Tony Sirico, who played a gangster in ‘The Sopranos’, dies at 79

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Tony Sirico, the actor who played eccentric mobster Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos,” died Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 79 years old.

His death was confirmed by Bob McGowan, his manager. No cause was given.

Paulie Nuts – who was Paul Gualtieri’s nickname because he once hijacked a lorry full of nuts (he was expecting TVs) – was one of mob boss Tony’s most loyal, hypersensitive and reckless men Soprano. Paulie was the kind of guy who went to a intervention for a drug addict, and when it was his turn to speak, punch the guy in the face. He loved his mother (although he found out she was really his aunt), and she loved him because he wrote the checks to keep her in an expensive nursing home.

Paulie wore tracksuits, slept with prostitutes, had a germ phobia, hated cats and watched TV in a plastic covered chair. He hated being stuck with a nearly $900 restaurant check, but could appreciate a tasty packet of ketchup on a cold night in the Pine Barrens when there was nothing else to eat.

When the “Sopranos” cast appeared in a group photo on the cover of Rolling Stone in 2001, Paulie was standing with a baseball bat slung over his right shoulder. No hairdresser on the “Sopranos” set was allowed to touch Mr. Sirico’s hair – dark and lush with two silver “wings” on each side. He dried and sprayed it himself.

Mr. Sirico’s face was also familiar, in short, to fans of Woody Allen movies. He appeared in several of them, starting with “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994), in which he played the right-hand man of a powerful gangster turned theater producer. He was a boxing trainer in ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ (1995), an escaped convict in ‘Everybody Says I Love You’ (1996), a no-nonsense prison cop in ‘Deconstructing Harry’ (1997) and a porter. ‘fire arms. gangster at Coney Island in “Wonder Wheel” (2017).

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1942, the son of Jerry Sirico, a longshoreman, and Marie (Cappelluzzo) Sirico. Junior, as he was known, remembered his first getting into trouble when he stole nickels from a newsstand. He attended Midwood High School but did not graduate, his brother Robert Sirico said.

“I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of mafia-type people,” he told the Cigar Aficionado publication in 2001. “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 for a child.

He worked for a time in the building industry but soon gave in to temptation. “I started running with the wrong kind of guy, and found myself doing a lot of the wrong things,” he said in the James Toback documentary.The Big Bang(1989). Bad things like armed robbery, extortion, coercion and possession of felony weapons.

While serving 20 months of a four-year sentence at sing sing, the maximum security prison in Ossining, NY, he saw a troupe of actors, all former inmates, who had stopped there to perform for inmates. “When I looked at them, I was like, ‘I can do this,'” he said. told the Daily News in 1999.

He was an uncredited extra in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974) and made his official film debut in “Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell” (1977), by self-proclaimed schlock director Larry Buchanan. Mr. Sirico followed that with more than a decade of small TV and film roles, culminating in his role as flashy mobster Tony Stacks in ‘Goodfellas’ (1990).

His first advocate among directors was Mr. Toback, who cast him in a crime drama, “Fingers” (1978), with Harvey Keitel; a romantic drama, “Love & Money” (1981), with Ray Sharkey and Klaus Kinski; and a comedy drama, “The Pick-Up Artist” (1987), with Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr., as well as the documentary.

Before “The Sopranos,” he was a cop in “Dead Presidents” (1995), a suburban mobster in “Cop Land” (1997), and a capo for the Gambino family in the TV movie “Gotti(1996).

Once “The Sopranos” aired in 1999, it became hugely and widely popular. Mr. Sirico quickly knew that he was very famous. “If I’m with five other Paulies,” he told The New York Times in 2007, imagining a rather unlikely situation, “and someone yells, ‘Hey, Paulie,’ I know it’s for me.”

After the HBO series ended in 2007, he often worked with his “Sopranos” co-stars.

After playing Bert, Ernie by Steve Schirripa, in a “Sesame Street” Christmas special (2008), he appeared with Steven Van Zandt in the series “Lilyhammer” (2013-14), with Michael Rispoli in “Friends and Romans(2014) and with Vincent Pastore and others in the film “Sarah Q” (2018).

He also expressed a street-smart dog named Vinny in the animated series “Family Guy” (2013-16).

He appeared in a crime drama, “Respect the Jux,” this year.

Mr. Sirico married and divorced early. He is survived by two children, Joanne Sirico Bello and Richard Sirico; one sister, Carol Pannunzio; two brothers, Robert Sirico and Carmine Sirico; and several grandchildren. He lived in Fort Lauderdale.

He brought at least one admirable lesson of the mob world to “The Sopranos.” He insisted that his character never be portrayed as a rat, someone who would expose his crime family. He was also reluctant to have his character kill a woman – Paulie suffocated an older nursing home resident with a pillow when she interrupted his theft of her life savings – but was pleasantly surprised that people of old neighborhood don’t seem to think less of him after the episode aired.

At first, however, it sometimes escaped him that he had rejected the dark side.

“I was this 30-year-old former villain sitting in a class full of fresh-faced, serious acting students,” Mr. Sirico recalled in the Daily News interview. The professor “leaned over to me after I made a scene and whispered, ‘Tony, leave the gun at home.’ After so many years of packing a gun, I didn’t even realize I had it with me.

Vimal Patel contributed report.

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