The Tough Complexity of Burt Young

Burt Young

Paulie comes to the living room and sees his sister Adrian (Talia Shire) watching TV with his friend and boxer Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), grabs a baseball bat and smashes the furniture in a threatening displaying jealousy by seeing the awkward couple having a happy moment amidst impoverished conditions that seem to lead the lives of those in 1970’s Philadelphia to nowhere, but Rocky, a prizefighter without great expectations, is now the heavyweight title contender going against the dazzling Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Burt Young (1940 – 2023), who died on October 8, 2023, by undisclosed cause, is most remembered by interpreting the role of Paulie, Rocky Balboa’s handler and brother-in-law, in the seminal boxing franchise Rocky which had its first chapter launched in 1976. Still, the skilled character actor trained by the legendary Lee Strasberg played many types of tough guys that although could be pigeonholed by untrained eyes under the same archetype, still each time Young made them feel different and nuanced while on some occasions even likeable as Paulie, who could feel like a troubled but endearing uncle found in many families, and other outings he could be hateful as well.

The first Rocky (1976) garnered Young an Oscar nomination for supporting actor, and Paulie Pennino would appear in more five instalments of the series having a touching scene in 2006’s Rocky Balboa where he is back to the meat-packing plant where he started to work but is laid off and points out that after years of contribution, all he got was a watch. Paulie represents many people from working-class roots who don’t have any special talent or skill like sports or arts to ascend in society but keep their hardworking integrity. In Creed (2015), Paulie is mentioned to have perished in 2012.

Coming from an Italian-American household with the background of being a former marine and a former boxer trained and managed by Cus D’Amato, who also trained Mike Tyson and Floyd Patterson, Young was a real tough man. For boxing historian Chris Smith, Young left a legacy to this corner of entertainment through his most famous character as stated to the Big Picture Film Club: “His character was good. The impact that Rocky had on boxing was huge. Definitely brought in interest from casual fans and helped put a focus on one of the greatest boxing cities in Philadelphia.”

Young would bring his grit to the different figures from the underworld he played in pictures like Across 110TH Street (1972), The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1972), Convoy (1978), and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). Besides Sylvester Stallone, Young also frequently worked with James Caan in pictures like Cinderella Liberty (1973), and Mickey Blue Eyes (1999).

One of the best acting performances of his career outside the Rocky pictures came in the classic mob film Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Young is a hoodlum mauling his meal while telling in a crude manner how he became aware of a Detroit diamond shipment prone to be heisted by the characters of Joe Pesci, James Woods, and Robert De Niro. Young commands the scene with his voice tone, facial expressions, and body language.

Young was a prolific actor who besides films would appear in many TV movies and series not to forget writing screenplays too having penned the stories such as the film Uncle Joe Shannon (1978), which had him as the protagonist.

On TV, his resumé boasts the credits of Columbo, Russian Doll and The Sopranos among others. In the early 80’s he was one of the many guests in the hit series Miami Vice playing a character that is the opposite of Paulie thus showcasing his incredible acting range. In an exclusive interview with Big Picture Film Club, Morgan Richter, author and creator of the YouTube series “Miami Vice Changed Everything” said the following about Young:

“‘Give a Little, Take a Little’ was the first Miami Vice episode I ever watched, back when it first aired in 1984. It was also the first time I’d ever seen Burt Young in anything: I was ten, and it would be a couple of years before I’d see him in his most famous role in Rocky. Throughout the Rocky films, Young’s Paulie is rough-edged and exasperating, but always charming, even lovable. In ‘Give a Little, Take a Little,’ though, in which Young plays a lewd, vicious pimp named Lupo Ramirez who menaces Saundra Santiago’s Detective Gina Calabrese during what turns out to be an epically harrowing undercover assignment, that charm is nowhere to be found: Ramirez is cold, loathsome, and repulsive. Young gives a great, juicy performance, dripping with sleaze and malice; when a traumatized Gina shoots Ramirez in self-defense in the climax, it comes as a relief.”

Morgan Richter

Young is beloved by the acting and boxing communities. The legacy of Young is being a character actor who was more layered than what the eyes could see, making those characters feel unique, loveable, or terrifying but never forgettable.

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Gabriel Leão

Gabriel Leão (He/Him) works as a journalist and is based in São Paulo, Brazil. He has written for outlets in Brazil, the UK, Canada and the USA such as Vice, Ozy Media, Remezcla, Al Jazeera, Women’s Media Center, Clash Music, Dicebreaker, Yahoo! Brasil, Scarleteen, Anime Herald, Anime Feminist and Brazil’s ESPN Magazine. He also holds a Master’s degree in Communications and a post-grad degree in Foreign Relations.