erik lundegaard

Sunday October 22, 2023

Burt Young (1940-2023)

Stallone and Young in the sleeper hit of 1976.

When did I first see Burt Young? He always seemed part of my film/TV landscape in the 1970s but he'd actually just started getting roles. His first credit (of 166) was in an episode of “The Doctors” that aired in Oct. 1969, and then he was into the 1970s; and then he came to embody a kind of gritty, slobby 1970s aesthetic. But when did I first see him? “Rocky” was in March 1977, just after I'd turned 14. Was anything before then?

Here are the best options, per his IMDb page:

  • “Across 110th Street” (1972): Great movie, but I didn't see it until my 30s in the 1990s
  • “M*A*S*H,” S2, Ep7, “L.I.P.: Local Indigenous Personnel”: So memorable in this (more later) but I didn't start watching “M*A*S*H” reguarly until Season 4—though there's a chance I saw this in rereuns before March 1977
  • “Chinatown” (1974), one of the greatest movies ever made, and he's there at the beginning and end in a pivotal role, but again, I didn't see “Chinatown” until my 30s
  •  “Cinderella Liberty,” “The Gambler,” “Hustling,” “The Killer Elite:”: Nah, I was a kid

I'll cut to the chase: I think it was in a first season episode of “Baretta,” which I watched all the time: S1, Ep10, “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow.” In it, he played Willie, a mentally challenged adult, and a childhood friend of Baretta's, who may be behind a string of robberies. It aired April 9, 1975. When I first saw “Rocky,” I might've even thought, “Hey, it's Baretta's friend!” There's some part of me that thinks I thought that, but I could just be fooling myself.

The point is, I don't remember any episode of “Baretta” anymore. But Paulie? He's imbedded forever. 

Here's the thing people forget about “Rocky”: It was at the exact fulcrum of gritty, realistic '70s movies and the crowd-pleasing, sequel-laden blockbusters Hollywood movies became. The first half was gritty slice of life; second half, he goes the distance, gets the crowd and the girl, etc., and, because it was a huge hit, the No. 1 movie of 1976, it led to “Rocky II,” “III,” “IV,” “V,” “Balboa,” and the first three “Creed” movies. It helped lead us away from gritty realism and the kinds of movies Burt Young was great in.

And was anyone grittier and more realistic in the first “Rocky” than Paulie? Stallone was strong and handsome, with Paul McCartney eyes, and his Rocky was too much of a sweetheart to become a thumbbreaker for the mob. Even the mob was nice: “Here's some money, Rock, don't worry about it.” But Paulie? Ooof. Always wanting something, always insinuating himself in. Hey, Rock, take out my sister. What? You're busted! You ain't a virgin no more! That whole scene. Yikes. Throwing the turkey out the door? There's no one in that movie you wanted to hang around with less than Paulie. Who woulda thought he would last the longest among the supporting cast? Mickey died in “III,” Apollo in “IV,” Adrian after “V.” We don't see Paulie's grave until “Creed.”

During the pandemic I wound up watching a lot of old “M*A*S*H” episodes on HULU, and came across the aforemented Season 2 episode, in which Hawkeye and Trapper help a soldier marry and take home a Korean woman and their child. It's the one where Hawkeye is going after that hot new nurse, but she turns out to be racist, and so he buys back his introduction to her? Anyway, the lieutenant who's charged with looking into the matter is played by Burt Young, and he's just this sad, slobby, brutal, slice of life. Hawkeye and Trap get him drunk, and then surround him women's clothes, to blackmail him. At first it doesn't work, but then he's like “What do I care?” and signs the release but doesn't hold a grudge. He's still kind of affable. More, I was reminded that a few of my forever lines came from him. Particularly:

  • “Whu — braissiere?”
  • “Fuggetit!”

So memorable. 

Young was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for “Rocky,” both him and Burgess Meredith, but they lost to Jason Robards' Ben Bradlee in “All the President's Men.” (Ned Beatty and Laurence Olivier were also in the mix. Helluva slate.) The movies then went the way they went, but almost anytime they returned to something gritty, serious and New York-centric, filmmakers reached out to Burt Young: “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “The Sopranos.”

So long, Paulie.

Posted at 01:26 PM on Sunday October 22, 2023 in category Movies  
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