The ‘Sopranos’ Actor Everyone Said Was Just Like His On-Screen Character

When it came to the classic series The Sopranos, fact wasn’t always separate from fiction. David Chase, who created and produced the show, took numerous details for the show (including the name “Big Pussy”) from the lives of real New Jersey gangsters. And it didn’t go unnoticed.

Back when The Sopranos was airing on HBO, FBI agents in the North Jersey area got used to hearing real-life gangsters discuss the show on their wiretaps. Interestingly, those mobsters believed someone on the Sopranos writing team had a source inside a crime family.

So you can safely say the show was authentic in its depiction of mob life. In fact, the writers were so dedicated to their craft James Gandolfini started calling them vampires. Before they knew what was happening, actors started seeing their personal expressions as lines in the script.

In the case of one character, the blend of actor and on-screen persona was almost too close for comfort. That was Paulie Walnuts, played by Tony Sirico.

‘What you see is what you get’ with Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts.

Dominic Chianese, Tony Sirico and Federico Castelluccio at the ‘Sopranos’ season premiere screening after-party in New York, 02/21/2001. | Evan Agostini / ImageDirect

Gandolfini eventually became exasperated with Chase and his team’s poaching of real-life details for the show’s characters. In an oral history published in Vanity Fair in 2012, Gandolfini spoke of walking onto the set and asking whose “blood [the writers] were sucking” that particular week.

Tony Sirico (Paulie) knew just what he was talking about. In addition to using Sirico’s mannerisms and way of speaking for Paulie’s character, the writers went deep into the man’s personal life.

For example, Chase has spoken of how Sirico was germaphobic in real life. The writers made sure to put that into the character of Paulie. Sirico also lived with his mother for over a decade before she died. The writers obviously worked that into the script as well.

And the list didn’t end there. Years later, when they asked Federico Castelluccio which actor was closest to his Sopranos character, he didn’t hesitate. “Tony Sirico,” Castelluccio told the Huffington Post. “What you see is what you get.”

Sirico actually walks, dresses, and gestures like Paulie Walnuts.

James Gandolfini and Tony Sirico pose at a Jersey City cemetery while shooting a scene for “The Sopranos.” | Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of bumping into Sirico in real-life, you may be taken aback by how much he indeed is like Paulie Walnuts. (A brief interaction I had with Sirico in 2012 can confirm this.)

Sirico moves, dresses, and gestures just like Paulie Walnuts. As for the way he speaks, you have to hand the Sopranos writers for getting it down so accurately in Paulie’s dialogue.

That came from conversation with Sirico on set. After a while, he realized he should watch what he said to them. “They heard the cadence of my voice and what I said, and how I expressed myself,” he told Vanity Fair. “So I had guys put down my own words and shove them right back into my throat.”

Sirico was also the only Sopranos star who had a sizable rap sheet. So when you see Paulie acting real comfortable in jail, some of that comes from experience, too.

Also see: ‘The Sopranos’: This Oscar-Winning Actress Auditioned for the Part of Janice