Remembering Paulie Walnuts

Sopranos Mobster with Silver Wings  

By: - Jul 10, 2022

During the run of HBO’s Sopranos, 1999-2007, what made it so essential, hilarious, and horrific, was the authenticity of mobsters in supporting roles for the leads Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmen or Carm (Edie Falco) Soprano.

Of that madcap menagerie of Mafiosi few were more riveting and iconic than  Paul “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri.

Tony Sirico, who played him died on Friday at 79. No cause of death was given and at the time he resided in an assisted living facility in Florida.

In portraying a hoodlum he was the real deal. Sirico hung with the bad guys and did a couple of stints in the can. At Sing Sing on a beef he was intrigued by a troupe of actors who came to entertain the convicts. He intuited that he could do that. A long apprenticeship of bit parts evolved into supporting roles before the breakout with Sopranos.

During an acting class the director praised his work but told him to keep the gun at home. The reflex of packing was so habitual that he related not being aware that his heater might menace fellow students.

There was such naturalism to his performances that one might posit that he never acted but rather just played himself larger than life.

Fortunately for his career, there is an endless thirst for and fascination with the flashy and violent lifestyle of mobsters. Paulie Walnuts had a veneer of elegance with impeccable suits and seemingly courtly, mannered style. On a dime he could morph into ultra vi and whack anyone in sight. Except ladies and children the actor demurred. Though, in an incident in a nursing home, he smothered an elderly woman who caught him robbing her. It was an exception to his rule and he agonized about how it went down back in the hood.

Being half Sicilian I am intrigued by Cosa Nostra but grew up far from that life. I know of it only as a voyeur and tourist.

It might have been different. When my parents were young doctors practicing in Brooklyn there was a knock on the door late at night. Some wiseguys wanted him to stitch up some bullet holes. Dad was pure Sicilian and they wanted to recruit him. Come on Doc, just do us a little favor now and then. That was the pitch and things would fall off the back of the truck.

In a cold sweat he refused and they never knocked again.

Now and then that side of me pops up. Like when I beat up the snotty kid who called me a wop at the yacht club. I did have my own gang but we just partied, drank beer, and danced to Little Richard.

Mobster sobriquets are intriguing. Like Soprano’s Big Pussy, or the mobsters Al Scarface Capone, Teflon Don, Sammy The Bull Granvano, Philip The Chicken Man Testa, Joe Bananas Bonnano, or Vincent The Chin Gigante.

It seems that Paulie’s character heisted a truck that he though had a cargo of televisions. Instead it was full of nuts. Hence Paulie Walnuts.

His signature, logo and icon entailed the slicked back silver wings of his hair. On the set he blow-dried, sprayed, and set it himself. It was a signature touch evoking the look of Mercury the messenger of the gods.

There are so many memorable scenes from the Sopranos.

Tony took his top capos for a sit down with the mob in Naples. It proved that the crew was led by an elegant lady who flirted with Tony. During negotiations she invited Tony’s group to a gourmet restaurant.

They were served a delicacy spaghetti al nero di sepia. I first had it for lunch in Sienna waiting seemingly forever for it to arrive. It was served with tiny clams swathed in rich squid ink. To this day I recall that exotic dish.

But Paulie will have none of it. “I can’t eat this shit” he says in a rant, demanding that the waiter bring him “spaghetti and gravy.” In Napolitano dialect (with subtitles) the waiters diss Paulie “These thugs think they’re Italian.”

How apt. Like the snickers in Italy when I say that my name is Giuliano. In Sicily its famous for Salvatore the Robin Hood bandito who was assassinated. I saw a wonderful film about him and was thrilled when in the mountains followers cried out to him “Giuliano, Giuliano, Giuliano.”

Although strangers insist on calling me Giuliani. Which is an insult.

In the best ever Sopranos episode Paulie and Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) get stranded in the woods with a car that’s out of gas. Their cell phones have run down and they are forced to spend a cold night. There is a blanket they manage to share and some condiments left from a Big Mac. They fight over a couple of packets of ketchup and relish. Paulie devours his share as though it’s a condemned prisoner’s last meal.

At first light they are rescued by a retainer in full hunter’s camouflage gear. Which in itself was a hoot.

Sirico appeared in “Goodfellas” “Dead Presidents” and “Deconstructing Harry.” Among his other credits were Woody Allen films including “Bullets over Broadway” and “Mighty Aphrodite,” and appearances on TV series including “Miami Vice” and voice roles on “Family Guy” and “American Dad!”

He will be fondly remembered primarily for his Paulie Walnuts. Through fame and fortune he got to live the lush life of a made man without having to make his bones.

Or, let’s hope not.