‘The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts Has a Surprising Origin Story

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Tony Sirico’s criminal past informed his portrayal of Paulie Walnuts, adding authenticity and realism to the character.
  • Paulie Walnuts is a violent thug who fears his mother, as evidenced during his brutal murder of Minn.
  • Tony Sirico’s performance as Paulie Walnuts is remarkable, thanks to his real-life swagger and street smarts.


With the 25th Anniversary of the groundbreaking HBO series The Sopranos fast approaching, it is an excellent time to reflect on some of its best characters. Tony Sirico gave a compelling performance as the anxiety-prone gangster Peter Paul “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri precisely because he lived that life. Until he took the Tony “Stacks” role in Goodfellas, Sirico had a reference sheet for arrests prior to his acting career! He was wise, and this education would prove invaluable to him. His life prior would add an authenticity to the role that some actors could only dream of having and helped Toni Sirico create one of the most memorable characters that television audiences would ever see.

The Sopranos

New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life that affect his mental state, leading him to seek professional psychiatric counseling.

Release Date
January 10, 1999

Main Genre
Drama

Studio
HBO


Who Is Paulie Walnuts in ‘The Sopranos’?

Peter Paul “Pauly Walnuts” Gualtieri was one of Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) right-hand men in the breakthrough HBO series The Sopranos. Paulie is chronically paranoid, violent, and impulsive. His ambition sometimes far exceeds his thinking. At the series’ opening, Paulie Walnuts is a mere soldier in Tony’s army. Still, as it progresses, he eventually rises to the rank of capo regime in the Dimeo Crime Family. His morally dubious character and propensity for violence permeates almost every episode of the show, but perhaps is best illustrated in a scene in which the character kills his mother’s elderly friend, Minn (Fran Anthony).

Believing Minn to have some cash stored away in her apartment, Paulie robs her, breaking the front door lock and entering her residence late one night. After surveying the scene for any sign of Minn, and, with the coast seemingly all clear, he sneaks into her bedroom and tosses the place, looking for the cash. While searching under Minn’s bed, he spies her feet and pops up to greet her. He lies by saying he found her door open and was just dropping off something from his mother, but Minn is no fool. Paulie’s voice becomes menacing, and he asks what she is doing. She tells Paulie she is going to call his mother, which is hilarious given that he’s a murderous mobster who fears his mother. Paulie immediately closes the gap between them and continues trying to lie out of the situation. He tells her to put coffee on, and she declines, telling Paulie that she knows he planned to rob her. They wrestle, and she flees, but Paulie gives chase before strangling the poor old woman that he’s known since childhood. She screams in his face that he “always was a bastard,” before Paulie finally suffocates her to death with a pillow.

This scene encapsulates what Paulie Walnuts is all about; behind the pompadour hair and well-manicured hands, Paulie Walnuts is a violent thug with little to no moral conscience. The paranoia he experiences when being confronted by the fact that his mother will find out what he’s all about drives him to murder a defenseless elderly family friend. The ease with which he does this emphasizes Paulie’s complicated nature. He flits between a dotting son and a monster with such rapidity it’s almost humorous to watch. Yet, despite being so evil, Paulie remains a fan favorite precisely because Tony Sirico is so believable in the role. Toni’s criminal past oozes from every pore and comes out in that “hey, everything all right” tone he adopts until it’s not, and it’s too late. While the real-life actor never murdered an elderly lady, this same past helped prepare the actor to take on the role of Paule Walnuts.

Tony Sirico’s Criminal Past Helped Him Prepare for the Role of Paulie Walnuts

Tony Sirico was born on July 29th in Brooklyn, New York City, to a family of Italian descent and died in July. 8, 2022, at 79 years of age. He was enamored with the gangster life at an early age, similar to what Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) narrates in the opening scenes of Goodfellas, a film Sirico also portrays a gangster named Tony Stacks. Sirico told Uproxx, “I watched them all the time, the way they walked, the cars they drove, the way they approached each other. There was an air about them that was very intriguing, especially to a kid.” According to the Washington Post, the actor had his first brush with the law as a teenager when he was shot in an argument over a girl and subsequently joined the United States Army—the L.A. Times reported on his extensive criminal past with a total of 28 arrests for disorderly conduct, assault, and robbery before taking up acting. He was first tried and convicted as an adult 1967 serving prison time. Three years later, on February 27, 1970, he was arrested at a restaurant, where he was caught with an illegal firearm. In 1971, he was indicted for extortion, coercion, and felony weapons possession and convicted. He was sentenced to four years as Sing Sing but would only serve 20 months. While in prison, he would be visited by an acting troupe of ex-prisoners, inspiring him to try acting.

Speaking to the L. A Times Sirico explained, “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 them laugh.” His criminal past would go on to inform everything about the character of Paulie Walnuts, from how he commits crimes to the types of crimes his character would commit. Everything about Tony Sirico was from the street and an identity that was so important to him. He had initially auditioned for the role of Uncle Junior but would be offered the role of Paulie instead. Tony Sirico accepted the role that series’ creator David Chase offered him on the condition that the character “would not become a rat.” Even the characters’ body language was informed by the actors’ real-life experiences. With his hands carefully folded in front of his body, Paulie’s iconic stance is an homage to the street guy’s life. In prison, it turns out, it’s always a good idea to have your hands up in case a fight happens, as he told fellow cast member Michael Imperioli on the Talking Sopranos Podcast. Writer and Director James Toback worked with Sirico on his film The Pick-Up Artist and spoke to the realism that the actor brought to the roles. In the L.A. Times, Toback states, “He has that great combination of real-life authenticity and acting craft. And a very mischievous smile. Everything I write seems real when he speaks the lines.”

Tony Sirico is so convincing in the role of Paulie Walnuts that it’s difficult to imagine him as anything but a career gangster breaking legs and picking up envelopes full of cash. The performance is remarkable as Sirico is the perfect man for the job. His real-life swagger and street guy chic are visible in every frame the character occupies. The realism and authenticity of Tony Sirico’s performance is palpable and a product of an education that few can parlay into a legitimate acting career and truly something to behold.

The Sopranos is streaming on Max in the U.S.

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