Tony Sirico, Star of ‘The Sopranos,’ Dead at 79
Actor Tony Sirico, best known for his portrayal of the wise-cracking Paul “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri on The Sopranos, has died at the age of 79.
“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 Jr. wish to inform you of his death on the morning of July 8, 2022,” a post from Sirico’s brother, Robert Sirico, on Facebook read. A Warner Bros. spokesperson confirmed the authenticity of the post to Rolling Stone. “The family is deeply grateful for the many expressions of love, prayer and condolences and requests that the public respect its privacy in this time of bereavement,” Sirico wrote.
As news of Sirico’s death broke, many of his Sopranos co-stars shared tributes to the beloved character actor.
“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,” Michael Imperioli, who played young upstart Christopher Moltisanti on the hit TV series, wrote in a post on social media. “He was beloved and will never be forgotten.” In a statement to Rolling Stone, Edie Falco highlighted the actor’s charming personality. “Tony Sirico was an original,” said the actress, who played Tony Soprano’s wife, Carmela Soprano. “There was no one like him; deeply loyal and kind. And so funny. It’s a heartbreaking loss.”
Born July 29, 1942, Sirico grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn — first in East Flatbush, then Bensonhurst — and was a self-described “rough-and-tumble kid,” he told Rolling Stone in a 2001 cover story. A devotee of James Cagney films, the young Sirico found himself drawn to the gangsters he’d often see around Bensonhurst. “They’re all dressed, slicked back, they got cars, they got girls, very enticing,” he said. “I got close to making a huge mistake… I almost got too close to becoming one of those guys I portray.” Noticing Sirico had issues with authority, a friend refused to sponsor him for membership in a crime organization. “The good thing I had going for me not being involved profoundly with wiseguys was that I don’t like anybody telling me what to do.”
Still, Sirico had his fair share of brushes with danger and the law. He had a bullet wound in his leg after he was spotted kissing a girl that had broken the shooter’s heart. (In true Paulie Walnuts fashion, Sirico told Rolling Stone of the incident, “At the time, all I thought about was, ‘Fucking ruined my white suit.'”) Before embarking upon his acting career, he was arrested 28 times and spent two stints in prison, racking up charges including extortion, armed robbery and assault. “I got 28 arrests and only two convictions, so you gotta admit I have a pretty good acting record,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1990.
Sirico was inspired to pursue acting in the early Seventies while in prison after attending a performance by an acting troupe comprised of ex-criminals. After a series of bit parts, he eventually landed roles in major films including Goodfellas, Mighty Aphrodite, The Pick-up Artist and Casino. Later in his career, Sirico appeared in a variety of television shows — including Lillyhammer, where he starred alongside his Sopranos co-star Steven Van Zandt, and Family Guy.
But, it was Sirico’s turn as the neurotic, hot-headed and surprisingly endearing caporegime Paulie Gualtieri that brought him the most recognition. In his portrayal of the eccentric mobster, he effortlessly moved between unrestrained rage to an almost zen-like introspection, often lending advice or providing clarity to other characters in the form of ribald parables. Despite Paulie’s many flaws, Sirico lent a certain depth of humanity to the character, transforming a seemingly unlikeable figure into a complex, multi-faceted figure in the Sopranos universe.
Throughout his acting career Sirico found himself playing the very men he admired as a youth. “And do I mind being stereotyped? Absolutely not,” he told Rolling Stone in 2001. “I’ve paid my rent, I take care of me and Ma.” He found fans in his neighborhood, who were tough guys as well. “They love me for being in this show,” Sirico said of his role in The Sopranos. “I’m still part of their family in their hearts. They know I’m a stand-up kid, whether I’m a tough guy or not.”