Burt Young, Oscar-nominated actor who played Paulie in ‘Rocky’ films, dies at 83

by Chloe Baker
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Burt Young Tribute

Burt Young, the renowned Oscar-nominated actor acclaimed for his portrayal of Paulie Pennino, the gruff and often incoherent best friend, corner-man, and brother-in-law to Sylvester Stallone in the iconic “Rocky” film series, passed away at the age of 83. His daughter, Anne Morea Steingieser, confirmed his demise on October 8 in Los Angeles, as reported by The New York Times. The cause of his passing has not been disclosed.

Burt Young’s career encompassed remarkable performances in both films and television series, with notable appearances in works such as “Chinatown,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” and “The Sopranos.” However, his enduring legacy will forever be tied to his role as Paulie in six “Rocky” movies. Young, with his short stature, paunchy physique, and receding hairline, possessed a unique ability to convincingly portray middle-aged characters, regardless of his actual age.

In his initial appearance in the 1976 film “Rocky,” Paulie Pennino was depicted as an irate, foul-mouthed meat packer who subjected his sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), to emotional abuse within the confines of their modest Philadelphia apartment. He berated the timid Adrian for initially declining a Thanksgiving-night date with his friend and co-worker, Rocky Balboa, and even demolished a turkey she had been preparing.

The film “Rocky” became a cultural phenomenon, reigning supreme at the box office that year and catapulting its lead actor and writer, Sylvester Stallone, to stardom. Stallone paid tribute to Burt Young on Instagram, sharing a poignant photograph of the two of them from the set of the first film and expressing, “you were an incredible man and artist, I and the World will miss you very much.”

For his portrayal of Paulie, Young received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. While “Rocky” received 10 Oscar nominations and won three, including Best Picture, Young and his co-star Burgess Meredith, who was also nominated, were bested by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men.”

As the “Rocky” sequels unfolded, Paulie’s character underwent a transformation, mirroring the evolving tone of the films themselves. He transitioned into a source of comic relief, famously reprogramming a robot gifted by Rocky into a sultry-voiced servant who catered to his whims. Paulie remained a perpetual pessimist, perpetually convinced that Rocky would succumb to his increasingly formidable opponents. His continual astonishment at Rocky’s tenacity elicited hearty laughter from audiences.

Reflecting on his portrayal of Paulie, Burt Young remarked in a 2020 interview with Celebrity Parents magazine, “It was a great ride, and it brought me to the audience in a great way. I made him a rough guy with a sensitivity. He’s really a marshmallow even though he yells a lot.”

Born and raised in Queens, New York, Young’s life journey included service in the Marine Corps, a stint as a professional boxer, and work as a carpet layer before he ventured into acting. He honed his craft under the tutelage of the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

Throughout his career, Young frequently portrayed characters of modest means and tough exteriors, characters who often found themselves grappling with adversity. In a brief but memorable scene in the 1974 classic “Chinatown,” he portrayed a fisherman who erupts in anger when Jack Nicholson’s private detective presents evidence of his wife’s infidelity.

Burt Young’s filmography also includes notable appearances in director Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic “Once Upon a Time in America” alongside Robert De Niro, the 1986 comedy “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield, and the gritty 1989 drama “Last Exit to Brooklyn” featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh.

In a striking turn, Young made a memorable appearance in season three of “The Sopranos” in 2001, where he portrayed Bobby Baccalieri, Sr., an elderly mafioso afflicted with lung cancer who orchestrates one final hit before succumbing to a fatal coughing fit while driving.

His television credits extended beyond “The Sopranos,” encompassing guest appearances on series such as “MAS*H,” “Miami Vice,” and “The Equalizer.”

In his later years, Burt Young directed his focus towards the theater and the pursuit of his lifelong passion, painting. His artistic endeavors culminated in gallery exhibitions and art sales.

Burt Young’s wife of 13 years, Gloria, predeceased him. He is survived by his daughter, one grandchild, and his brother, Robert, ensuring that his legacy endures within the hearts of his loved ones and the annals of cinematic history.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Burt Young Tribute

Who was Burt Young?

Burt Young was an accomplished actor, known for his Oscar-nominated role as Paulie Pennino in the “Rocky” film series. He had a career spanning acclaimed films and television shows.

What were some of Burt Young’s notable works?

Burt Young’s career included roles in renowned works such as “Chinatown,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” and “The Sopranos.” However, he was most famous for his portrayal of Paulie in the “Rocky” movies.

How did Burt Young’s character, Paulie, evolve in the “Rocky” series?

In the initial “Rocky” film, Paulie was depicted as an angry, abusive character. As the sequels progressed, his character softened, providing comic relief. He even reprogrammed a robot in “Rocky IV.”

Was Burt Young ever nominated for an Oscar?

Yes, Burt Young received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Paulie in the first “Rocky” film.

What were some of Burt Young’s other notable film appearances?

Burt Young appeared in films like “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Back to School,” and “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” showcasing his versatility as an actor.

Did Burt Young have a career in television as well?

Yes, he made memorable guest appearances in TV series like “The Sopranos,” “MAS*H,” “Miami Vice,” and “The Equalizer.”

How did Burt Young transition into acting?

Before pursuing acting, Burt Young served in the Marine Corps, was a professional boxer, and worked as a carpet layer. He later studied acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

What were Burt Young’s interests in his later years?

In his later life, Burt Young focused on theater roles and his lifelong passion for painting, which led to gallery exhibitions and art sales.

Is Burt Young survived by family members?

Burt Young is survived by his daughter, one grandchild, and his brother, Robert, following the passing of his wife, Gloria, in 1974.

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