Of the many iconic characters to come out of the HBO crime drama series The Sopranos, few are quite as enigmatic as Paulie Gualtieri, or as he’s affectionately known by his associates, Paulie Walnuts. The nickname Paulie Walnuts was bestowed on him after he hijacked a truck that he believed was filled with televisions, only to find out that it was filled with walnuts.
That’s only the beginning of the quirky things that happen to Paulie throughout the six seasons of The Sopranos. At one point, Paulie goes to a psychic and gets confronted by the ghosts of all the people he’s killed. In one of the final episodes of the show, he starts to believe that his dead friend Chris Moltisanti has been reincarnated as a cat.
Paulie Walnuts is undeniably goofy and even somewhat lovable, but at his core, he’s still a cold-blooded killer. In the episode titled “Eloise,” Paulie breaks into his mother’s friend’s house to steal her life savings from under her mattress and then suffocates the old woman when she catches him in the act. After a dinner in Atlantic City where the Soprano crime family ran up quite a hefty bill, Paulie kills a waiter to avoid paying. All in all, Paulie’s character expertly toed the line between being likable and horrifying, and that had a lot to do with the actor that portrayed him.
Tony Sirico, the actor that played Paulie Gualtieri, is probably one of the best actors in history at portraying a mobster. He’s been cast in some of the most notable mob movies and mob television series of all time, and has delivered a brilliant performance in every one of them.
The best actors draw from experiences in their own lives to bring emotion to their performances. So it may not surprise you to find out that Tony Sirico was not only a gangster on the screen, he was a gangster in real life. That’s right; Sirico’s path to becoming an actor is a fascinating underdog story about a man who was involved in a life of crime and then escaped by getting into the world of Hollywood.
Tony Sirico’s Gangster Days
Before he was Paulie Walnuts, he was Genaro Anthony Sirico Jr., an Italian-American kid growing up in Brooklyn in the East Flatbush and Bensonhurst neighborhoods. At the time that Tony was growing up, the Colombo crime family was very active in Brooklyn, and Tony soon found his way into the good graces of the Colombos and their boss Carmine “Junior” Persico. Ring any bells? Well, the head of the Lupertazzi crime family in The Sopranos was named Carmine and the head of the Soprano crime family was nicknamed Junior. Coincidence? I think not.
Anyway, while working for the Colombos, Tony Sirico was arrested a total of 28 times for crimes including disorderly conduct, assault, and robbery. Apparently, the first time he got arrested was as a seven-year-old boy stealing nickels from a newsstand.
In 1967, he was arrested for robbing a Brooklyn nightclub and served 13 months in prison. In 1970, he was arrested at a restaurant for carrying a revolver and was later convicted on charges of extortion, coercion, and felony weapons possession. According to the court transcript, Sirico also had pending charges for criminal possession of a dangerous drug at the time as well.
So, yes, Tony Sirico was very much wrapped up in the mob life before he took up acting. In fact, the character of Paulie Walnuts even references Tony’s real life in the episode “The Blue Comet,” saying, “I lived through the ’70s by the skin of my nuts when the Colombos were going at it.” Indeed, the 1970s were a tumultuous time for the Colombo crime family after the boss of the family, Joseph Colombo, was shot in the head and killed in 1971.
After his arrest in 1970, Sirico was sent to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York where he was to serve a four-year sentence. While in prison, Sirico was visited by an acting troupe known as “Theatre of the Forgotten,” a group of ex-convict actors. Their performance reportedly inspired Sirico to take up acting once he was released from prison. And, against all odds, Sirico soon rose through the ranks of Hollywood and became a successful film and television actor.
As is to be expected from a former mobster, Sirico has never talked much about his past. However, in an interview he did for the 1989 documentary The Big Bang directed by James Toback, he does open up a little about his life before acting. He also utters a few candid lines that sound like they’re directly from the script of The Sopranos, including, “You could have shot me from the toes to my nose, I would have never said peep.”
Tony Sirico’s Acting Career
The first confirmed role that Sirico ever landed was as an extra in the 1974 film Crazy Joe, a film about the murder of Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo, a member of the Colombo crime family who was gunned down at a restaurant in Little Italy.
From there, Sirico was able to secure roles as a gangster in some extremely notable films such as Goodfellas, Mob Queen, Mighty Aphrodite, Love and Money, Fingers, Defiance, Innocent Blood, Gotti, The Pick-up Artist, and Cop Land. Interestingly enough, he also portrayed a police officer in the films Dead Presidents and Deconstructing Harry.
When Sirico auditioned for The Sopranos, he was originally auditioning for the part of Uncle Junior. However, when that role was given to Dominic Chianese, director David Chase offered Sirico the role of Paulie Gualtieri. Sirico agreed to the role on the condition that the character would never become a rat. It doesn’t get much more gangster than that.
After playing the iconic role of Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos, Sirico has had roles in other television series such as NBC’s Medium and the Norweigan-American series Lilyhammer, which starred Steven Van Zandt who played Silvio Dante in The Sopranos. Sirico also voice acted as a dog named Vinny in Family Guy, and actually made another cameo appearance in the show as himself in which he threatens Stewie for calling Italians “a ridiculous people.”
Back in 2008, Sirico released a line of cologne called Paolo Per Uomo. According to Sirico himself, it has hints of cognac, musk, and magic. However, when the New York Post interviewed a group of women asked what they thought of the cologne, one of them said, “Paolo Per Uomo smells like every lasagna-loving, spaghetti-slurping mob-boss wannabe or cheap imitation consigliere.” Maybe it’s a harsh review or maybe that’s exactly what Sirico was going for.
Overall, it’s pretty incredible how someone who was so immersed in a life of crime was able to turn his life around and become a successful actor. While I don’t want to glorify the criminal lifestyle, it’s pretty cool that Sirico was essentially playing his former self when he was portraying Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos. There’s method acting, and then there’s Tony Sirico.