Tony Sirico has died at the age of 79. The actor, whose most enduring role was that of mobster “Paulie Walnuts” on HBO’s The Sopranos, passed away on Friday of undisclosed causes at an assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Sirico played roles in a number of well-known films, including Goodfellas, Mighty Aprhodite, Bullets Over Broadway, and Mickey Blue Eyes before being tapped for his best-known role. He was offered the role of Paulie Walnuts after initially auditioning to play the part of Uncle Junior in the Sopranos series. Afterwards. Sirico was seen in Lilyhammer, The Grinder, and Family Guy.
Sirico grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where, as he put it, “every guy was trying to prove himself. You either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole.” His real-life experiences may have prepared him for his tough-guy roles: in the 1970s, the young Sirico spent several years at Sing Sing after being convicted of extortion, coercion, and felony weapons possession.
He later said he was inspired to be an actor while he was incarcerated, after witnessing a performance by a troupe of ex-cons. As he recalled, “I watched ’em and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ I knew I wasn’t bad looking. And I knew I had the (guts) to stand up and (bull) people. You get a lot of practice in prison. I used to stand up in front of these cold-blooded murderers and kidnappers — and make ’em laugh.”
As news of his death circulated, Sirico’s co-star Michael Imperioli posted this tribute on Instagram: “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.”
Imperioli continued: “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.”
Another heartfelt tribute came from Michael Gandolfini, the son of Sopranos star James Gandolfini: “Tony Sirico was one of the kindest, fiercely loyal, and heartfelt men that I’ve ever known. He was always Uncle Tony to me, and Tony always showed up for me and my family. I’ll deeply miss his pinches on my cheek, and his infectious laugh. He was a phenomenal actor and an even better man.”
Sirico is survived by daughter Joanne Sirico Bello and son Richard Sirico. Also surviving is his brother, Rev. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest.