Tony Sirico Dies: ‘The Sopranos’ Star Who Played Paulie Walnuts Was 79

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Tony Sirico, who played Peter Paul “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri in The Sopranos, died today, his family announced. The actor would have turned 80 this month.

“It is with great sadness, but with incredible pride, love and a whole lot of fond memories, that the family of Gennaro Anthony ‘Tony’ Sirico wishes to inform you of his death on the morning of July 8, 2022,” the family said in a statement.

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No cause of death has been provided but Sirico has been in failing health for the past several years as he battled dementia. He died at an assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

‘The Sopranos’ Season 1 cast, from left: Tony Sirico, Steven Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastor3 - Credit: HBO
‘The Sopranos’ Season 1 cast, from left: Tony Sirico, Steven Van Zandt, James Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli and Vincent Pastor3 - Credit: HBO

HBO

Sirico starred as fan-favorite henchman Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos for the series’ entire six-season run on HBO. He was supposed to be in David Chase’s prequel movie, 2021’s The Many Saints of Newark, but his health prevented him from reprising his role.

He shared two SAG Awards for Drama Ensemble and seven total noms for his role as the violent, devoted, menacing and rather simple Paulie Walnuts, a capo whose steely glower and quick temper made him a tough guy to fear – but also to root for. Famous for his trademark slicked-back hair with two-tone wings, the character was known for his fierce loyalty to boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, who died in 2013) and his willingness to take on any and all dirty work. Belying his hard exterior, Paulie also was something of a mama’s boy.

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Sirico brought authenticity to the role with his background of a street guy who was arrested 28 times and served 20 months at New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison.

The Sopranos executive producer Terence Winter said in a Deadline interview tied to the show’s 20th anniversary that he remembered Sirico as Junior Sirico, which was his name back in the day. “He was this scary mob guy… he was the real deal.”

Sirico originally auditioned for the role of Junior. After three rounds of tests, The Sopranos creator David Chase called him to tell him that he had another character for him, Paulie Walnuts.

“I say, who is he? David says, ‘You’ll like him.’ And boy, let me tell you, I loved him,” Sirico said in the same Deadline interview. “I am still Paulie. I can’t go home no more. I am Paulie, till I pass,”

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The Sopranos became a sensation soon after its launch in January 1999 on HBO, quickly becoming a water-cooler show and scoring four Emmys. The New Jersey-set mob tale would be Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Drama Series for each of its seven installments – its final Season 6 was split into two parts – but won the prize only in 2008, for its final run. The Sopranos would rack up 21 Emmys during its run, though Sirico never was nominated for Supporting Actor.

Additionally, Sirico played gangsters in a number of films, including Tony Stacks in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. He also was mobbed up for the features Mob Queen, Love and Money, Fingers, The One Man Jury, Defiance and The Last Fight.

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He developed his New York and New Jersey wiseguy chops by appearing in several Woody Allen movies including Bullets Over Broadway, Celebrity and Mighty Aphrodite before booking his Sopranos role.

Sirico was born July 29, 1942, in New York. His first confirmed role in film was as an extra in the 1974 film Crazy Joe. He also played policemen in the films Dead Presidents and Deconstructing Harry.

His screen career gained momentum in the late 1970s and early ’80s, with appearances on such series as Kojak, Police Squad! and Miami Vice. His string of film credits also include 1987’s The Pick-Up Artist, starring Robert Downey Jr and Molly Ringwald; White Hot (1989), starring Robbie Benson.

On television, he voiced the character of Vinny Griffin, the pet dog on Family Guy, in a three-episode arc, replacing Brian Griffin after that canine’s death. He later voiced characters — including a mobster — in two episodes of another Seth MacFarlane animated comedy, American Dad!

In 2018, he reunited with former Sopranos actors Federico Castelluccio and Vincent Pastore in Sarah Q.

After The Sopranos, Sirico appeared — somewhat in character but not named as such — in a handful of funny commercials for Denny’s restaurants. In one he tries to pay with fake money because “That’s not a real breakfast.” In another, he uses his car and a chain to pull down another eatery’s large sign that reads “Ultimate Breakfast.” He also did an ad for then-DVD service Netflix, playing an intimidating wiseguy type who helps a non-customer see the light. “Late fees?” he says. “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

“Tony was a very loyal client,” Sirico’s manager of 25 years Bob McGowan said. “He was an Army vet and a Wounded Veteran Project member who always gave to charity,” added McGowan, an ex-Marine who knew Sirico for many decades.

Sirico is survived by his two children, Joanne Sirico Bello and Richard Sirico, along with grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews and many other relatives, the family said.

​A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated by Sirico’s brother Fr. Robert Sirico at the Basilica of Regina Pacisat 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, July 13. The family asked for memorial donations to be made in Sirico’s honor to Wounded Warriors, St. Jude’s Hospital and the Acton Institute.

Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.

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