A feuilleton about the heroes of “The Sopranos” series, characters who they interpreted, and their life stories. In the 7th article, the lead role is played by Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri, performed by the surreal New York tomboy and actor – late Tony Sirico.
Paulie Gualtieri doesn’t really exist. The entire text, dedicated to Tony Sirico, will be proof of this bold claim, which, I believe, at the end of the text, you will not perceive as pretentious. This thesis does not take away a single spark from the magic of Siriko’s acting, on the contrary, with his appearance, authenticity, gestures, and facial expressions, he gave the legendary HBO drama a hero that even the best writer and screenwriter could not create.
New York in the forties. The “New York at War” march on Fifth Avenue aimed at strengthening mobilization in World War II. Half a million people are on the streets, all under the patronage of Fiorello La Guardia, the ninety-ninth mayor of the “Big Apple”. Today, one of the busiest American airports bears his name. The hot asphalt of poor New York, in which flowers rarely sprouted between the pavements, but rather weeds and ponceau flowers, in those years, seemed to have given birth to even harder offshoots of the school of its streets, among them Tony Sirico.
Growing up Italian-American in the working-class neighborhoods of Brooklyn was more of a steeling for the uncompromising life that follows, than a life course that gave different choices, although this claim is denied by his brother Robert, who became a priest.
New York’s hot asphalt
Tony tried to try his hand at construction, but at the time it was like paying a lotto ticket that you don’t even check after the lottery. Armed robberies, extortions, and violent behavior begin, all this during the reign of the Colombo family, under the leadership of Carmine Persico. However, Sirico was more connected to the mafia than he was an integral part of it. “I can’t accept to take orders”, was the remark that he used to explain his decision.
Violence was not only a business but also a lifestyle. In New York, each neighborhood had its own team, which managed and defended local corners and blocks. Tony’s team specifically fought with the Irish and African Americans. The first wounds date back to the seventies. He was shot on the steps of Brendan Cathedral in the Bronx. The wrong people walked into the wrong neighborhood. A problem.
At that time, married and with two children, he fell in love. Madly in love. Many loves have been post-festum characterized as wrong, but this one truly lived up to that epithet. He got a divorce, and after three months his lover became his second wife. Jealousy and possessiveness only added to the New York mentality, where every second is a new testimony.
At the thought of someone else looking at her, he was ready to kill. One evening in Brooklyn, in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, he was smoking a cigarette in the “Joe’s Clam” bar, and through the shop window, he watched as a street vendor convinced his wife to buy something. He came out, beat him up, and threw him into the river shallows. He never found out what happened to him. She was kissing him and hugging him. Yes, it is that harsh time, sung in numerous gangster movies.
The time is coming to collect debts. He gets arrested, and the woman he was ready to give his life to leaves him. Prison is a pretty bad place to repair emotional shipwrecks. No one visits him, and his heart is still causing the arrhythmia. He was a dangerous kid for those first six months in prison, until one morning when it was over. The most beautiful day of his life was the end of that unhappy love.
He was arrested 28 times, and for his misdeeds, he was imprisoned in almost all New York penal institutions – 20 months in Sing Sing, Auburn, and Walkie. If you’re wondering why he compulsively holds his hands in front of him in The Sopranos, you have the answer. In prison, you always have to be prepared that someone might attack you. He was never afraid of death, for a good part of his life he even was teasing it, as if he wanted to die. Fortunately, he didn’t, because no one could even invent Paulie, let alone act it out.
At one time he was the owner of a disco in Manhattan. Michale Imperioli and before him, David Proval when he was 15 years old, were seeing him. Many shied away from him.
Gennaro Anthony Sirico Junior. In an interview back in the nineties, he seems to have figured out the genesis of his nihilism and misanthropy, “I’m still nicknamed Junior, and I’m 55 years old. Would you be satisfied with it?” Then, among other things, he said that he was most afraid of loneliness, and when asked if he would kill someone for a million dollars, he briefly said, “I don’t need money.” Speaking of loneliness, fate brought irony with it, and the character of Paulie was the loneliest and most isolated character of the entire series.
