During the 1960s, Burt Young wrote a letter to Lee Strasberg, the director of the Actors Studio in New York, expressing his interest in becoming a student. He admitted uncertainty about his potential in acting, but requested an opportunity to be considered.
Young wrote a letter in attempt to win the favor of a woman he wanted to impress. The woman’s aspiration was to study with Strasberg. Both she and Young were asked to audition. However, she gave up after struggling in her first acting lesson. Strasberg, on the other hand, was impressed by Young’s short and chubby appearance and commented: “You exude immense tension. I sense that you are an emotional repository.”
In less than 10 years, Young, who passed away at the age of 83, rose to fame for his role as Paulie Pennino in the popular film Rocky (1976). He portrayed a simple-minded and tough butcher who is the brother-in-law of the determined boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in this rags-to-riches success.
Young commented that the script had the most polished and straightforward writing style he had ever come across. He was nominated for best supporting actor among the film’s 10 Oscar nominations. The film ultimately won three awards, including best picture.
In the hands of Young, Paulie was both charmingly mischievous and frustrating. The actor described him as having a tough exterior but a fragile interior. Paulie’s affection for Rocky is constantly challenged by his envy of the boxer’s achievements. However, any initial excitement or conflict in the story was lessened by a series of sequels where Stallone and Young played their roles again. One particular low point was in Rocky IV (1985), where Paulie is gifted a robot butler by Rocky due to his lavish lifestyle. Paulie later alters the robot to have a female voice.
In the sixth movie, Rocky Balboa (2006), he makes his final appearance as the boxer’s corner-man. His character’s passing is hinted at in the spin-off film, Creed (2015), where Young does not make an appearance.
Paulie was a common character that was often offered to Young: you could almost hear the hair growing out of their ears, smell the sweat on their tank tops, and sense their brain cells deteriorating. In the film Back to School (1986), he portrayed a rough chauffeur who was described by the main character, played by comedian Rodney Dangerfield, as “a beast. In his family, he’s only the second generation to walk upright.”
Young’s experience was never straightforward. In the film The Choirboys (1977), directed by Robert Aldrich, his performance as a laughing sergeant was praised by the Washington Post for being “human and likable.” He often played imperfect, rough, or criminal characters in movies like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Alan Alda’s Betsy’s Wedding (1989), but he always brought a disheveled warmth to his roles, showcasing his acting prowess in every decision he made.
Esteemed co-stars respected his craft. Jack Nicholson shared a scene with Young at the start of Roman Polanski’s neo-noir thriller Chinatown (1974), and was said to have greatly admired the actor and to have used him as the model for the laconic hood he played in Prizzi’s Honour (1985).
James Caan, who Young collaborated with on the romantic drama Cinderella Liberty (1973), managed to secure roles for him in The Gambler (1974), loosely based on the Dostoevsky novella of the same title, and The Killer Elite (1975). The latter was one of two movies that Young appeared in for director Sam Peckinpah, the other being the action-comedy Convoy (1978).
Young explained that Peckinpah’s reputation instilled fear in everyone, including the studios and other actors. They would often communicate through Young because he was not afraid of anyone.
Aldrich was the one who formed a friendship with Young and remained a devoted partner, guiding him in The Choirboys, a thriller set in the nuclear age, Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), and …All the Marbles (1981), a humorous film about female wrestling that was only released internationally as The California Dolls.
A profile in a 1978 issue of Esquire magazine focused on the actor’s past involvement in juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior, stating that his life resembled those depicted in the works of Damon Runyon.
He was born in Queens, New York. He has been known by different names including Gerald De Louise and Richard Morea, but as an actor, he chose the name Burt Young. His mother, Josephine, and father, Michael, who worked as an ice-delivery man and sheet metal worker before becoming a teacher, tried to give him better opportunities by sending him to Bryant High School in a nicer area. However, he was eventually expelled from the school. He then attended St. Anne’s Academy, but was also removed from there.
At the age of 16, he joined the Marine Corps and completed deployments in Japan and the Philippines. During this time, he discovered a talent for boxing. Following a dishonorable discharge, he went back to New York and pursued a professional boxing career, receiving training from renowned coaches Cus D’Amato and Charley Goldman. Competing under three different names, he boasted a record of 17 wins and only one loss.
He transitioned into a truck driving career, owned a silk-screen printing business that ultimately failed, had partial ownership in a bakery and a bar, and was employed by his brother’s carpet-cleaning company in Manhattan. Eventually, he established his own business in Queens. Later on, he launched his own restaurant, Burt Young’s Il Boschetto, in the Bronx.
In the beginning of his acting career, he appeared in roles on the daytime soap opera The Doctors (1969) and the crime comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971). Throughout his 50+ years in the industry, he amassed approximately 160 acting credits in both film and television. Some notable works include The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) alongside Mickey Rourke, a chilling adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), the comedic film Mickey Blue Eyes (1999) where he reunited with Caan, and Transamerica (2005) where he played the father of a trans woman portrayed by Felicity Huffman.
He both authored and acted in two movies: the made-for-TV film “Daddy, I Don’t Like It Like This,” about a young boy whose father attempts to make him stronger, and the emotional “Uncle Joe Shannon” (both 1978), where he portrayed a grieving trumpet player. In more recent years, Young dedicated a large portion of his time to painting.
In a 2001 installment of the show The Sopranos on HBO, he delivered a particularly emotional performance. He portrayed an aging criminal who was terminally ill and appreciative for the opportunity to complete one last job. The task concludes in a memorable and tragic manner.
He believed that he may have fallen back into a life of crime if Strasberg had not given him approval. “I have experience with that lifestyle,” he explained. “Even now, two of my closest friends are serving 100-year sentences.”
In his old age, he was still performing admirably. In 2002, he stated, “Instead of soaring, I’m grounded.” Despite still having goals, he moves at a slower pace and knows he will never reach the level of success as Tom Cruise.
No one would have desired for him to be any different: Young’s expressions held more personality than the polished, glossy celebrities in a dozen vehicles.
Anne, the daughter of Gloria and the late individual, is his sole surviving family member.
Burt Young, also known as Gerald De Louise, was an actor. He was born on April 30, 1940 and passed away on October 8, 2023.