Burt Young, Oscar-Nominated ‘Rocky’ Actor, Dies at 83

Burt Young, Oscar-Nominated ‘Rocky’ Actor, Dies at 83

Burt Young, a former boxer who was in Sylvester Stallone‘s corner as his brother-in-law Paulie in the six Rocky films and received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his turn in the original, has died. He was 83.

He died on Oct. 8 in Los Angeles, his daughter, Anne Morea Steingieser, told The New York Times Wednesday.

A tough guy in real life who usually played tough guys onscreen, Young portrayed a rotten client of gumshoe Jack Nicholson’s in Chinatown (1974), was mobster “Bed Bug” Eddie in The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) and played Rodney Dangerfield’s protector/chauffeur Lou in Back to School (1986).

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Young also appeared in four movies in four straight years with fellow Queens guy James Caan — Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Gambler (1974), The Killer Elite (1975) and Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976) — before they worked together again in Mickey Blue Eyes (1999).

He played a getaway driver in Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, then got behind the wheel again for the director as a renegade trucker in Convoy (1978). 

As the sullen ex-Navy man Paulie Pennino, the older brother of best friend Rocky’s wife, Adrian (Talia Shire), Young was a stalwart of the MGM franchise starting with the inaugural 1976 release. After giving the boxer the idea to train in a chilly meat locker and working as his cornerman, Paulie was a staple of all the movies through Rocky Balboa (2006).

“I was on the MGM lot when Sly Stallone came over and introduced himself to me, told me he wrote Rocky and said, ‘You gotta do it,’ ” he recalled in a 2009 interview for the website The Sweet Science. “I wanted to do it right away, but I wanted to twist their arms a little bit, not look too eager.

“I thought the script had the cleanest street prose I’d ever read. Stallone is not only a workaholic, he’s a genius who is always looking three years ahead. He has a real eyeball for what’s going on in the world.”

In 1978, Young wrote and starred as a trumpet player in the heart-wrenching film Uncle Joe Shannon, produced by Rocky Oscar winners Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler.

Burt Young

Burt Young

United Artists/Photofest

He was born Gerald Tommaso DeLouise in Queens on April 30, 1940. His father was a sheet metal mechanic who became a shop teacher in high school, and his mother was a dressmaker.

Young got into mischief in high school and, with the help of his dad, joined the U.S. Marines before he turned 16, lying about his age. He boxed in the service, winning 32 of 34 fights during his two-year stint in Okinawa, he said. 

When he got out, he trained with Cus D’Amato (later Mike Tyson’s trainer) and claimed to be unbeaten in a handful of bouts as a pro. He said his biggest payday from a fight was $400. (Later, he “fought” Muhammad Ali in an exhibition for charity, and they would become pals.)

While he worked as a carpet cleaner, salesman and installer, he began studying at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, who would serve as his mentor. 

“What happened is that I was chasing a girl and she (said she) wanted to study with Lee Strasberg. I thought he (Strasberg) was a girl,” he told New York’s Newsday in 1985. “Anyway, I met him and he told me, ‘You’re very tense. You have huge tension about you. I feel you’re an emotional library.’ “

His first acting gig came at age 28 in a play, and his first two movies were stories revolving around crime in New York City: The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), from a Jimmy Breslin novel, and Across 110th Street (1972).

Young went on to appear on the big screen in Amityville II: The Possession (1982), Lookin’ to Get Out (1982), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1984), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), Betsy’s Wedding (1990), Excessive Force (1993), She’s So Lovely (1997), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002), Transamerica (2005) and Win Win (2011).

On television, Young was dormmates with Corey Haim on the short-lived NBC sitcom Roomies, played the retired mobster father of Steve Schirripa’s character on The Sopranos and guest-starred as Lt. Palumbo in Murder Can Hurt You! an ABC spoof of Columbo-like detective shows. 

He made his Broadway debut in 1986 opposite Robert De Niro in Cuba & His Teddy Bear.

Young returned to his ringside roots in the 1980s when he managed boxer David Sears. A light-heavyweight, Sears fought for the title but was knocked out in the third round by Michael Spinks in Atlantic City in February 1985.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his brother, Robert, and a grandson. His wife, Gloria, died in 1974.

A passion for painting was fueled when, at age 11, Young won an easel and paints in a New York City Parks Department contest. An exhibition of his work in 2006, the New York Post wrote, demonstrated “a whimsical touch and flair for color,” and he said he once got $66,000 for a painting.

“I thought, ‘What better way to maybe support yourself, without directing, acting or writing.’ There’s no censorship,” he said in 2012. “With so many movies, my work ends up on the cutting room floor — every actor has that. With my paintings, what are they going to do?”