‘The Sopranos’: How the Late Tony Sirico Took the Show to Another Level

by Craig Garrett

The death of Tony Sirico has reminded viewers that his portrayal as Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri was a key ingredient in The Sopranos‘ success. Paulie was one of the few remaining members of Tony Soprano’s criminal organization when the TV series ended in 2007. His temper, erratic conduct, and unexpected spirituality made him a fan favorite.

Tony Sirico was a Brooklyn native that came of age in the 1940s. Tony ran with some tough crowds and did some time. However, he was able to turn his life around by performing. He had an epiphany while serving time in the 1970s. A group of ex-con performers inspired him. Before Sopranos, Tony’s most high-profile appearance was in Sly Stallone’s Copland in 1997. Sirico was also an uncredited extra in the Godfather franchise. Sirico even appeared in the gangster classic, Goodfellas.

How Tony Sirico’s Paulie added a rare dynamic to a gangster show

Tony Sirico’s casting definitely informed the character of Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri. He was an admitted “pistol-packing guy” that added an air of authenticity to the show. However, dwelling on his past does a disservice to just how great of an actor Sirico was. He was able to personify Paulie as a volatile and unpredictable hoodlum who was also amusing and deeply sensitive. The dynamic was perfect to explore the themes of early 21st-century masculinity. One of the most popular series ever made, The Sopranos was also groundbreaking in its depiction of family, generational conflict, and mental illness.

What people frequently overlook about The Sopranos is how sharp the humor was. Of course, a lot of it is due to Tony Sirico’s Paulie and Michael Imperioli’s Christopher. The two actors had great chemistry and comedic timing together.

A fan-favorite episode of The Sopranos showcases Paulie

One of the most fan-beloved episodes of The Sopranos is the season 3 episode, “Pine Barrens”. It focuses on the hapless Paulie and Christopher as they fail to take out a hit on a tough Russian. The story leads to the two men stranded in the wilderness, hungry, freezing, and afraid. It has maybe one of the most laugh-out-loud moments in the series’ history. Tony Sirico and Imperioli’s characters fight over packets of condiments they find in a glove compartment. It’s just one example of the hilarious comedy found across The Sopranos‘ run. “Pine Barrens” emphasizes just how complex and brilliant it was.

Family Guy creator Seth McFarlene clearly recognized Tony Sirico’s comic chops. Sirico appeared in MacFarlane’s shows Family Guy and American Dad. The Paulie character has also been embraced by the internet. His image is frequently used in memes to this day. Although inspiring memes are a footnote in Tony Sirico’s career, it does demonstrate how The Sopranos continues to influence culture.