The Sopranos captivated audiences between 1999 and 2007 and proved to be one of the best shows in TV history. While there are many reasons for its popularity, the authenticity of the HBO series’ characters and story arcs made it about as believable as a fictional show can get. But was it purely fiction? Now, the acting was clearly impeccable. But like The Godfather before it, The Sopranos wasn’t entirely disconnected from the world it portrayed on screen. Tony Sirico, the actor who played Peter Paul « Paulie Walnuts » Gualtieri, didn’t have to look too far to find inspiration for his character.
« When I look in the mirror in the morning, I don’t know if I’m lookin’ at Tony or Paulie, » Sirico told the New York Daily News in 2010. « We got cross-pollinated. » In fact, Sirico’s got such a checkered past of criminal activity that even the most hardened members of The Sopranos‘ DiMeo family would be impressed. From childhood theft to prison time, read on to uncover the truth about Tony Sirico’s life of crime before The Sopranos.
Tony Sirico’s time growing up in Bensonhurst
Tony Sirico was raised in the neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, N.Y. — a place that was home to known mafia activity for years. It was here that The Sopranos actor began forming his wiseguy persona as an admiring child.
« I was a pretty tough kid, » he said in an interview with Cigar Aficionado in 2001. « I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of Mob-type people. I watched them all the time, watched the way they walked, the cars they drove, the way they approached each other. There was an air about them that was very intriguing, especially to a kid. »
Basically, Sirico wears his childhood in Bensonhurst as a badge of honor, and remembered — rather fondly — the dangers of growing up in this clan-oriented neighborhood. « Where I grew up, every guy was trying to prove himself. You either had to have a tattoo or a bullet hole, » he previously told the Los Angeles Times, before adding with a smile, « I had both. »
This Sopranos star was arrested early and often
A product of his environment, Tony Sirico became as rugged as the streets of Bensonhurst. « I always had that itch in my britches to find out who I was, » he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times back in 1990. « I tested my (courage) every night. »
Over time, Sirico figured out exactly who he was. Between approximately 1950 and 1970, the future actor was arrested 28 times. His first bust came when he was just seven years old, after being taken in for stealing nickels from a newsstand. The years that followed saw Sirico arrested for assault, robbery, disorderly conduct, and weapons charges.
« I was a pistol-packing guy, » Sirico told the Los Angeles Times. « 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. They’d ask why I was carrying and I’d say I live in a bad neighborhood. » He added, « It was true. In our neighborhood, if you weren’t carrying a gun, it was like you were the rabbit during rabbit-hunting season. »
Tony Sirico: the stick-up artist
According to Tony Sirico, it wasn’t just Bensonhurst that had an influence on him and his life of crime. In fact, he believes that many of his troubles with the law actually came after he fell in love with a woman who wasn’t his wife. « My life was wrecked, » he revealed to the Los Angeles Times. « I mean wrecked. I forgot I had a wife. A pregnant wife. I forgot I had kids. All I could see was this girl’s face. And what a face. I was madly in love. »
This new infatuation and mindset led Sirico down a dangerous path. « I was very unstable. I wasn’t thinking right, » the actor recalled. « I hooked up with these guys and all of a sudden I’m a stick-up artist. I stuck up every nightclub in New York. »
In a sentencing transcript obtained by The Smoking Gun, prosecutor Gerard Hinckley described some of the apparent threats Sirico made to nightclub owners. Meanwhile, the stick-up artist himself allegedly admitted, « You hit them over the head with a baseball bat, and they come around. » Sirico also reportedly « threw [one club’s] bouncer out the window a few times » and put another place out of business.
Talking to the wrong guy’s girl
In an interview with disgraced writer-director James Toback for the 1989 documentary, The Big Bang, Tony Sirico described how his love for one woman turned him jealous and violent. « I was madly in love with this girl. I mean, I was madly in love with her, » he said, emphasizing the word madly and adding how he’d left his wife and two kids behind to be with her. « I was quiet around her, but the moment somebody would look at her or I would think they were looking at her … I gave a lot of guys beatings. »
Sirico went on to recall one particular night in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. While he was getting cigarettes inside of a bar, a sailor approached his girlfriend to have a chat. « I freaked out. I’m telling you, I freaked out, » he said. « I went outside and I just started wailing on him. I mean I gave him a beating, like I overdid it. » Noting that he « wasn’t right in [his] head » and was « ashamed » of his actions, the actor continued, « When I was done giving him that beating, I threw his body over the rail into the water into the bay, and he hit the boat there. » Sirico revealed he never stuck around to see what happened to the sailor.
