'Sopranos' star Tony Sirico dies aged 79: family
Tony Sirico (R) AFP

US actor Tony Sirico, best known for portraying Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri in "The Sopranos," has died aged 79, his family and a former castmate said Friday.

Sirico played minor mobster roles in television and film for decades before being cast in his fifties as the eccentric and sometimes brutal Paulie on HBO's hit show -- becoming one of the series' most memorable characters.

"It is with great sadness, but with incredible pride, love and a whole lot of fond memories, that the family of Gennaro Anthony 'Tony' Sirico wishes to inform you of his death on the morning of July 8, 2022," his family said in a statement on Facebook.

His "Sopranos" co-star Michael Imperioli added: "It pains me to say that my dear friend, colleague and partner in crime, the great Tony Sirico has passed away today."

"Tony was like no one else: he was as tough, as loyal and as big hearted as anyone I've ever known... Heartbroken today," Imperioli -- who played Christopher Moltisanti -- wrote on Instagram.

Sirico's representatives did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942, Sirico was frequently arrested as a youth, but caught the acting bug in prison after seeing a troupe of ex-convicts perform.

He took multiple small parts as thugs and wise guys from the late 1970s onward, appearing in TV shows such as "Kojak" and "Miami Vice," and mob-themed films including "Goodfellas" and "Mickey Blue Eyes."

Sirico was in his fifties when he was cast for his best-known part in "Sopranos," the ground-breaking HBO series which explored the private lives of a New Jersey crime group.

His character Paulie delivered many of the show's most memorable lines, displaying both a playful humor and a vicious loyalty to boss Tony Soprano.