The opportunity to act comes quite by chance, as with most actors in the cult series. He got his first role with the help of Richard Castellano, an actor and nephew of mob boss Paul Castellano. Acting itself did not come by chance, he devoted almost four years of his life to it. Michael Gazzo, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather II, was his first teacher. He made his acting debut in the film Crazy Joe, about the eponymous eccentric criminal Joey Gallo, directed by Carlo Lizzani and produced by the famous Dino De Laurentis. An opus without excessive mathematics – a gangster. Goodfellas, Fingers, Innocent Blood, Gotti, Mickey Blue Eyes… (41 titles in total). Woody Allen brings eclecticism to his acting style, to whom he becomes a favorite and an almost regular episode star.
During the audition for The Sopranos, he read for the role of Corrado Soprano, for which his manager signed him up. His casting companion and competition for the role was Frank Vincent. He didn’t get through to David Chase, who the day before had already been bewitched by Chianase, but he got under his skin so much that he promised to write a role for him. Turns out he didn’t even have to. Tony did it for him. Interestingly, it was Sirico who told Dominic Chianese that he got the part, even though it was supposed to be done by Chase. The tradition in the series was continued by Chianese who told Hugo, Tony’s father-in-law, that they were preparing a birthday surprise for him.
Sirico had only one condition – that his character should never be an informant. It turned out that there will be many, many more conditions during the eight-year epopee.
Acting. Sirico made it clear to his superiors immediately how things stood. “What you see is what you get.” Those very words. He practiced for his role for hours in front of a mirror at his home, and when the screenwriters tried to make certain changes in the dialogue later, he would just hiss “sorry it’s locked in”.
He is, I believe, one of the few, if not the only character that a whole new series could be based on, that wouldn’t even have to have anything to do with the mafia. The topic could be his everyday life, his work, arguing with people in the supermarket over the last bread on the shelf, bugging the worker at the car wash because of a fogged window, you can continue the list yourself.
Tony Sirico’s hair started to turn grey even before the first season. He was actually almost completely gray. The famous “wings” on the side were actually the color of his natural hair, while he dyed the rest of it. It’s an open secret that a Brooklyn barber was in charge of this delicate job. Why delicate? The reason is that if someone were to touch his hair, there would be heads flying. Hence, soon this hair-coloring ritual itself was exclusively under his jurisdiction. “Wings” are his brainchild.
You add up all your mortal sins and multiply that number by 50. Then you add up all your venial sins and multiply that by 25. You add that together and that’s your sentence. I figure I’m gonna have to do 6,000 years before I get accepted into heaven and 6,000 years is nothin’ in eternity terms.Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri
The size was controlled only by the detailer David Chase, so the aging of Paulie “Walnuts” was followed by his sideburns, becoming bigger and bigger.
In the “Pine Barrens” episode, according to the memory of Terry Winter, who wrote the most episodes after David Chase, the entire crew on the set had to beg Sirico to let them mess up Paulie’s hair for the scenes with Moltisanti, and the costume designer Juliet Polska, who used to buy his clothes at the “Garage” shop in Jersey also had similar experiences with him.
Life and Scenario
Mysophobia, or the pathological fear of germs and contamination, is a separate story. After 9/11, the fear of using anthrax increased in America. Such threats mostly came to TV networks in New York. Tony was convinced that he was next. In his mind, he was the second target in the attempt to overthrow Western Civilization! At the time, he had an assistant who brought him a mail with rubber gloves, and Pauly then microwaved it for a certain amount of time. In Tony Sirico’s world, that should have neutralized anthrax. This recipe was used until the moment when his stove burned down.
Remember the iconic scene when Patsy Parisi brings Tony a fur coat for Carmela? The whole team in the office in Bingo together, a checkered tablecloth, pasta, Chianti, Brunello, and salads on it. And Paulie’s famous theory about unwashed hands and wet shoelaces. Now you know where this story comes from, as well as the fact that he was always in a cloud of (excessive) perfume, due to his sensitivity to smells.
Imagine Paulie in the time of covid, what kind of a circus would that be? He would spray strippers with disinfectant at Bada Bing.
In addition to the fact that there was never a chance for him to be a “mole”, Tony’s codex became an integral part of the script. In one scene, corrupt detective Vin Makazian refers to Tony Soprano as “a thug and a lunatic.” The first epithet had to fly from the script, while the second one was accepted by Sirico stoically. He also had a problem with strangling his mother’s nursing home friend, Min Matron. He felt that the act was portraying him in a bad light, so he complained to Chase, and they somehow ended up coming to terms with him suffocating her with a pillow.
