Of Paulie Walnuts and His Surprising Brother (Tony and Robert Sirico)

Tony Sirico (1942-2022) would have been turning 80 years old today but for the fact that he slipped away from us three weeks ago. Somebody get the lime and shovel out of the trunk! (Too soon?)

Sirico was best known and loved for playing the character of Paulie Walnuts, Tony Soprano’s trusted if limited lieutenant on The Sopranos (1999-2007). But in essence he was kind of always Paulie Walnuts; his screen characters (over 80 of them) were almost invariably based on what he knew from his own background as a low-level Brooklyn street tough. He owned a night club at one point (a business that is notoriously mobbed up), but while he was running this semi-legit business he was constantly getting nabbed for petty crimes: burglary, robbery, disorderly conduct (street fights), possession of drugs, illegal possession of a firearm,. He did a couple of years in Sing-Sing, and this is where a visiting theatre troupe inspired him to give acting a try.

One of Sirico’s first roles was as an extra in The Godfather, Part 2, and he gradually rose through bigger (but still small) supporting roles in movies like So Fine (1981), The Pick-Up Artist (1987) and Susan Seidelman’s Cookie (1989). He played one of the leads in the low-budget independent The Galucci Brothers (1987), undoubtedly a factor in his getting trusted with bigger roles. His 1990 casting in the ensemble of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas surely proved to be the biggest factor in raising his profile, and after this, he’s in lots of stuff mainstream audiences will recognize. Woody Allen, whose fondness for stereotyped Italian hoodlum characters was finally explained to my satisfaction in his 2020 biography, clearly loved him, casting him in Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), Cafe Society (2016) and Wonder Wheel (2018). Other notable stuff: John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992), Romeo is Bleeding (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), Gotti (1996), Cop Land (1997), and Witness to the Mob (1998, as Tommy Gambino). Then The Sopranos.

I love that one of Sirico’s first projects after The Sopranos wrapped was to start his own cologne line. I’ve always thought of him as one of those actors whose cologne you could smell through the TV screen. There’s a long Hollywood tradition of such guys, at least as far back as George Raft. He was one of those guys who still used Bryl Cream, not a hair out of place, a guy who wore charm bracelets and gold necklaces and natty threads. Onscreen anyway he came anyway he came across as very fine and very precise in his habits and his physicality — and, boy, are those excellent traits for an actor. And, by the way, he really was that — an actor. Plenty of guys from his background go before the cameras and remain non-actors, prized for their authenticity, cast almost as an element of the art direction. But Sirico took his work seriously and became good at it, and when you think back on The Sopranos you’ll recall that he had many challenging moments and scenes on the show, and nailed them all like the pro that he was.

65 when The Sopranos went off the air, Sirico slowed his pace down in recent years but he kept working. Among his last performances were numerous voiceovers for the Seth MacFarlane animated shows Family Guy and American Dad. His last announced project was an independent film called All Mobbed Up, in which he was to play one “Uncle Johnny”.

But who’s the priest in the picture, you’re wondering? Well, that’s his much younger brother, Father Robert Sirico (b. 1951). While you may have never have heard the name, in his own way, Robert is arguably a more significant guy then Tony was. Yet the brothers seem about as different as two guys could be. I’d like to see a comedy bio-pic about them! Robert is the founder of the libertarian think tank called the Acton Institute. I’m sure it says something telling about me that I had heard of the Acton Institute long before I’d heard the name “Tony Sirico”. (Actor, Acton, what’s the diff?)

Robert’s evolution is truly interesting. Like many libertarians and neo-cons he started out on what you might think of as the political left, before wending his way right, and like most people of real conscience, the way was not straight, nor can you pigeonhole him as either. He began his early adulthood on the west coast, graduating from USC with a degree in English (with an interlude in London studying at St Mary’s University College, a Catholic Institution). In the early ’70s he was a popular Pentecostal preacher in Seattle, although he alienated some when he very publicly came out as gay and fought for gay rights. He married the first gay couple in Colorado! Later he returned to the Catholic faith in which he was brought up, receiving his Masters in Divinity from Catholic University and becoming one of the Paulist order. Not surprisingly, his public attitudes about homosexuality have changed.

Michael Novak’s 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism prompted his other conversion. As Sirico lived in Washington DC while studying for the priesthood, he managed to strike up a friendship with Novak, who in turn introduced him to his social set, which included the likes of ReaganBush cabinet member William Bennett, Judge Robert Bork, the intellectual power couple of Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Charles Krauthammer, Jack Kemp, Charles Murray, and even Clare Booth Luce. In 1990 he founded the Acton Institute, which rests on the twin pillars of Judeo-Christian morality and free-market economics — and truly, it takes a wizard of a philosopher to reconcile those two intellectual edifices. Lord Acton, for whom Sirico named his organization, is most famous for the quote often attributed to Orwell, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I find it intriguing that Sirica can revere such a man while also representing a religion that has…a Pope. But, then, that’s what the pretzel-proofs of theology are for.

Robert Sirico has written eight books and scores of articles and op-eds for major publications. In addition to being Italian, Catholic, and having the same parents, he has one other thing in common with his older brother: he’s a movie producer! But don’t get too excited. They’re documentaries, and the titles of his movies are The Call of the Entrepreneur (2007) and Poverty, Inc. (2014).