How Paulie Walnuts Was a Lot Like ‘Sopranos’ Actor Tony Sirico in Real Life

When you see an actor who’s perfect for a part, it’s often more than a coincidence. For example, a writer-director who works regularly with an star will think of the actor when they write the script. (See: Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro; or, more recently, Scorsese and Leo DiCaprio.)

In the case of a long-running show like The Sopranos, writers can really dig in and tailor each scene to their recurring characters. And the team in the Sopranos writers’ room did it as well as anybody.

After getting to know the characters, you didn’t flinch — though you probably exploded laughing — when Paulie Walnuts demands his Tupperware back from another character. Paulie, played by Tony Sirico, was a detail-oriented guy, and Sirico is that way in real life.

But that wasn’t the only thing Sopranos writer plucked from Sirico’s life. Numerous details, from Sirico’s living situation (yes, involving his mother) to his germophobia and way of speaking, came from the man himself.

Sirico’s talks with ‘Sopranos’ writers revealed his speech patterns and phobias.

Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) talk business outside the Bing. | HBO

If Paulie’s germophobia seemed convincing, that’s because Sirico is like that. The Sopranos writing staff would talk with the actors and take what they could get. Sirico recalled how they operated in an oral history published in Vanity Fair in 2012.

They got the words from us,” Sirico said. “They heard the cadence of my voice and what I said, and how I expressed myself — you know what I mean? So I had guys put down my own words and shove them right back into my throat.”

Given the writers’ tendency to pull things from actors’ lives, James Gandolfini took to referring to them as vampires. That extended to Sopranos creator David Chase.

He used to call me a vampire,” Chase recalled in early 2019. “Then he started calling all the writers vampires, because we used to take the real lives of the cast and put it in the show. Like Tony Sirico was germaphobic, so we gave that to Paulie.”

Actually, it extended beyond personality traits and speech patterns.

Events in Sirico’s life were also fair game for Paulie’s character.

Tony Sirico arrives at the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital Benefit at the Forbes yacht, The Highlander June 14, 2007 in New York City. | Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

In the case of Sirico and Paulie, the writers didn’t stop at mannerisms and vocabulary; they’d also use actual events from his life. For example, when the gang heads to Italy in The Sopranos, most characters were going to the Old Country for the very first time.

Indeed, it was Sirico’s first time traveling to Italy as well. “I’ve never been to Italy. I was so happy,” he told Vanity Fair (perhaps not realizing how the writers used that). But the defining feature of Paulie Walnuts’s life — his relationship with his mother — also came straight from him.

“I lived with Ma for 16 years before she passed,” Sirico said. “David knew that going in. That became one of my story lines.”

Then there was Sirico’s criminal past. As a 1990 Los Angeles Times profile put it, he had “28 arrests and 27 acting jobs” to that point. So there were some things Sirico never needed coaching for on the show.

Also see: The ‘Sopranos’ Fan Favorite Who Almost Played Tony Instead of James Gandolfini