One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 92
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Reel Streaming puts the usual fare on hiatus for a week to honor the passing of a pair of well-regarded and very recognizable character actors. Both worked well into their later years and their deaths by natural causes, though sad, give us reason to celebrate their lengthy careers, familiar faces and colorful supporting presences on screens big and small.
Indeed, their appearances in projects served as effective, almost comforting signifiers of the genres for which they were best known as they provided able support for each tale’s protagonist.
I’m referring to Tony Sirico, a colorful and imposing gangster type, who passed on Friday, July 8, at an assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla at the age of 79; and L.Q. Jones, best known for his turns in western movies, who died on Saturday, July 9, at his Hollywood Hills home at the age of 94.
The two men were both gunslingers in their own unique ways. Tony Sirico was a decidedly city-slickin’ cowboy, one with a more urban bent who brandished a Saturday Night Special rather than a six-shooter. L.Q. Jones, meanwhile, was one helluva man of the west, whether he was wearing the white hat or the black hat, both of which he donned with ease.
Sirico was best known for his portrayal of colorful New Jersey gangster Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri, a loyal enforcer for Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, in HBO’s groundbreaking series The Sopranos (1999).
Paulie, a tough guy who he earned his “Walnuts” moniker because he once hijacked a truck that he thought was carrying TV sets but was filled instead with nuts, was one of The Sopranos’ most well-drawn characters, a fan favorite from the outset. He was splendidly conceived and written by Sopranos creator David Chase and brought to eccentric, almost-lovable life–well, as lovable as a murderous enforcer could be–by Sirico, who in real life had trod down the gangster path for years.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. claimed to have had his first criminal skirmish as a teenager, when he stole nickels from a newsstand. Dropping out of high school, Sirico worked construction for a while but then beginning running with the kind of connected crowd that got him involved with armed robbery, extortion, coercion and felony weapons possession.
By the time he reached his mid-30s, Sirico had been arrested 28 times and done two stints in prison totaling nearly three years. While he was serving a stretch at Sing Sing, he saw a performance by a touring troupe of actors, all ex-convicts.
“When I saw them, I said to myself, ‘I can do that,’” Sirico said.
So when he was back on the outside, Sirico gave acting a shot. And for a decade and change, he appeared in dozens of small TV and movie roles, usually as a hoodlum or ex-con or some other variation of tough guy. During this time, he appeared in films by two of New York’s greatest New York filmmakers: he was gangster Tony Stacks in Martin Scorsese’s mob classic Goodfellas (1990) and he showed up as threatening presence in a bunch of films by Woody Allen, including Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You (1996) and, later, Café Society (2016) and Wonder Wheel (2017).
But that was all a run-up to his six-year role as The Sopranos’ eccentric but formidable Paulie Walnuts, a germ-phobic, tracksuit-wearing, joke-cracking, TV-loving, silver-haired-wing-tipped and occasionally murderous henchman who at one point admits to protagonist Tony Soprano that he had once seen a therapist, from whom he “learned some coping skills.”
We’re assuming Sirico wasn’t coping all that well during his younger years.
For nearly 70 years, since his debut in the recurring role of cowboy Smitty Smith in the first season of the TV’s Cheyenne, L.Q. Jones was a regular fixture in westerns on in both TV and film, as indispensable as the horses he rode in on.
Born in Beaumont, in southeastern Texas, Jones completed his high school education and served in the Navy before attending a couple of small Texas colleges and the University of Austin for a few years. He then gave stand-up comedy, professional baseball and ranching a brief try before turned to acting after corresponding with his former college roommate, Fess Parker, the soon-to-be-star of the long-running NBC series Daniel Boone (1964).
After making his film debut in the 1955 war movie Battle Cry under his birth name Justus McQueen, the fledgling actor adopted the name of his character in that film, L.Q. Jones, as his stage name for all his future roles. Cheyenne was first up and the newly monikered Jones was immediately embraced with supporting work in a corral full of western TV shows.
Jones was featured regularly in such series as Laramie (1959), Wagon Train (1959), Klondike (1960), Have Gun – Will Travel (1962), Rawhide (1963) and Gunsmoke (1963. By the mid-Sixties, His roles on TV westerns gave way to parts on the big screen, in films including Apache Rifles (1964), Nevada Smith (1966) and Hang’em High, a 1968 Clint Eastwood vehicle that found a nefarious Jones slipping a noose around the star’s neck.
It was around this time that Jones became a member of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah’s posse, appearing in such notable efforts by the revisionist western director as his seminal The Wild Bunch (1969), as well as Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
“Sam was a genius and I loved him, but he was a basket case. He drove everybody nuts,” Jones said of the bad boy filmmaker in a 2017 interview. “But you couldn’t back off with Sam or he’d be on you like a duck on a June bug.”
Jones even got his shot behind the camera, directing the forgotten western The Devil’s Bedroom (1964) and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama A Boy and His Dog (1975), a cult favorite based on Harlan Ellison’s 1969 novella.
Though he began to act less in the late 1990s, he would still pop up to lend some authentic western flavor to the occasional movie or TV production—as a former rodeo star in A Prairie Home Companion (2006) and as a Wyoming land baron in the TV flick The Jack Bull (1999).
One of Jones’s most memorable later roles was in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 crime epic Casino (1995) as Pat Webb, a county commissioner in ‘70s Las Vegas who is determined to keep Mafia elements out of his beloved town. During a tense where he confronts Robert De Niro’s casino operative Sam “Ace” Rothstein, Jones (wearing snakeskin boots in a striking contrast to De Niro’s Italian loafers), coolly drawls, “Your people will never understand how it works out here. You’re all just our guests, but you act like you’re at home. Let me tell you somethin’, partner…you ain’t home. But that’s where we’re gonna send you if it harelips the governor.”
Spoken like a real cowboy.
From the get-go, audiences could feel that there was a helluva lot of Sirico in Paulie Walnuts, just as L.Q. Jones’ gallery of western figures drew a lot from its leathery creator.
Neither of the two ever picked up any major awards, but they were both winners.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.