Tony Sirico (1942-2022)
There’s an old story about how a railroad outfit has a dead engine, so they have the company that made the engine send a guy out to fix it. The guy spends a lot of time examining the engine, then he reaches into his tool bag and pulls out a tiny hammer, climbs under the engine and the railroad guys hear a small little “Tink!” The repair guy comes out and hands them a bill for $10,000. The railroad guys are livid! “Ten thousand bucks for one tap!” “Nope,” the guy says, “the tap was free. The ten thousand is for knowing where to tap.”
We lost another “tough guy” this month: Tony Sirico. As an actor, one would be hard put to put him in the same league as such other recent departures as Ray Liotta and James Caan, but if Sirico could only do one thing, he “tapped” just the right spot like nobody else.
Sirico’s tough-guy image was no put-on. In his neighborhood, he once told an interviewer, “You either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole. I had both.” He was busted by the cops more than once, did time more than once. It seems only fitting, then, that he caught the acting bug watching a performance by a group of ex-cons.
He didn’t mind playing hoods, and the few times he played a cop it was a crooked cop. He didn’t have an extraordinary range, and the only difference between his comedic and his dramatic roles seemed to be the dialogue he was given and how loud he’d be. But the thing is, like a lot of the most memorable character actors, the one thing he did nobody else could do, and that one thing was unique enough to carry him through appearances in almost sixty movies and a pile of TV appearances ranging from Miami Vice to the kids’ cartoon series, Fairly OddParents.
Of course, the role for which he’ll always be remembered is “Paulie Walnuts” on The Sopranos. Sirico knew he had gold in his hands the day he auditioned: “This is what I’d been looking for all my life.”
There’s an old photo of Sirico floating around the internet from his younger days; in trunks on a beach, showing off a lean, muscled body. Sirico brought that same flash and flare and swagger to Paulie with his wardrobe of expensive sweat suits. He may have been no Laurence Olivier, but Olivier never could’ve done Paulie Walnuts.
The one and only Paulie Gualtieri. pic.twitter.com/Fktq0285lj— sopranos clips (@sopranosclips) July 8, 2022
For me, there’s something a bit sadder than losing someone who was fun to watch on the big or little screen. When David Chase created The Sopranos, he put together the best gangster ensemble outside of the Scorseseverse. Tony Sirico joins James Gandolfini and Nancy Marchand, along with those who had a short stint on the show that are also gone: Ron Liebman, Robert Loggia, Burt Young. Some of the other cast members, well, they’re getting up there in years.
Whether you’re doing Friends, The Sopranos, or The Usual Suspects (1995), getting the cast chemistry right, especially in a large ensemble, is – to use a tired cliché – like capturing lightning in a bottle. There’s no science to it, no formula. But when a movie or a TV show gets it right, and all the pieces, large and small, lock together perfectly, well that’s part of what makes some classics classic, and you learn to appreciate that the Siricos are as much a part of making that bigger thing work as the Gandolfinis.
In that large orchestra that Chase put together, Sirico may have only had a few notes to play, but he played them beautifully.
- Bill Mesce