He played a badass mobster who took no sh*t.
And in many ways, Tony Sirico was not that different from his iconic Sopranos character thanks to his no-nonsense attitude and real-life brushes with the law.
The legendary star, who played Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri in the HBO show, used to give Jimi Hendrix 'wedgies', refused to let anyone touch his hair, and had the same taste in women as Welsh singer Tom Jones.
He was also once gunned down in a new white suit after being caught kissing another man’s woman.
He had his “tongue deep down in her soul” outside a church when the pair were spotted by a rival group.
Sirico was shot in the leg, but that was the least of his concerns.
“When I saw the blood all over my new white suit, I just went crazy,” he told the LA Times in 1990.
“I start running towards their car. All I could think of was how they ruined my suit… then they shot me again, this time in the back.”
It wasn’t the first time – or the last – Sirico was busted doing something he shouldn’t.
And so when Sirico, now 78, told one of The Sopranos writers: “If you ever write a script where I die? First, I die. Then you die'” – they obliged.
He was 55, living with his mother and sleeping on her sofa when he auditioned for the show.
He originally read for the part of Junior.
“About an hour after I got home, I got a call from [producer] David Chase,” Sirico recalled.
“He said, ‘You want the good news or the bad news?’ I said, ‘Give me the bad news.’ He said, ‘You didn’t get Uncle Junior. But I have something in mind. Would you be willing to do a recurring role on the show? I have a character called Paulie Walnuts.’”
Sirico, however, had a make or break rule for his character – he wouldn’t be a rat. This was mainly due to his experiences with gangs growing up.
The star – nicknamed Junior – was born Genaro Anthony Sirico Jr in 1942 and lived in East Flatbush and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, New York, with mum Marie, dad Jerry and brothers Carmine and Robert.
Every guy in his area “was trying to prove himself” and either had a tattoo or a bullet hole – he had both.
He was first arrested aged seven for stealing nickels from a newspaper stand. He went on to be arrested 28 other times with two spells behind bars.
“The first time I went away to prison, they searched me to see if I had a gun – and I had three of ‘em on me," he said.
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“In our neighbourhood, if you weren’t carrying a gun, it was like you were the rabbit during rabbit-hunting season.”
When Sirico got married, the dad-of-two moved away from crime and started working in construction.
However, his life turned upside down when three months after his wedding he fell in love with another woman.
“I was madly in love with this girl, I left my wife for her, I left my two kids for her. Don’t ask me why,” a then-45-year-old Sirico revealed in 1989 documentary, The Big Bang.
He then started “running with the wrong type of guys”.
Sirico went on to be arrested, but the woman – who he hasn’t named – abandoned him.
“I used to think when I was in prison ‘how could she have done this to me?’” he said, adding that he agonised over it for six months.
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“And then one morning I woke up and I could breathe again. It was gone, it was all over. The best day of my life was when I fell out of love with that girl.”
Meanwhile, some would say fate led him to acting, thanks to his life of crime.
It was during his last prison stay in the early 1970s, Sirico saw a performance by a group of ex-con actors and 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," said Sirico, who could make his killer inmates laugh.
But he wasn't joking – or acting – when he gave one of The Soprano's writers, Terence Winter, a stern warning about Paulie.
"The first thing Tony Sirico ever said to me — literally on day one — was, ‘You’re the new writer? Let me tell you something. If you ever write a script where I die? First, I die. Then you die.’ I was like, OK,” Winter revealed
And if that message wasn't clear enough, Sirico added: “I’m telling you. Don’t f***ing think about killing me."
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To wind Sirico up, the crew used to create fake scripts pretending Paulie was going to die.
He also became one of the only actors to influence a change in the script. He was “horrified" and "very angry” when he found out another character was going to read a line saying Paulie was a “bully” so it was changed – to “psycho”.
And when he got a script that revealed he had to kill an old woman he begged creator Chase to change it as he was worried about how people from his “tough” neighbourhood would react.
“I said, ‘David, don’t make me kill a woman,’” Sirico recalled before he eventually went on to smother pensioner Minn with a pillow.
“After it was all said and done, I went back to the neighbourhood, and nobody said a word. They loved the show; they didn’t care what we did.”
