Tuesday, April 9

How Tony Sirico Made Paulie Walnuts a ‘Sopranos’ Character to Remember

Juliet Polcsa, the costume designer on The Sopranos, liked to say that most of the HBO Mob drama’s core cast members in real life dressed nothing like the characters they so famously played on TV. On the other hand, there was Tony Sirico as the aggrieved, inflexible, and unforgettable Soprano capo Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri. Polcsa recalled a wardrobe fitting where Sirico was pleased to see that she had chosen a shirt for Paulie identical to one he had in his closet at home. “A year later,” she told me shortly before the series ended, “he ripped his own shirt and said, ‘I need that shirt as a replacement.’”

That anecdote — delivered by Polcsa in a dead-on impression of Sirico’s swaggering Brooklyn-born cadence — is instructive in two ways. One is that the line between Sirico and Paulie Walnuts was thinner than any slice of meat ever served at Satriale’s — as close in public persona, if not in capacity for violence and cruelty, as it is possible for an actor and character to get, unless the performer is literally playing himself. The other is that few actors in the history of filmed entertainment have taken more pleasure in being linked to their most famous role than Sirico — who died on July 8 at age 79 — did, in ways that invite endless stories from anyone who was lucky enough to know him. And those are stories often delivered haltingly, because the resemblance between fact and fiction was so absurdly dead-on that the storyteller can’t help but crack up in the middle of it.

There was a time, for instance, late in that first Sopranos season, when the cast gathered for a read-through of the season finale. Among the episode’s many major developments, Paulie and his protégé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) gun down rival wiseguy Mikey Palmice (Al Sapienza). According to Sopranos creator David Chase, in an interview for the book I co-authored, The Sopranos Sessions, Sapienza “campaigned vigorously to stay on the show” and at the read-through made “some kind of wiseguy comment” that Sirico did not appreciate. Chase, through laughter, said that Sirico mimed finger guns at Sapienza and went, “‘Dat dat dat dat.’ Because he’s the one who kills him!”

Or, for that matter, there are the stories of Sirico’s life before acting, when, if he was not exactly Paulie Walnuts, he was definitely someone Paulie would have known and held a minor grudge against. Sirico was arrested 28 times in those days, and served seven years in prison, though the worst trouble he ever got came from a rival criminal who caught Sirico kissing a woman the other guy liked and shot him in the leg. As Sirico put it in the 2001 Rolling Stone cover story on The Sopranos, “At the time, all I thought about was, ‘Fucking ruined my white suit.’”

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Sirico could be sensitive regarding questions about his extra-legal past. Before the fourth season, I was working on a feature about the large number of actors on the show who came to acting late in life, after other kinds of work. Sirico took mild offense at even being mentioned in such an article, arguing that whatever he had done before he went into showbiz was long in the past, and that he had been appearing in movies and TV shows for more than 25 years by that point. He acknowledged that he had picked up various elements of his performance as Paulie from the tough guys he once knew, like the way he frequently held both of his hands together in front of himself, to show that Paulie always had his guard up. But he wanted to be looked at as someone who was cast to play Paulie Walnuts because he was a talented performer, not because he used to commit armed robbery.

The backstory regarding his hands was one he told with a lot of variations over the years, frequently crediting James Cagney movies for introducing him to that stance. But however much of his performance was drawn from gangster films, from tough guys Sirico had known, or from Sirico’s own persona, it was instantly indelible. His Paulie Walnuts was vain and petty, at once the bullying defender of an old-fashioned tough guy code and a perpetual victim who always had someone else to blame for his own problems. (Moments after gunning down Mikey Palmice, Paulie is more upset to realize that he crashed through poison ivy before delivering the kill shot than he is with the thought of having taken another man’s life. No doubt, the itching was all Mikey’s fault for running away.)

There is a version of the character Chase created who is an utter caricature in the hands of a different actor. Certainly, The Sopranos had room for that. But the joy of Sirico’s performance — what made Paulie so charismatic and beloved despite the fact that he was a miserable, homicidal, self-pitying prick — was how it managed to have things both ways. Sirico was not subtle, but somehow, he was nuanced. He played Paulie big and loud, but in ways that make it clear that much of it is an act to compensate for his massive insecurities. (In that same Season One finale, when James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano confesses to his crew that he’s been seeing a therapist, Paulie admits that he did briefly as well: “I had some issues.” Say no more.) Much of the time, he is comic relief — spectacular comic relief, never more than in the classic “Pine Barrens” episode where Paulie and Christopher are lost in the frozen woods, Paulie’s immaculate winged pompadour a frayed mess, one of his loafers lost in the snow — but he is never less than terrifying when a scene calls upon him to threaten someone.

