Burt Young, who played Paulie in six of the “Rocky” films starring Sylvester Stallone, drawing an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for his performance in the 1976 original, has died, his daughter Anne Morea Steingieser confirmed to the New York Times. He was 83.
Roger Ebert gave Young his props for his performance in the first “Rocky” film: “And Burt Young as (Adrian’s) brother — defeated and resentful, loyal and bitter, caring about people enough to hurt them just to draw attention to his grief.” The New York Times — in an absolutely scathing, completely dismissive review of the film — nevertheless said: “Burt Young is effective as Rocky’s best friend, a beer-guzzling mug.”
Young’s temperamental, jealous but nonetheless loyal and caring Paulie Pennino was Rocky’s best friend — he would defend the Italian Stallion if someone insulted him. But he was a problematic friend who shouts at Adrian during her pregnancy, resulting in the premature birth of Rocky’s son; draws Balboa into a street fight; and in 1990’s “Rocky V,” is the cause of the Balboas’ bankruptcy.
In 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” Paulie is back where he started, working at the meat-packing plant, but he’s laid off and loses his skepticism about Rocky’s return to the ring and serves as his cornerman. Young did not appear in 2015’s “Creed,” as Paulie is said to have died in 2012.
The exceptionally prolific Young — who was never much to look at, making him the perfect character actor — had a way of taking a thug or a goon or a mug and giving him more personality, more sympathy, somehow, than the role deserved.
In a negative 2011 review of Robert Aldrich’s 1977 police dramedy “The Choirboys,” a poor adaptation of the Joseph Wambaugh novel, critic Richard Winters wrote: “There are a few bright spots. I really liked the Burt Young character. Many people remember him best from the ‘Rocky’ movies. Here he plays an incredibly grungy, crass police sergeant who exposes a tender side at a completely unexpected moment.”
Young played one of the truckers in Sam Peckinpah’s execrable “Convoy” (1978), starring Kris Kristofferson, and played the chauffeur and bodyguard of the Rodney Dangerfield character in the 1986 comedy “Back to School.”
Another example of the actor managing to score despite a generally mediocre film was Robert Aldrich’s 1981 girls wrestling film “All the Marbles,” starring Peter Falk. Critic Dennis Schwartz wrote in 2011: “Burt Young as the oily wrestling promoter who resents Falk for his independence, has a nice turn in a supporting role.”
In a memorable scene in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) that also featured a young Joe Pesci, Young played a hood who eats crudely and tells a very off-color story about how he got clued into a Detroit diamond shipment ripe for heisting. The actor played Bed Bug Eddie, a vindictive mobster whose $150,0000 the two protagonists in 1984’s “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” played by Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke, unwisely steal from a safe.
In another characterful turn, in Uli Edel’s 1990 film “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” he played Big Joe, one of many who’s thrown out of work by the strike at the heart of the movie. He is violent, none too bright and yet somehow a decent man concerned about his family — a classic Burt Young character. Big Joe’s wife tells one day that his daughter, played by Ricki Lake, is eight months pregnant, to which he replies, “She’s just fat.”
In the 1999 romantic comedy “Mickey Blue Eyes,” in which Hugh Grant falls in love with a gal (Jeanne Tripplehorn) from a mobbed-up family, James Caan played her father and Young played the big boss. By this point Young had made as many movies with Caan as he had with Stallone.
In 2006’s “Transamerica,” in which Felicity Huffman delightfully played a very proper pre-op transsexual who’s traveling across the country, Fionnula Flanagan and Young played her crass parents, whom she visits in Phoenix.
In Tom McCarthy’s 2011 film “Win Win,” Paul Giamatti played a fed-up lawyer who double crosses his client (Young), who’s moving into Alzheimer’s but refusing to leave his home, by becoming his legal guardian and moving him into a nursing home.
The actor had a supporting role in Raymond De Felitta’s 2014 crime drama “Rob the Mob,” starring Michael Pitt and Ray Romano.