Tony Sirico didn’t escape his life of crime unscathed
In Tony Sirico’s New York, he wasn’t the only violent offender. When he was younger, he was shot twice by a rival on the steps of a church. Why? Well, that’s up for debate. The actor described the shooting as a result of a turf war in The Big Bang. « Every couple of blocks had their own bunch of guys, » he said, before delving into his nearly tragic night. « An Irish guy shot me on the church steps of St. Brendan’s Cathedral. That’s where we had the fight. » When asked what they were fighting over, Sirico answered bluntly: « They had walked into our neighborhood. »
However, his story slightly changed the following year during Sirico’s 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times. « I was kissing his girl, » the actor said of the cause for the attack. « I was in no position to do anything, because I have my tongue deep down in her soul. So they go, ‘Boom!’ And shoot me in the leg. When I saw the blood all over my new white suit, I just went crazy. So instead of running away, I start running toward their car! »
Apparently, Sirico’s love of his white suit took over. « All I could think of was how they ruined my suit, » he said. « Luckily, they stepped on the gas and pulled away. But as soon as I turned around, they shot me again, this time in the back. »
Get out of this Soprano star’s hair
While undoubtedly a man of style, it was Tony Sirico’s fashion sense — or apparent senselessness, rather — that landed him in prison for the first time. Well, that and the whole armed robbery thing. « When I would rob a place, I’d be mustached up, wigged up — everything, » he explained to the Los Angeles Times. « I’d wear brown wigs. Blond wigs. In fact, I got busted ’cause I was wearing the wrong wig. »
Going into more detail, The Sopranos actor explained how he got sloppy and mixed up his disguises. « I stuck up this place in a blond wig and blond mustache. I got 30 grand, ’cause they were making great money, » Sirico said. « So I come back the next week — and I’m such an idiot that I forgot what wig I’d been wearing. So I come in wearing the same blond wig and — boom — they welcomed me with open arms and open handcuffs! »
According to Uproxx, the result was a 13-month bid in prison that Sirico began serving in 1967.
Tony Sirico’s last crime
Of all his problems with the law, it was Tony Sirico’s 1971 conviction for a slew of charges that sits atop the list as the most egregious and most costly for him. According to the felony affidavit retrieved by The Smoking Gun, after a run-in with nightclub owner John Addison and police, Sirico was nailed for burglary, coercion, possession of a dangerous weapon, possession of dangerous drugs, and menacing.
In the sentencing transcript, the prosecutor delivered a detailed description of the night in question. The narrative described how Sirico, who was under investigation for some time, was followed by police after leaving the Together Discotheque. After he spotted his police tail, Sirico and company allegedly stopped their car, let the cops go by, and returned the favor, following and eventually forcing the police car into a divider.
Sirico then allegedly returned to Together Discotheque, threatening Addison that « there is going to be a war. » He also reportedly told the club owner, « I’m going to carve my initials in your forehead. » It was shortly after this that police stepped in and arrested the actor. According to The Smoking Gun, Sirico was sentenced to a maximum of four years in prison. He served 20 months.
Sirico’s always been a good actor
Tony Sirico’s got the demeanor, the arrest record, and the stories to paint a picture of a life right out of The Sopranos. Yet, according to some, Sirico was an actor long before he was getting paid as one — meaning, he may have been more talk than action.
Louis Pegno, a man who claims to have run with Sirico, told the New York Post that he often had to fight the actor’s fights for him. « I saved his a** so many times, » he alleged. Meanwhile, the arresting officer on the night that Sirico was taken in on weapons charges, Joe Coffey, claimed that the actor was just pretending to be tough, a wannabe mobster. When he resisted arrest, Coffey allegedly took the gun from Sirico’s waistband and broke his nose with it, making him bleed all down his white suit.