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Paulie is older than the other members of Tony’s inner circle, a former underling of Tony’s father who is one of the last of his generation from the Family to still be active. He attempts to present himself as a venerable figure, but he’s frequently an object of pity: a lonely old man whose big mouth and constant self-aggrandizement (like his habit of repeating his own jokes to potential new listeners only moments after he just told them) are indulged mainly because no one wants the headache of offending him. (When Tony, Christopher, and Paulie go to Naples in Season Two, every Italian — including one played with silent disapproval by Chase himself — looks upon the obnoxious, ignorant Paulie with contempt.) If Sirico captured only the character’s slicked-down veneer, Paulie would still be an important part of the show. But it was his ability to convey the ridiculous, childish, hurt and hurtful man beneath the overcompensating exterior that made the character special enough to keep around for the run of the series, when so many of Tony’s other allies kept dying.

“This isn’t to downplay anyone else,” Chase said in Sopranos Sessions, “but Paulie… I don’t know. He’s a character you love to write. He has a strange outlook on life, and you enjoy going there. He’s very entertaining.” (Michael Imperioli tended to heavily feature Paulie in the handful of episodes he wrote over the years because, he once told me, he enjoyed hearing Sirico deliver the lines he wrote.)

In one of the best episodes of the series’ final season, “Remember When,” Tony and Paulie take an unscheduled trip to Florida to lie low after the body of Tony’s first murder victim is unearthed by the cops. We know that Paulie has come to revere his boss, to the point where, a few seasons earlier, after Tony threw out a painting of himself with his late, beloved horse Pie-O-My, Paulie retrieved it from a dumpster and had it repainted to show Tony as a respected military commander. Tony, on the other hand, has long had very little patience for Paulie, not only because he’s the worst earner among his captains, but because he is such an annoying person to be around. Forced to spend extended quality time with this aging blowhard, Tony’s patience reaches its limit. After listening to Paulie’s umpteenth story about the good old days, he declares that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” When they go out on a fishing boat together, both Paulie and the audience can see Tony considering how easy it would be to simply kill the old man and dump him in the ocean — less for any strategic advantage it might give Tony in his desire to avoid prison, than because he just doesn’t want to have to be in this guy’s company anymore. The same episode features a photo of the young Paulie kissing his bicep — a picture, of course, of the real Tony Sirico in the Sixties — and it is clear that he has been unable to let go of the version of himself from that picture as the decades have marched on. (Toward the end of the hour, he responds to a nightmare by pounding his dumbbells, never wanting to let those biceps shrink with age.)

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Sirico could be that kind of loudmouth behind the scenes, but in ways his colleagues found endearing rather than exasperating. Chase, a famously exacting producer who did not want his actors improvising or otherwise messing with the script and the direction, chuckled at remembering how “Tony Sirico was a part-time director all the time: ‘Stay, stay, stay over here! Come on over here with me!’”

Maybe the best testament to the nature and specificity of Sirico’s performance and persona came when Chase revisited the world of The Sopranos years later for the prequel film The Many Saints of Newark. He asked Sirico to record all of the young Paulie dialogue for actor Billy Magnussen to listen to — a measure he didn’t take with anyone else in the cast interpreting a famous character from the show.

Chase explained it was because of “the way he talks, his gestures, all this stuff. Nobody can touch his hair. The stories. The way he bugs his eyes when he’s surprised. Great expressions. It was sort of beyond doing.”

In that nightmare from late in “Remember When,” Paulie is confronted by the ghost of his late friend, Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), whom he asks, “When my time comes, tell me: Will I stand up?” Taken literally, the question is a reference to Pussy asking to sit down right before he was shot to pieces by Paulie, Tony, and Steven Van Zandt’s Silvio. But it’s more deeply about Paulie’s fear of his own craven and neurotic nature, and about his suspicion that he hasn’t done enough — or, really, anything — with his life.

Long before Tony Sirico’s time came, he stood up. And he stood out, even among the Hall of Fame ensemble of one of the greatest television shows ever made.

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