Tony Sirico has died. Best known for his role as loud-mouthed, frequently buffoonish gangster Paulie Walnuts on all six seasons of HBO’s The Sopranos, Sirico came by his underworld acting chops honestly: He was first introduced to the craft while serving a stint in prison after a multi-year career as a stick-up man who targeted New York’s nightclubs, before an encounter with a visiting company of ex-convicts-turned-actors drastically altered the course of his life. In addition to his role on the legendary HBO drama, Sirico appeared in Goodfellas, in the casts of several Woody Allen films, and, somewhat improbably, in a multi-episode arc on Family Guy. Per Variety, he died earlier today. Sirico was 79.
Born Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. in 1942, Sirico spent the first 30 years of his life building up an arrest record nearly as impressive as his eventual acting resumé, ultimately being arrested 28 times on a variety of charges, and serving a total of five years of prison time. During his last stint in prison, he encountered a group called The Theater Of The Forgotten, former convicts turn actors who toured prisons. “I saw them, and right there and then I knew what I wanted to do,” Sirico said in a 2001 interview. “It just hit me. I said, ‘I can do that.’ And when I got out I called someone who had been a friend of mine for many years, Richie Castellano, who had played Fat Clemenza in The Godfather. I told Richie I wanted to be an actor.”
After Castellano helped Sirico get his first role (in 1974's Crazy Joe), he began steadily working, and didn’t really stop for the next several decades. His character names from this period paint a picture of the course of his career: Names like “Tough Guy,” “Jacko,” and “Rocco” dot his resumé—the latter in Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, the first of four films the writer/director would cast Sirico in. (He also scored a few roles on the “enforcement” side of the law, including playing a cop in Albert Hughes’ Dead Presidents.)
Sirico’s career changed forever, though, in 1999, when—after four long auditions, and a failed shot at the role of Junior Soprano—David Chase selected him to play Tony Soprano’s most enduring lieutenant, for a series that no one, at the time, realized would become one of the most influential shows of its generation. As Paulie Walnuts, Sirico frequently got to walk the line between The Sopranos’ darker and lighter selves; delivering the funniest lines of an episode one minute, and brutal menace the next. In showcase episodes like fan-favorite “Pine Barrens”—and especially in his relationship with Michael Imperioli’s Christopher—Sirico consistently demonstrated that an absurd, often goofy gangster was never the same thing as a safe gangster; Sirico’s ability to project an almost child-like sense of aggrievement at the world only served to highlight the moments when that same sensibility curdled into threats or violence.
After The Sopranos, Sirico was, well, “Tony Sirico from The Sopranos”; his list of roles afterward are dotted with parts paying homage to his most famous job. (Including playing mobster-types alongside both the Muppets and the Fairly OddParents, and appearing in his old co-star Steven Van Zandt’s Lilyhammer.) And, yes, he had a three-episode run on Family Guy, voicing Vinny, the Griffin family’s new dog.
Imperioli posted a tribute to his old co-star on Instagram today, writing:
Tony was like no one else: he was as tough, as loyal and as big hearted as anyone I’ve ever known. I was at his side through so much: through good times and bad. But mostly good. And we had a lot of laughs. 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. I will miss him forever. He is truly irreplaceable. I send love to his family, friends and his many many fans. He was beloved and will never be forgotten. Heartbroken today.
In a social media post from his family, they state that Sirico is survived by “his two children, Joanne Sirico Bello and Richard Sirico, as well as grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews and other relatives.”