The character Paulie spent time in prison, shunned married life, battled cancer and adored his mother who later turned out to actually be his aunt.
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He was abrasive and lucky not to have been killed by mob boss Tony Soprano, played by the legendary James Gandolfini, who came very close to bludgeoning him to death on a boat.
The role made Sirico a household name in the US. Fans would follow him to get an autograph, parking wardens would rip up tickets when they realised it was his car, and he’d get numerous freebies.
His hair and white ‘wings’ also became a major talking point. Sirico refused to let anyone touch his hair and styled it himself throughout all six seasons of the show. He would air dry it then spray a cloud of hair spray and let it fall.
“It took him two to three hours to do his hair,” revealed Talking Sopranos podcast host Steven Schrirripa, who played Bobby 'Bacala' Baccalieri in the show.
“If he had a 6 or 7 o’clock call he would get up at 3 in the morning.”
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One of Paulie’s notable mannerisms was always holding his hands in front of him too.
Co-star and Talking Sopranos host Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti, said it was something Sirico had picked up while behind bars.
“It’s a jail thing,” Imperioli said. “You always have your hands at the ready in front of you in case you need to defend yourself from an attack.
“You don’t want your hands behind your back or in your pockets where you can’t use them quickly. That’s what [Sirico] told me.”
Sirico was apparently a germaphobe and paranoid at times, like Paulie, as well.
Imperioli recalled a time when Sirico became so afraid he would be the target of an anthrax attack he got his assistant to collect his mail wearing rubber gloves. The post then went in the microwave in an attempt to “neutralise” it, but instead caused it to go up in flames.
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Sirico also told Imperioli that he was a doorman at a club in the late 60s and he “said he used to give Jimi Hendrix a wedgie” whenever he visited.
The actor was incredibly handsome and fit in his day too and appeared on a “porno mag for women called Viva in the 70s as a cover star,” said Imperioli.
“He was wearing a Freddie Mercury type outfit.”
And recalling another incredible anecdote co-star Schirripa added: “When we went to see Tom Jones in Vegas, we went backstage, we had a little party and Sirico was talking to Tom and it turns out they used to bang the same woman.”
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Meanwhile, Sirico had starred in dozens of films before The Sopranos, mainly playing a gangster or a corrupt cop. He had parts in Goodfellas (as Tony Stacks), Mickey Blue Eyes, Crazy Joe and some Woody Allen films.
"I did small-budget movies, one-liners, commercials, small plays," he said. "I worked hard. I paid my dues.”
Towards the end of The Sopranos, the star was reported to be making $150,000 per episode.
He was nominated seven times for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series – and won it twice.
After The Sopranos ended in 2007, he appeared in a number of short films. He also voiced the character of Vinny the dog in Family Guy, Big Daddy in The Fairly OddParents, and Enzo Perotti in American Dad.
Most recently he was reunited with Sopranos co-stars Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy) and Federico Castelluccio (Furio) in film Sarah Q.
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But he's never let success get to his head.
His mother Marie said in 2000, three years before she died: "He was a b*tch of a kid to raise.
"But The Sopranos has changed my Junior a lot. He's happy now, so he's more attentive when I talk to him. He goes to the stores for me when I say. He cooks too because I'm incapacitated. He's lovable in The Sopranos, but at home Junior's more lovable than Paulie Walnuts.”
When The Sopranos cast was rocked by the death of James Gandolfini aged 51 in 2013, Sirico paid tribute and said: “He was one of my best friends in life. We visited Iraq and Afghanistan together [to film a documentary]. He was like family to me. I love him. I miss him already.”
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Sirico will celebrate his 79th birthday in July, and is now retired and living in Florida.
His brother Rev Robert Sirico, who is a priest in Michigan, told the Daily Star: "Tony is approaching 80 years old and has retired from acting, appearances, and interviews. He moved to Florida from his beloved Brooklyn to be closer to his daughter."
Sirico also appeared at last year’s SopranosCon, dressed in a suit with his famous pinky ring and wearing gleaming white shoes Paulie would be proud of.
Meanwhile, co-star Schirripa said of the icon: “I love Tony Sirico, [when they made him] they threw the mould away.”
And speaking in 2019, Sirico said: “I am Paulie, till I pass.”
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