The actor Burt Young, who has been in nearly 100 movies but is best known for playing Paulie, the grumpy brother of Talia Shire in the original Rocky movie and four Rocky sequels, was sitting in a booth at Bravo Gianni on East 63rd Street, where he’s a regular.
He still had the paunch and the 70′s-era cabdriver looks. At 62, he’s a compact bull of a guy, with huge Popeye-like forearms. He’d been hitting the heavy bag earlier that day and swinging a sledgehammer around his backyard on the Upper East Side. Now he was working on a whiskey and an unfiltered Camel. He smokes three packs a day.
Recently, eager for publicity and a distributor for Murder on Mott Street , a film he wrote, directed and stars in, Mr. Young faked his own death. On a Web site with the headline “Actor Found in Mott Street Apartment-Was It Suicide or Something Else?”, he posted a picture of himself slumped naked in a bathtub. There were also pictures of him at parties with past co-stars like James Caan, Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire. Mr. Young belongs to that category of actor who has never made it big, but who remains a poignant cultural artifact and a recognized talent by directors like Nick Cassavetes, who cast him in She’s So Lovely , in 1997. And it may be that we like Burt Young because he didn’t make it big and yet is still around-reminding us that we, too, are still around. And maybe we haven’t had any big hits since 1976, either. Maybe we all have a Roomies with Corey Haim and Amityville II: The Possession in our pasts, too.
That said, Mr. Young’s one-shot performance as an emphysema-afflicted hit man in an episode of The Sopranos last season was truly scary, brilliant scene-stealing stuff. It indicated that Mr. Young’s best work may, indeed, be in front of him.
In Murder on Mott Street , Mr. Young plays Bruno, a counterfeit artist on the lam in Little Italy. “He’s not tough-he’s like a simple giant, a wounded human,” he said. Bruno cries a lot in the film, drinks whisky, tries to kill himself, kills someone else, and imagines falling in love with a pretty young neighbor. He also has a full frontal nude scene in a bathtub.
He let his friends know he wasn’t really dead. Some of them thought it might look cheap to promote the film this way. “I told them, ‘Don’t worry, it is cheap!’” said Mr. Young.
He was a little downbeat, despite the mischievous chuckling. He said he was on the outs with his girlfriend of nine years, a blond dermatologist with whom he lives on Fifth Avenue in the East 90′s. “I adore women,” Mr. Young said. “I’m pliable, like a piece of clay, a Labrador. I’m not smooth-I just drool.”
Years ago, he said, he went out with his Rocky co-star, Talia Shire, “for a blink of an eye.”
“I adored her,” he said, adding that for the sake of his career she wanted him to distance himself from the neighborhood toughs he grew up with. “I told her I want to stay like I am. I might walk slower. I like my width. Rather than flying high, I’m wide. I still have ambition, but I’m slow. I’ll never be Tom Cruise. Many people have bypassed me. I’m like a fire hydrant. Maybe even a dog has come by and bothered me.”
He said his dream is for Sean Penn to direct a play he’s written, called A Letter to Alicia and the New York City Government from a Man with a Bullet in His Head . He met with Mr. Penn in San Francisco earlier this year, but he hasn’t heard back.
“The truth was, I thought it was a done deal,” he said.
Burt Young grew up middle-class in Corona, Queens. He refused to reveal his real last name. “You want me to get put away?” he said, chuckling. His father was an ice-delivery man and sheet-metal mechanic. His mother is 95 and they talk every day.
He made good grades but ran with tough kids. In junior high, he played hooky-for three months. When he was 15, he started dating a woman who looked like Kim Novak and was married with two kids. He got into a fight with her husband, so his father told him to enlist in the Marines. His cousin Frankie agreed. Frankie wore a suit and drove a Cadillac. He was in numbers. “Frankie told me, he says, ‘At this time you’re half a man, half a kid,’” said Mr. Young. “‘Go in the service for two years, then you come out, and if you still want her, then you’ll make the decision as a man.’”
When he got off the bus at boot camp, an officer grabbed his hat, threw it on the ground and started jumping on it. “I was in shock,” said Mr. Young. “I guess I looked a little in need of some torture.”
In Okinawa, Mr. Young caused a mini-riot among a bunch of anti-American protesters. “So they put me in the brig,” he said. “The Okinawa brig at that time was the worst-people go nuts in there.”
Boxing saved him. “I was good, but I really wanted to go home,” he said. “I missed my mama and my papa. I was sad.”
After two years, he left the Marines and married a woman named Gloria. A cousin in New York got him a job in his “lending business.”
“He was leaving town, and he gave me all his bad accounts,” said Mr. Young. “I tried to make a living. I was in every business that didn’t need an inventory. Shampooing carpets, everything.” He fought 17 pro boxing matches in the ring-and some outside of it. Once he was shot in the shin bone. The second time he was shot in the hip and some people died. So he and Gloria packed up and moved to the quiet of Nantucket Island, where someone fixed him up with silk-screening work. After a year and a half there, his wife made it clear she hated it and the dilapidated house they were living in.
Back in Queens, she pushed for him to get into something stable, like sanitation. Tears appeared in his eyes when he talked about Gloria. She died in 1972.
