Hollywood bids farewell to three greats united by mafia films and friendship

Tony Sirico, Ray Liotta and James Caan helped to define the modern mob movie

Tributes to Tony Sirico, the actor who played Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri in the TV drama The Sopranos, have poured in after the announcement of his death at the age of 79.

He is the third recent loss among actors who became famous for their portrayal of villains in defining fictional depictions of mob life, following the deaths of James Caan, who starred in The Godfather, and Ray Liotta, who appeared in Goodfellas and the Sopranos prequel film The Many Saints of Newark.

In one online tribute, a producer of The Simpsons, Al Jean, joked on Saturday that the trio would now be having a “sitdown in heaven”.

The three actors were revered in the industry, particularly for their portrayals of deeply unsavoury characters on the big screen; they often appeared together in public.

The trio were also united by one similarity in their backgrounds: each had expressed little interest in acting in their youths and pursued different early careers before changing tack. However, Sirico – unlike Caan and Liotta, who both went to university – had a background entirely in keeping with violent hoodlum that he played in The Sopranos.

Sirico appeared in all six seasons of the series which ran from 1999 until 2007, playing the vicious, paranoid but loyal henchman to James Gandolfini’s mob boss Tony Soprano.

Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Sirico left high school without graduating and began work in construction, where he “started running with the wrong type of guys”, as he later put it. In 1970, he was arrested and found to be carrying a revolver.

Caan, in black tie, talks to Pacino, in military uniform, in a scene from the film
James Caan, right, with Al Pacino, in The Godfather. Photograph: Paramount Pictures/Allstar

A year later, he was indicted for extortion, coercion, and criminal possession of a weapon, and was sentenced to four years in prison, of which he served 20 months in the infamous Sing Sing prison. It was there, he said, that he saw a travelling troupe of ex-cons called the Theater for the Forgotten and decided that would be his new calling.

He appeared in a series of minor roles on TV and films before landing roles in Cop Land and Dead Presidents. However, it was his character in The Sopranos that brought him global fame, playing Paul Gualtieri – nicknamed, Paulie ‘Walnuts’, so called because he once hijacked a truck full of nuts in the mistaken belief it contained television sets. Paulie was phobic about germs, hated cats, and loved his mother even though she was really his aunt.

In addition to his Sopranos role Sirico (who died at an assisted-living facility in Florida, having had dementia for several years) appeared in a host of gangster films including Mob Queen, Fingers, The Last Fight – and Goodfellas. This last film, directed by Martin Scorsese, featured Liotta in his greatest role, as gangster Henry Hill, playing opposite Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

Liotta later turned down the chance to appear in The Sopranos, as mobster Ralphie Cifaretto, on the grounds that “I didn’t want to do another mafia thing.” However, he got a chance to join the franchise in 2021 when he starred in The Many Saints Of Newark.

Liotta in a white suit, black shirt  and white tie, talks to someone off camera, flanked by two hemchmen in black suits
Ray Liotta , centre, in his craeer-defining role as Henry Hill in Goodfellas. Photograph: Warner Bros./Barry Wetcher/Allstar

Liotta, the adopted son of a town clerk and a car parts store owner, died in his sleep while on location in the Dominican Republic while he was making the movie Dangerous Waters.

The origin of all modern mobster sagas is generally said to be The Godfather, the 1972 blockbuster directed by Francis Ford Coppola – a film that earned Caan an Oscar nomination for his performance as Sonny Corleone, the hot-headed son of Marlon Brando’s mafia don.

Intriguingly, the franchise also gave Sirico one of his first chances to appear on screen. He has an uncredited walk-on part in The Godfather: Part II, in which Caan also appears. The pair later became close friends.

“He’s been able to romanticise his past, throw in a few bangles and sparkles and use it as an actor,” Caan once said of Sirico. “What you see is really him – he just adds a little pepper, a little cayenne, to spice it up.”


Robin McKie

The GuardianTramp

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