Long before Tony Sirico became Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos (1999-2007), he excelled at death scenes. In Fingers (1978), Sirico’s character had an especially gory battle with the main character (played by Harvey Keitel) before meeting his end.
“I make a pretty good living because I die well,” Sirico told the L.A. Times in 1990. “I get hired to get killed.” And in film after film that’s exactly what he did. Counting up the 30-or-so roles he’d played at that point in his career, Sirico figured he got killed in about half of them.
That never happened in The Sopranos, of course. Though Paulie Walnuts got himself in some tense situations — as he did in “Pine Barrens” — the character was alive and very much ticking when the final episode cut to black.
And while Paulie had germaphobia, mommy issues, and the reputation of being “a psycho,” those things didn’t bother Sirico. However, there are some things he’d never stand for — even in a fictional character he played.
Tony Sirico loathed the idea of playing rats in mob stories
When you make a modern mob story, informants have to enter the picture at some point. In Goodfellas (1990), a movie Sopranos creator David Chase greatly admired, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) turned against his crime family after getting busted for selling drugs.
Every Sopranos fan can see the parallel in the HBO mob show. After the Soprano crew learns someone is talking to the FBI, everyone becomes a suspect. And soon enough “Big Pussy” (Vincent Pastore) reveals himself as the rat.
If you recall, Pussy suffers greatly but faces two choices: decades in jail on a drugs conviction or a shot at freedom. Chase and his writers really aimed to show the anguish an informant experiences. But for an actor like Sirico it was a nonstarter.
In a 2019 interview with Deadline, Sirico broke it down in the simplest terms. “I come from the streets: I been in the Army, been everywhere,” he said. “I wouldn’t play a rat if you put a gun to my head. And if you did put a gun to my head, you better empty it.”
Sirico was embarrassed to face his son after playing the role of a rat
While most actors create separation between themselves and their characters, that’s not really how Sirico handled playing Paulie Walnuts. In short, he took the character’s actions personally. If another character so much as called Paulie a name he didn’t like, Sirico might take it up with the writers.
But as far as being a rat goes, Sirico wouldn’t have stood for it. Speaking to Deadline, he recalled the last time he played someone loose with his tongue. It was early in his career (the ’70s), and Sirico played a bad guy in an episode of Baretta. The problem was, he gave up information to the cop in that show.
After returning home to New York from California, Sirico felt proud of making it on a big TV show. However, his son saw it differently. “My kid was there and I said, ‘Richie, what did you think?'” Sirico recalled. “He said, ‘You ratted, dad, you ratted.’ Never again.”