Prior to 1976, Burt Young was a working actor who appeared in a handful of TV shows and movies, CHINATOWN being the most noteworthy. But it was his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the surly and burly Paulie Pennino in ROCKY that made film audiences take note of his name and unforgettable mug. Sadly, the veteran character actor died on October 8 at the age of 83.
Young, who was 35-years-old when ROCKY was filmed, imbued the sad-sack, heavy-drinking Paulie with a pathos that elevated the performance and made audiences both feel sorry for him and cringe at his behavior (like his obsession with his sister's cherry). This scene of a pathetic, drunken Paulie lashing out at Adrian and Rocky no doubt helped him land the Best Supporting Actor nom (Jason Robards won for ATPM)...
He would go on to play the character five more times as the role gradually shifted from Rocky's gruff and emotionally wounded brother-in-law to essentially comic relief. But Young did much more than Paulie.
My favorite non-Paulie role is in BACK TO SCHOOL. A decade after ROCKY, Young played Thornton Melon's gruff right-hand-man Lou in the Rodney Dangerfield classic. Lou always had his man's back and he knew the quickest way to shorten a bookstore line.
Young was great in the role and looked like he was having fun leaning into 'Italian tough guy' role. By the way, this trailer for the movie is funnier than 99% of today's (alleged) comedies.
Over the years, Young worked with a shitload of A-list actors and top-notch directors on film sets but also popped up on several TV shows: "Law & Order", "Tales From The Crypt", "The Rockford Files", "Baretta", "Russian Doll", "Law & Order: SVU", "MASH", and, of course, "The Sopranos".
In just the two years prior to BACK TO SCHOOL, the inimitable Young guest-starred on a pair of the best TV dramas of the era, "Miami Vice" and "The Equalizer", and also appeared in pair of New York-based flicks, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE (not to mention ROCKY IV).
In the years before ROCKY came out, Young had a résumé that would be a very nice career for a working actor. THE GANG THAT COULDN'T SHOOT STRAIGHT, ACROSS 110th STREET, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, CHINATOWN, THE GAMBLER, THE KILLER ELITE (he worked with the legendary Jimmy Caan half a dozen times). And that doesn't even include his TV work.
Young was still getting work into his 80s and never retired from the business. Of his late-career offerings, "Russian Doll" is the best on the TV side while the underrated WIN WIN is tops on the big screen. He was somewhat like a successor to Ernest Borgnine in that they both had everyman looks, prolific careers that lasted long after the peak of an Oscar nom/win, and distinct appearances that viewers would never confuse with anybody else.
Young was still receiving offers late in life because of his talent. But it was his stellar work as Paulie in ROCKY that changed the course of his career and allowed everything after to happen. Burt Young left a hell of a mark and he will certainly be missed. Condolences to his family and friends.