‘The Lowest Form of Conversation’

David Chase remembers Tony Sirico.

Photo: Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo

Tony Sirico’s authenticity was not an act. His performance as the pontificating, hot-tempered Paulie Walnuts on David Chase’s The Sopranos stood out amid one of the most formidable casts in television, and while some of the performers were mob-adjacent or claimed to be, Sirico was the only principal cast member who came straight out of the world depicted on the show and had the record to prove it.

Raised in Flatbush and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he was arrested at age 7 for stealing nickels from a newsstand and was arrested another 27 times after that for offenses including assault, robbery, and weapons possession. He once got shot in the leg after getting caught making out with the girlfriend of a rival crew member on the steps of a church. Sirico fell in love with acting in the early ’70s after watching a traveling theater troupe perform in Sing Sing prison, where he was doing a stint for extortion, coercion, and felony weapons possession. He landed a bit part in 1974’s Crazy Joe and studied acting with Michael V. Gazzo, who played Frank Pentangeli in The Godfather Part II. He was usually typecast as mobsters and various flavors of hoodlum, but some of the films were good, and a few were classics — including Goodfellas, which provided several principal cast members to the HBO drama that would make Sirico a star in his fifth decade of life.

Sirico died last week at 79 after nearly five decades as a screen actor. David Chase asked if he could share some stories about him.

I offer my deepest condolences on your loss.
I offer my deepest condolences on your loss. The loss of Tony is your loss as much as mine. We all loved him. He was one of a kind.

It’s funny. I was thinking about him the day before he died. He was a reason for the success of the show. Not the main reason or the only reason, but he was really important. People loved him.

They sure did.
I personally got more laughs from watching that guy than I did from most of the big comedians of that time. I was talking with Michael Imperioli about him after I heard the news and I said, “That moment in ‘Pine Barrens’ when he lost his shoe was hysterical.” I mean, it was all hysterical. Any scene with two of those guys together was hysterical. Tony and Michael were one of the great comedy teams.

When I heard Tony died, all I could think about was the scene in “From Where to Eternity” — which Michael wrote — where Paulie is in the hospital after Christopher has been shot. He tells Christopher that he’s not worried about purgatory, because he’s assigned a numeric value to all his mortal and venial sins and concluded that he’s gonna have to do 6,000 years, and that’s okay because “6,000 years is nothin’ in eternity terms. I can do that standing on my head. It’s like a couple of days here.”
[Laughs.] That was great! His delivery of that was just great. Another one I like is him ranting about shoelaces. “You ever go to tie your shoes and you notice the end of your laces are wet? Come on, why would they be wet?”

Yes! And then praising women’s bathroom maintenance: “So clean you could eat maple walnut ice cream off the toilet.”
Ohhh! Oh, God. He was perfect.

I’m very happy for him that in his 50s and 60s, he got to see how talented he was and how much people loved him. His part in the pilot was small. Do you even remember what it was? Just one line. “Hey, T — Dick Barone wants to see ya.” But the way he said it, it was funny.

Tonight I was reading some of the pieces about his time on the show, and they reminded me of things I’d forgotten. One of them was that Tony read for Uncle Junior. After he read, I called him up and said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. What do you want first?” He said, “Gimme the bad news.” I said, “The bad news is, we went with somebody else for Junior. The good news is, I had this idea for a new character named Paulie Walnuts, and I’d love for you to play him. What do you think?” And he said yes. And that’s how he ended up with one line in the pilot.

Over the years, you and the other writers kept giving him more and more stuff, leaning on him more.
I didn’t think of it as leaning on him as much as just taking advantage of this incredible talent. We would have been foolish not to have given him as much material as we could justify.

And now I’m thinking about that story line where Paulie finds out the woman he thought was his mother wasn’t his mother. He was great! And that was a pretty dramatic story line. He was haunting. There was something subconscious that Tony had, the way he approached things. I can’t explain what it was. I’m not sure he understood it himself. I’m not sure that he even knew that he had it.

You know, he used to direct the other actors.

On set?

What would he say?
“No, no, listen to me: Say it like this!”

Did they complain?
Not really. Well, a few people did. But not that many.

What was his relationship like with James Gandolfini?
He and Jim were close. They went to Iraq together during the war, to visit the troops.

Was that for the documentary Jim directed, Alive Day?
Well, there was some footage in the documentary of them visiting, but I don’t think they went there for that reason. Jim just wanted to go over there, for the troops, and Tony wanted to go with him. And so they went.

What was it like talking to Tony about the role of Paulie? What kind of questions did he ask?
He never asked me anything! At least I can’t remember him ever asking me anything. [Laughs] He wasn’t the kind of actor who had a lot of questions about his character!

