Appearing in: Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, Rocky Balboa
Burt Young is, foremost, a man for whom human values are important in his works, as these films – and his characterizations throughout the Rocky series – have poignantly underscored. “I want to use my position within the industry to help reach people, to show them how to overcome life’s hurdles, or at the very least cope with it all as best they can.”
Born Jerry De Louise in New York City on April 30, 1940, Young held many an odd job before making the transition to acting. He’d spent a number of years cleaning, selling and installing carpeting, he’d been a truck driver, and perhaps most interestingly – he dabbled in prize fighting. After a tour with the US Marines, Burt agreed to help a friend by auditioning with her for famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who’d worked with such luminaries as James Dean and Marlon Brando. Young was accepted into the school; his friend wasn’t. He then spent time studying at the Actor’s Studio in New York before landing roles in off-Broadway plays.
After honing his craft on stage, he segued to films in 1971 in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight and almost immediately registered with audiences. His second feature, Cinderella Liberty (1973), introduced him to James Caan, with whom he has remained close, the two appearing together in six films, and Chinatown (1974) provided him with the choice little part of Curly, the cuckolded husband of the first reel who later works off his debt by doing a favor for Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes.
Generally typecast as irascible thugs, Young came to prominence in as Talia Shire’s brother Paulie who introduces her to fighter Rocky Balboa in the original Rocky (1976), netting a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for what would become his signature role.
“I find Burt the living embodiment of the Renaissance Man, a bottomless whirlpool of vivid emotions. He’s a puzzle, a walking dichotomy. He’s a brute of a man, capable of inflict incredible punishment because of his natural strength and skills as a professional fighter. Yet the flip side is that he possesses a sensitivity and gentleness that staggers me. He has a humbleness, a quiet side and great intelligence that nurtures his writer’s mind.”
So says Sylvester Stallone of his co-star Burt Young. And it is just those qualities that Stallone describes which enabled Young to turn the character of Paulie from a one-note loser or comic relief into a complex man who grows, in his way, as much as Rocky does.
“To the best of my ability, I like to tickle audiences a little,” says Young, explaining the evolution of his character. “Paulie could have been totally one way – angry, frustrated, a blunt son-of-a-gun. I tried to show the man’s pain and his cry for help.
“As long as he had his pal Rocky or his sister Adrian to blame for his problems,” Young continues, “Paulie was safe and dint’ have to look in the mirror. Finally, when they pulled away from him, he saw how inadequate he was. Then, he began flailing at everything, but it was really at himself.”
Obviously, Paulie is no cardboard character, but it isn’t until Rocky IV that we see his strength and heart, the reserves of humanity given to him by the strong and gentle Burt Young.
The scene that illustrates Paulie’s growth most takes place just as Rocky’s greatest fight is about to start. The Italian Stallion is ready to step into the ring and face possible death at the hands of Ivan Drago, the Russian killing machine. But this time, it’s not pros Mickey or Apollo by his side. His brother-in-law Paulie has crossed half the planet with him to help with his training and give him moral support.
“I know I act stupid sometimes,” says Paulie to Rocky before the intrepid boxer steps into the ring, “but you letting me stay with you all these years, a lot of people would just have said, get rid of the bum, but you give me respect. It’s hard to say these things because it ain’t my way, but if I could unzip myself and step out and be somebody else, I’d wanna be you.”
These moving words are proof that Paulie has not forgotten how Rocky pulled him from the bring of the abyss in Rocky III, when he was squandering his life in drunken helplessness. And in his own clumsy fashion, he finally expresses the admiration he has felt for his friend all these years.
In Rocky IV, Paulie has rehabilitated himself and, more than ever, he is part of the Balboa family. He is someone on whose support Rocky can count. “I’m a shoulder to cry on,” comments Young. “What can I say about that? I just love other people.”
It’s not just Rocky, but Stallone, himself, who seems to draw strength from this tough-tender guy. And apparently the warm feeling he has for Young is mutual. “You’d have to be crazy not to love a guy like Sly Stallone,” Burt says. “What I mean to say is that Sly’s scripts for each of the Rocky movies have let us take twists and turns in character that surprise the audience and keeps them interested. Sly is not only a talented scriptwriter, he’s generous too.” Generous, indeed, for Burt Young went on to appear in all four sequels to the original Rocky.
After a guest appearance on TV’s “Baretta” (ABC, 1975-78), Young began his writing career with a script for the series and also penned the 1978 CBS TV-movie Daddy, I Don’t Like It Like This, acting in it opposite Talia Shire. That same year, he scripted and starred in Uncle Joe Shannon (1978), a critical and commercial flop about a down-and-out trumpeter based on his own relationship with his daughter. After a failed sitcom (NBC’s “Roomies” 1987, which he created as well as starred in), Young found renewed success on TV playing a variety of gangsters in miniseries like Vendetta: Secrets of a Mafia Bride ( 1991) and The Last Don (CBS, 1997). The busy actor has also essayed similar types in films ranging from Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) to The Undertaker’s Wedding (1997). In addition to his recurring role on “Walker, Texas Ranger” (CBS), he guest-starred as psycho serial rapist Lewis Darnell on NBC’s “Law & Order” and narrated “City Dump: The Story of the 1951 CCNY Basketball Scandal” (HBO, 1998).
In 2002, Burt co-starred yet again with longtime pal Talia Shire in Kiss the Bride. The two played husband and wife in this picture, an Italian take on My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Audiences will always remember Burt Young best as the bristly Paulie. The actor feels that the Rocky saga is as much about Paulie as it is about Rocky Balboa himself. “While it is the continuing story of the life of Rocky Balboa, it’s also the continuing life stories of all the other characters, too.”