The moment Terence Winter became part of the team, Tony approached him and made it clear to what limit his writing creativity could go. “Don’t even think of killing me, if I die, you die, understand?”. No one was as afraid for his role as he was for Paulie. For a while, the first echelon of directors even made fake scenarios in which Paulie dies, but Tony soon realized that it was just a joke. Partly because he thought it could only be a joke.
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Director Allen Coulter said that Tony loved being in front of the camera. On one occasion, he filmed a short scene with Paulie in Bada Bing. After that was filmed, Coulter began preparing another scene in which Paulie was no longer in the frame. While he is recording, he gets a feeling that something is not right. He turns, and in the corridor behind the half-closed door, Sirico is peeping. “I’m sorry Tony, but we’re filming, you shouldn’t be here.” In vain, Coulter gave up, and Tony continued to watch the rest of the filming
His famous remarks, full of sarcasm and twisted humor, still ring in the heads of fans of this series.
That’s him. Steve Schirripa (Bobby Bacallieri) was “harassed” from their first scene together. When the recording of the same, in which Tony makes fun of Bobby’s weight, ended, Bobby spits on the sidewalk with an expletive. The first thing that Tony, not knowing him, said was “you spit on Tony, you won’t be in the series for long”. When he ran into Steve’s wife he told her “If he ever gets hit by a bus, first give me a call”.
Moltisanti: He’s out there and gonna kill us. Paulie: With what, his cock?
“You give this guy a golf club, he’d probably try to fuck it”.
“When I was a kid, you two were old ladies. Now I’m old. And you two are still old.”Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri
It’s no wonder that in the episode “The Ride”, Schirripa pounced on Paulie so powerfully, everything came together for him and helped make the scene so impressive. Sirico had to say “take it easy, take it easy” a couple of times. Michael Imperioli paired similar memories with Schirripa. When he met him in New York after filming the series, Sirico said like out of the blue “I saw your girlfriend, she works, you do not”.
Should I add that to a fan in a wheelchair in Atlantic City, he wrote a dedication “To Louie, the best handicapper around”. Do you know what is the most genius thing of all, what is the silver note and the rarity of the whole saga of Tony Sirico? Everyone loved him – both colleagues and the audience, as evidenced by the sea of fans around the world. Even though he was petty, arrogant and irritating. Honesty is such a confusing currency today, that it’s disarming even when it doesn’t caress your face.
“Guy is the guy”
Whenever there was a hole in Paulie’s frame the writers of the series filled the picture with Tony. In one episode, the scene is set in his apartment. They wondered what does Paulie’s room look like? At one point Chase just said: “the guy is the guy, let’s just go to Siriko’s apartment and copy him”. They just removed a photo with Gandolfini, memorabilia like Frank Sinatra’s autograph, and a baseball bat. Everything else is a faithful depiction.
Tony Sirico and Vincent Curatola once sat at the Four Seasons Hotel at a sponsored event. At one point, Curatola noticed a shadow above him, and soon a hand over his shoulder. It was John Major, who was defeated by Tony Blair at the time. He paid hearty compliments to Curatola and turned to Sirico, who was not in the mood. At Curatola’s request to turn around, he growled “what the fuck he wants.” Vincent, embarrassed continues to try with “Tony, please stand up, this is the Prime Minister of Great Britain”. Yes, it looks like that, Tony replies and stays in his chair. When he finally begged him for the third time, Sirico got up, reluctantly stated “yes, it’s you”, and returned to his seat.
How many iconic scenes with Paulie are now in the golden annals of cinematography, our memories, our emotions? Perhaps the most impressive is the last shot with him in front of the Satriales butcher shop.
A fitting depiction of a life full of crime, violence, and decadence. Loneliness, emptiness, fear. He and Tony, and later only him, with the cat, which was a phenomenon he could not organically tolerate. Now you know that there were two Tony’s sitting in that scene. Fortunately, one is still with us, and the other is also here with us, at least for those who believe that even death does not have a monopoly of power over some great things. Some people call it eternity. One day, Tony Sirico will also have that halo.
Pavle Jakšić | Vitraž
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Cover ilustration: Tom Ralston