Even Sirico’s friends suggest that Sirico’s been known to stretch real tales into tall ones from time to time. « Listen, Junior was a genuine tough guy, » friend and fellow actor James Caan told the Los Angeles Times. « But in a funny way, now that he’s straight, he can behave like a wise guy. He’s been able to romanticize his past, throw in a few bangles and sparkles and use it as an actor. What you see is really him — he just adds a little pepper, a little cayenne, to spice it up. »
The murder of Bobby Wood
In February 1970, Bobby Wood, the owner of the Salvation nightclub, was shot to death. According to The New York Times, the murder was never solved. The investigation, however, saw a number of people implicated. Per the media outlet, Wood himself accused several people in handwritten letters he wrote before his passing. In addition to claiming that two detectives had extorted money from him and his friends, he also named a dangerous heroin importer and distributor whose estranged wife was in a known relationship with Wood. « Should I meet with a violent death or disappear, » he wrote, « certainly one or a combination of these men are responsible. »
But there were others who implicated themselves in Wood’s murder, including Tony Sirico, according to his sentencing transcript obtained by The Smoking Gun. As a threat to nightclub owner John Addison for not giving him the respect he felt he deserved, Sirico allegedly told him that Bobby Wood once showed him a similar disrespect, « and you saw what happened to him. »
Despite this seemingly self-incriminating threat, former detective John Coffey told the New York Post that « Sirico had nothing to do with it. » He was apparently only delivering one of his patented lines.
The Soprano star’s acting inspiration
While Tony Sirico’s former life of crime has certainly informed his career as an actor, it was actually because of crime that he became an actor at all. When serving time during his longest prison term, Sirico was met with a chance visit.
« One day an acting group came into the ‘college’ I was in at the time. The group was called the Theater of the Forgotten. They were a bunch of ex-cons who came back into the place to entertain the guys, » he recalled in an interview with the Cigar Aficionado. « I saw them, and right there and then I knew what I wanted to do. It just hit me. I said, ‘I can do that.' »
Luckily for Sirico, he knew some people who could help him along. « When I got out I called someone who had been a friend of mine for many years, Richie Castellano, who had played Fat Clemenza in The Godfather, » he said. « I told Richie I wanted to be an actor, and a couple of weeks later he took me by the hand and put me in a movie called Crazy Joe, about the Mobster Joey Gallo. That was close to 29 years ago, and I’ve been an actor ever since. »
Interestingly, Castellano is another actor with alleged mafia ties. According to the actor’s widow’s book, Divine Intervention and a Dash of Magic, Castellano’s uncle was the former Gambino boss, Paul Castellano.
The Christa Helm mystery
The curious and still unsolved murder of Christa Helm has kept people guessing for years. The young Hollywood starlet was found stabbed and bludgeoned to death outside of her agent’s home in 1977. There were, according to 48 Hours Mystery: The Last Take, several persons of interest, many of whom were incredibly high profile.
The episode reveals how Helm hung around with a who’s who of male celebs, including Warren Beatty, Frankie Crocker, Jack Nicholson, and even the Shah of Iran. From her personal escapades, Helm apparently kept some incriminating evidence, including tapes and diaries. For that reason, investigators had a possible motive, especially considering that some of these items went missing. But, of all the names that popped up during the investigation, it was Tony Sirico’s that is perhaps is most intriguing.
Per 48 Hours Mystery, The Sopranos actor was rumored to have been hired to watch over Helm’s roommate for reasons unknown. Though Sirico was not a suspect at the time and has since denied knowing about the murder or the roommate, detectives acknowledge questioning him about the alleged visit he made to Helm’s apartment and the items that apparently went missing afterward.
Is Tony Sirico still connected to his life of crime?
By the time Tony Sirico joined the cast of The Sopranos, it was known that he was a well-connected guy. In an interview with Deadline, Terrence Winter, a writer on the show, recalled his personal knowledge of the actor. « I remember him as Junior Sirico, which was his name back then. Before he went by Tony, he was Junior Sirico and he was this scary mob guy, » he said. « Everybody was aware of him in nightclubs and stuff, and then he was an actor, but he was the real deal. »
While few people, it seems, would doubt that Sirico knew members of New York City’s mafia scene in his younger years, he appeared to have left that world behind by the time he found fame on The Sopranos. It’s possible, however, that the actor never really lost touch with his former life.
According to the New York Daily News, as FBI agents kept an eye on a Colombo crime family’s Christmas party in 1999, Sirico and The Sopranos co-star Vincent Pastore were allegedly spotted mingling with the guests. While Sirico acknowledged knowing high-ranking members of the family, James Clemenza and brother Jerry Clemenza, he said he hadn’t seen them in years.
« I know them. I know everybody. I’ve been around, » Sirico explained. « I don’t remember this party. If I was there, I wasn’t hanging out with nobody. »