The sad death of Tony Sirico has reminded audiences that his performance as Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri was key to The Sopranos‘ secret weapon. Paulie was one of the few members of Tony Soprano’s criminal empire to be left standing when the show ended in 2007. He was defined by his short temper, irrational behavior, and surprising spirituality which manifested as superstition and visions of the Virgin Mary in a strip club.
Tony Sirico grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and had spoken in the past about how he’d been seduced by the charms of organized crime. However, acting helped him turn his life around when, during a prison sentence in the early 1970s, he was inspired by the performance of a group of ex-con actors. Along with appearances in numerous movies including James Mangold’s Cop Land, Sirico was also an uncredited extra in the Godfather movies before Goodfellas and The Sopranos made him a household name. His role as Paulie in The Sopranos is still regarded as one of the finest characters in television drama and is key to what made the show such a success.
Tony Sirico obviously brought his life experiences as a self-confessed “pistol-packing guy” to the Sopranos role of Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri. But directly tying his performance to his upbringing and criminal past is reductive, and undersells just what a great actor Tony Sirico was. He contained multitudes and was able to portray Paulie as a threatening and unpredictable thug, who was also incredibly funny and deeply vulnerable. This blackly comic dichotomy was perfect for creator David Chase’s more psychological portrayal of modern masculinity and family through The Sopranos‘ gangster show lens.
Tony Sirico’s Paulie Helped Make The Sopranos So Much More Than A Gangster Show
The Sopranos was always interested in more than organized crime. It even had a supernatural element to it that suggested ghosts existed in The Sopranos‘ world. Paulie was the firmest believer in the supernatural, as seen in The Sopranos season 2, episode 9, “From Where to Eternity.” Shaken by the near-death visions of Christopher, Paulie is haunted by the various gangsters he’s whacked during his extensive career. His girlfriend convinces him to visit a psychic medium, who horrifies him by knowing sensitive information about one of his many victims. It’s a scene that could have been played for broad laughs in a sketch show, but Tony Sirico grounds it by knowing just how far to push the comedy of the scene.
It’s a moment that is emblematic of The Sopranos‘ skill at placing gangster archetypes within settings unfamiliar to the genre, something which was always improved by Tony Sirico’s performance. For example, in a very early scene in The Sopranos season 1, Paulie laments the inability of Italian Americans to profit from espressos and cappuccinos to the same extent as the likes of Starbucks. It could have been a hollow copycat of the type of comic gangster small-talk scenes that directors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese excel at. However, Sirico’s performance makes it feel bracingly fresh and new, due to how he balances Paulie’s dented cultural pride and simmering rage.
What audiences often forget about The Sopranos is just how funny it was, and a lot of that comedy is down to Tony Sirico as Paulie and his scenes with Michael Imperioli’s Christopher. One of the best-loved episodes of The Sopranos is “Pine Barrens.” It’s essentially a mismatched buddy movie about two hitmen stranded in the wilderness and features some exceptional comic back-and-forth between Sirico and Imperioli. When Paulie relates Tony’s message about a murderous Russian “interior decorator” to Christopher, he replies, “His house looked like shit.” It’s almost Abbott and Costello-like in its comic bantering and is perfectly delivered by Sirico and Imperioli. It’s one of many examples of the laugh-out-loud comedy present across The Sopranos‘ six seasons and emphasizes just what a multi-layered and genius show it was.
Tony Sirico’s Paulie Is A Huge Part Of The Sopranos’ Modern Popularity
Tony Sirico later appeared in Seth MacFarlane’s shows Family Guy and American Dad as both a replacement for talking dog Brian and as thinly veiled parody versions of himself and his beloved Sopranos character. More surprising, perhaps, is how The Sopranos‘ Paulie has been embraced by internet meme culture in recent years. It’s hardly surprising, given the visual medium, that Sirico’s brilliantly expressive face has been adopted into familiar meme templates such as “If you can’t love me at my/you don’t deserve me at my” or creating its own meme in the form of “Ay, Tone.”
While inspiring memes is obviously a footnote in Tony Sirico’s career, it does reflect how The Sopranos is still a huge part of the culture. One of the key successes of The Sopranos was that there was something universal in its themes of family, generational trauma, and mental health. These themes of David Chase’s The Sopranos are still incredibly relevant today, and whether they’re a gangster or not, audiences know someone like Paulie Gualtieri: an eager-to-please colleague or family member who is sometimes quick to anger and deflects from their insecurities with jokes. Tony Sirico’s multi-layered performance as Paulie Gualtieri showed audiences that gangsters had the same insecurities and anxieties as everyone else, creating one of the most compelling television characters of all time.