Walnuts.”
I’m really gonna miss that guy. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I keep picturing him in the afterlife, which never happens to me with other people. And I see him making other dead people laugh, or be astounded just watching him, in his track suit. Just great.
It seems that whenever you’re telling a story about Tony, you’re laughing.
Isn’t that incredible? Like, [Paulie] lost his shoe in the woods, or he got the painting of Tony [Soprano] with the horse retouched to be a general. OK, let’s say the writing was good there, just for the sake of argument. But with another actor, it would be cute. He was there. He believed it.
Tony had some history in this world of the Mafia that most of your actors did not. How much do you feel that informed what he was able to do?
Every actor brings with them as a source, as a spring, their life. It’s bubbling underneath the surface. And for him, no different. I think it was a lot, the experiences that he had had. Now that he’s gone, I would love to talk to him more about that, and see how much awareness he had of that. What did he think about his road? He told me that he had a role as a hoodlum on Baretta, and there was a scene in which Robert Blake grabs him, throws him against the car and sweats him, and he gives it up under duress, whatever Baretta wants to know. And he called his family, very proud, “Watch my thing,” And his son was crying, going, “You squealed!”
What was he like to be around?
That’s the thing — being around him was pleasant. That’s what I’m gonna miss. It was great to spend time around him. He was outrageous!
In what way?
His thought patterns, the things he came up with, the way he phrased it. It sometimes felt like he was bringing history all the way back to Lucky Luciano with him, just in the way he said things, or the values that he espoused. And I don’t mean that that’s all he could do, was be a gangster. It’s just that when you were talking to him, you or I never had any experience like that in your life, so of course you wanted to hear them.
You’ve said that Tony liked to function as a kind of second director in scenes, telling the other actors where to go.
He would do that with junior people. He didn’t do that with Jim. He liked to direct, though.
A lot of actors, if they attempted to do such a thing on your set, would not be allowed to get away with it. Yet you tell that story with such fondness. Was there something about Tony that gave him more latitude with that kind of thing?
I guess so. If any other actor had made a habit out of it, it would have had to have been stopped, because the other actors would have resented it. But with him, maybe they resented it, but it just never came up. I think because he was so out there, and that was part of him, and they saw something in it. That there was a kind of loving exasperation.
One of Paulie’s tics was to repeat jokes he had just told, just to make sure everyone in the room heard him being funny. Was that something you invented, or something Tony did?
He did that.
Every showrunner eventually puts some of an actor’s personality into the character they’re playing. Did you tend to that more with Tony than with most of your actors?
We do that quite a bit with all of them. But yeah, I’d say Tony got a lot. You couldn’t let it go. The fact that he wouldn’t let our hair people touch his hair? That was pure gold. And his germophobia? Gold. For a gangster, it was great. One of my favorite things was his monologue about urine on his shoelaces. No one could have done that as well!