Young tried series-regular television with the NBC comedy “Roomies” (1987), about a 50-year-old former Marine sergeant who rooms with a young genius, played by Corey Haim, when they both go to college, but the show lasted only eight episodes.
Young appeared in TV movies and guested on “Tales From the Crypt,” “Columbo,” “The Outer Limits,” “Russian Doll” and even “Walker, Texas Ranger.” More fittingly, he appeared in a 2001 episode of “The Sopranos” as the father of Steve Schirripa’s Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri. Tony mentions to Bobby “Bacala” that it was odd that he’d never whacked anyone considering his father, who fronted as a barber, was “the fuckin Terminator in that respect.”
Young’s Bobby Sr., who’s suffering from lung cancer, comes out of retirement after Tony gives him the job of killing Salvatore “Mustang Sally” Intile, but he died after choking on blood, losing control of his car and crashing into a sign post while leaving the scene of his final hit.
More impressive, however, was the actor’s masterful performance in a 1997 episode of “Law & Order” called “Mad Dog.” He played a paroled sex offender who’s presumed to be guilty of newly committed crimes fairly similar to those that got him incarcerated, but he’s put under so much pressure by the police and especially Sam Waterston’s executive D.A. McCoy that, ultimately, he is perhaps forced into reoffending, with disastrous results. (Young also later appeared on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.”)
Young was born in Queens, New York, to parents of Italian heritage; in a 1978 article, People magazine said Young was mysterious about many details of his past, including his family’s original last name. He dropped out of school when he was 15 to join the Marines, serving from 1957-59. He was trained by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
The actor made his uncredited screen debut as a bartender in an episode of “The Doctors” in 1969. The next year he made his big-screen debut (credited as John Harris) in the horror film “Carnival of Blood.” He had a small part as a hood in Ivan Passer’s “Born to Win” (1971), which starred George Segal and Paula Prentiss and featured a young Robert De Niro, and appeared in the crime comedy “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” starring Jerry Orbach, with De Niro again in a supporting role, and the well-regarded crime drama “Across 110th Street” (1972).
Young had a supporting role in Mark Rydell’s “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), starring James Caan and Marsha Mason, as a Navy master-at-arms, but he first really made an impression in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” as Curly, the fisherman who hired Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes on an earlier case and is willing to help out when Gittes wants Curly to smuggle Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn and her daughter/sister Katherine out of the city and away from John Huston’s Hollis Mulwray — a plan that fails.
In Karel Reisz’s James Toback-scripted “The Gambler” (1974), starring Caan, Young played another hood, but this time he attracted the notice of critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Monthly Film Bulletin, who, in a negative review of the film, declared: “It is worth noting that some of the actors do what they can to enliven the relatively marginal parts of the narrative: Burt Young as Carmine, the loan shark hood, describes a parabola from homely amiability to casual brutality that is truly terrifying.”
In Sam Peckinpah’s contemporary action thriller “The Killer Elite” (1975), Young was again reteamed with Caan, playing the loyal driver Mac for Caan’s agent Mike Locken in a movie full of betrayals. (It was in this role that Young caught the attention of Stallone.)
In Mark Rydell’s period heist film “Harry and Walter Go to New York” (1976), starring Caan and Elliott Gould and clearly inspired by “The Sting,” Young got a chance to be on the other side of the law for a change, playing the warden of the prison in which the grand scheme is hatched.
But that same year he made another film that would be far more important in determining the arc of his acting career: the John G. Avildsen-directed “Rocky,” scripted by Stallone and with Young third billed as Paulie.
Young penned the screenplays to the 1978 CBS TV movie “Daddy, I Don’t Like It Like This” and the 1978 film “Uncle Joe Shannon,” in which he starred as the title character.
Stallone paid tribute to his “Rocky” co-star on Instagram, writing, “To my dear friend, Burt Young, you were an incredible man’s and artist, I and the World will miss you very much.”
Young’s wife Gloria died in 1974. He is survived by a daughter, Anne Morea.
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