The ‘Godfather II’ Actor Who Mentored Tony Sirico in His Early Days as an Actor

Right from the pilot episode of The Sopranos, you could start connecting the HBO series to classic gangster sagas of the past. It begins with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) going to see psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco.

Bracco, of course, played Karen Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). And Bracco was just one of many Goodfellas actors who appeared in The Sopranos. But the HBO mob series also featured an actor from the signature mob films of the previous generation: The Godfather: Part I and Part II

Fans of the Godfather saga will recall Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior on The Sopranos) playing Johnny Ola in Part II. And there was another major Godfather-Sopranos connection behind the scenes. The actor who played informant Frank Pentangeli mentored Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) when Sirico was getting started in the business.

Tony Sirico took an unusual route to the acting profession

Tony Sirico in 'The Sopranos'
Tony Sirico as Paulie Walnuts and James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano on the TV series “The Sopranos.” | Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

In the James Toback film The Big Bang (1989), Sirico (as himself) speaks about his days prior to his acting career. “I did a couple of armed robberies,” he says. “I paid for them.” And he describes going to jail “a few times” and the various “beatings” he handed out over the years.

During his rough-and-tumble youth, Sirico also took a few bullets. While sitting on the steps of a Brooklyn church, someone shot Sirico multiple times for messing with the wrong girl. But while serving one prison stretch, Sirico became interested in acting.

Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), who co-hosts the Talking Sopranos podcast, told that story on the show’s Aug. 31 episode. In jail, Sirico saw a performance by the Theater of the Forgotten, a theater troupe that performed at prisons.

“The Theater of the Forgotten went to where Sirico was,” Imperioli explained. “And there was an actor, acting teacher, and director out of The Actors Studio named Michael Gazzo, who’s famous for playing Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather II. And Tony met him [there].”

Michael Gazzo taught Sirico acting and showed him a way into the business

MIchael Gazzo in 'Godfather II'
Michael V. Gazzo plays Frankie Pentangeli in ‘The Godfather: Part II,” released in 1974. Paramount Pictures | CBS via Getty Images

After he finished his sentence, Sirico looked up Gazzo, who taught acting classes in New York. “Tony took [Gazzo’s] class, and that was [Sirico’s] way in,” Imperioli said on Talking Sopranos. “Michael Gazzo took Sirico under his wing and was his mentor. And Tony was grateful forever.”

Sirico got a major break when he appeared in Fingers, Toback’s 1978 film. Knowing the history they had together, it’s possible that Gazzo, a starring actor in Fingers, had some hand in Sirico’s casting. And both actors also appeared in Hoodlums two years later.

Gazzo passed away in 1995, so he didn’t have a chance to see Sirico play Paulie Walnuts, which became the defining character of his career. However, by that time, Sirico had worked on Goodfellas, Romeo Is Bleeding, and Bullets Over Broadway. Gazzo would have considered his student a success by any measure.