I will say, Tony was part of one of the greatest casts of all time. It was certainly the greatest cast I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some incredible casts. But he was the only one who ever asked me to have a line changed. And I did it.

What was the line?
Another character was talking about Paulie, and they said he was a bully. Tony didn’t like that. He asked me to take the word “bully” out of there. And I did.

What’d you change it to?
I don’t recall. The important thing is, he didn’t like that word. He didn’t like it at all.

Given his past, maybe the word struck a nerve.
Yeah. I wonder if that had something to do with why he was so sensitive about it. Maybe he had been a bully as a young man. I’ve seen a picture of him as a young man standing out in the street next to a parking meter with a tank top on. Flexing his muscles, you know. He looked the part.

He would put on disguises and rob card games and rob drug dealers. One of his busts was for trying to stick up the same place twice while wearing the same blond wig.
He told me some stories, oh my God. He told me one time that he never went to Manhattan until he was 18 years old. He was from Brooklyn, so he stayed in Brooklyn. Well, finally, one day, his girlfriend ran off to Manhattan, so he and a bunch of his friends went into Manhattan looking for her, and they ended up at the San Remo bar in Manhattan and hung out there for a while. He told me, “We said to the owner, ‘We’re taking over this bar now. You go into the back, sit down and shut up.’” And they took over that bar.

People always ask me, “What is it like killing a character off?” It’s difficult, because it means they aren’t gonna be on the show anymore. It was never easy for me. It certainly wasn’t pleasant. But I tried to keep in mind that this was a show about the mob, and people in the mob get killed. One of the actors who was really, really into it was Al Sapienza. When he found out his character was going, he tried to find a way out of it. “Well, maybe I could do this. Maybe I could do that.” He couldn’t stop.

Then we were having a read-through of the episode where his character dies, and Sirico comes into the room, and Sapienza is already sitting there, distraught, and Sirico stands there, looks at him, makes a pistol with his finger, and does a machine-gun noise, like, “DAT DAT DAT DAT DAT DAT!” [Laughs.] Sapienza was just about ready to cry. He was that upset.

[Laughs] “Remember when is the lowest form of conversation.”

Yes! Tony Soprano tells Paulie that in “Remember When.”
Because Paulie was constantly telling Tony, “Hey, T — remember this, remember that?” And now here we are, doing “remember when”! [Laughs]

But now I’m thinking about Tony and Michael again. That scene where the two of them kill the waiter who comes out complaining about the tip they left! That’s supposed to be funny, and you gotta laugh. In the real world, if we heard that some mobster from Queens shot a waiter, we wouldn’t be laughing. The act is not funny. It’s horrifying. The two characters and their reactions are what’s funny.

They act like it’s a perfectly normal thing for a couple of guys who’ve just had dinner to do. Tony Sirico was a master at playing that kind of moment. He never let the audience know he was in on the joke, or that he even knew that there was a joke.
That’s true. Paulie didn’t have that kind of awareness.

Paulie wasn’t like Tony Soprano, who was fully self-aware and tormented as a result. Paulie didn’t even have the level of self-awareness of somebody like Christopher or Big Pussy.
You’re right about that. And now you’re making me think about the scene where Paulie gets the painting of Tony on the horse. [Laughs] Tony’s disturbed by it when he sees it. He goes, “What the fuck?” He’s angry about it.

But to Paulie, it’s a tribute. He loves Tony.
Yeah, he does.

I’ll tell you one last story about Tony. For season one, season two, and season three, at Christmas, Denise and I spent a lot of time going around Manhattan buying gifts for everybody. Now, we didn’t give every single one of the guys a different gift. We’d settle on one gift and that would be the gift. I remember I found a miniature Colt .45, a beautiful thing. We found a Beretta. Cuff links. Really nice stuff. And nobody ever said thank you! I just got tired of that, so after a while I didn’t give them anything.

Anyway, one time we made a CD of the music from the show. All of the music. It was a four-CD set. And Sirico says to me, “You know what you shoulda done? Remember when you used to do stuff like give us cuff links? That was good. That’s what you shoulda done!”

I lost it. I said, “You never said shit about that! And we fucking never got shit from you!”

He looked stunned. He looked like he was gonna cry.

Two days later, there was a delivery. It was from a store downtown. Some kind of expensive Italian gift shop. It was huge. Just a huge box. It had cologne. Leather goods. There was a Roman or Italian feel to everything in it. And it was from him!

I find myself picturing Tony in the afterlife. That never happens to me when somebody dies! But I picture Tony in the afterlife. I see him.

What is he doing?
Just being himself. I picture other people reacting to him, the way that you and I used to react to him. They’re laughing, but they’re also kind of put off.

What is he wearing?
A tracksuit.

‘The Lowest Form of Conversation’