“I was never a wolf when I was married,” he said. “I didn’t cheat. Maybe once, twice.”
He got into acting in 1969. Because of a waitress named Norma. “She was so fucking beautiful, you couldn’t believe how beautiful,” he said. “And she wouldn’t talk to me. She talked to everybody else. I tried being humble, no good. Tried being a tough guy, no good. Finally I said, ‘Why aren’t you an actress?’ She lit up. She said she wanted to study with Lee Strasberg, only she couldn’t get in. I didn’t know who the fuck Lee Strasberg was. I thought that was a girl.”
Mr. Young figured if he got into this Actors Studio, maybe he could get Norma in, too.
So he wrote Strasberg, saying he wanted to learn to act but admitting his troubles with the law. Strasberg invited him to his Central Park West apartment. After a brief chat, the acting guru told him he didn’t think he could be an actor, so Mr. Young got up. “Sit down,” Strasberg said, telling him that he’d never seen such “tension in a face.” According to Mr. Young, Strasberg told him, “I feel you are an emotional library. Would you work with me?” He was 29.
Mr. Young acted in plays with the Actors Studio, and got Norma an audition. But she succumbed to stage fright in front of Strasberg, Shelley Winters and Paul Newman. Exit Norma. Seven years later, when he got his Oscar nomination for Rocky , Mr. Young received two telegrams. One was from a neighborhood pal who wanted Mr. Young to mention his bowling alley, Vinnie’s Hideout. The other was from Norma, who wrote, “Remember you owe everything to me. Love, Norma.”
“I was the only actor that didn’t have to audition for Rocky, ” Mr. Young said. “They auditioned Burgess Meredith, Talia. I was the highest-paid actor. At that time, I was sort of looked at like an actor’s actor.”
Mr. Young said he played his character Paulie as “all burly on the outside and all quicksand inside. The bluster covered him, the way he walked. I made him wide . I put on three pair of clothes. I made him have no neck. His insecurity, of course, I patterned from me.”
Before Rocky he’d been in a few movies, including Chinatown. He’d become friends with James Caan, and stayed with him in Hollywood. “We were inseparable,” said Mr. Caan. “I got him on a training program. He ran 12 miles a day and gained 12 pounds. Unique. Very unique.”
“He’s one of my closest friends,” said Mr. Caan. “I know if I said, ‘Burt, I need you here because of whatever,’ he’d be on the first plane.”
Mr. Caan tried to explain Mr. Young’s appeal. “There are a lot of choices people make as actors, and the boring ones are the ones that are the obvious ones,” said Mr. Caan. “You play a bad guy, you’re tough; you play somebody who kills people, you snarl-you know, those stereotypical things. Well, there’s positive choices and negative choices, and the positive choice would be a killer who makes believe that everyone he kills is a mercy killing, and he’s doing it out of love. The audience doesn’t have to know that, but if that’s what you’re playing, that makes you interesting-’God almighty, that guy is scary,’ but the audience doesn’t know why that is. Burt has a penchant for making those kinds of choices; it’s what makes him interesting to watch. It’s something that you can’t teach anybody, and secondly, he has the balls to do it. He does it balls to the wall. He has the guts, which very few people have.”
Flying, however, is a different matter. Mr. Caan said Mr. Young used to be rather frightened of being airborne. “I’m talking about major terrified,” said Mr. Caan. “He’d take a horse pill; he wanted to be comatose. One time he was on the aisle and I was next to him, and the stewardess walked by and I reached over and just kind of patted her butt. And she turned around and gave Burt a stare like she was going to kill him. And Burt just swallowed his tongue, because that’s what happens-he gets so embarrassed he can’t say anything. And she turned around and I did it again. She came so close to slapping him!”
After Rocky, in addition to a lot of forgettable work, Mr. Young received recognition for his roles in movies like The Pope of Greenwich Village , Once Upon a Time in America , Last Exit to Brooklyn and Mickey Blue Eyes . He became a regular at Sparks Steak House and Rao’s (its owner, Frank Pellegrino, has a role in Murder on Mott Street ). He bought a restaurant in the Bronx and named it Burt Young’s Il Boschetto.
The role of Paulie, however, kept coming back. Rocky V , the last one, was made in 1990. Mr. Young still wears a gold Cartier watch Mr. Stallone gave him at the time, inscribed, “To Burt, a great friend.”
“I think they fucked up the ending,” said Mr. Young. “I thought it was a shit movie. There’s a major scene in that movie that Stallone wrote. A scene where Paulie inadvertently signs away their empire-it’s all gone, by his own stupidity, his brashness.”
The studio didn’t like the scene, in which a despondent Paulie pulls out a .45 pistol.
“I’m gonna do myself,” Mr. Young said. “Then Rocky walks in and talks me down. And the movie needed it! It was in the movie up to two weeks before it was released. I said to Stallone, ‘Make sure it stays in the fucking movie.’ And of course they dropped it out. How could they drop it out on Stallone at that time? So it means he dropped it out. And I’d said, ‘If that thing ain’t in the movie, you know, cross the street, I’m not your pal.’ That’s what he does now when he sees me-he leaves the room.