In a sad day for Rocky fans, the entertainment industry lost one of its favorite movie tough guys on October 8, 2023, when Burt Young passed away at the age of 83 in Los Angeles. His death was confirmed to the New York Times today by his daughter, Anne Morea Steingieser.
A fitting tribute came from Sylvester Stallone, who took to Instagram to say, “To my Dear Friend, BURT YOUNG, you were an incredible man and artist, I and the World will miss you very much… RIP.”
Let’s dive into the life and career of Burt Young, a man whose legacy is deeply intertwined with the world of “Rocky” and whose impact on cinema stretches far beyond the boxing ring.
Early Life and Career: From New York to Hollywood
Burt Young’s path to Hollywood was as authentic and gritty as the characters he portrayed. Born Gerald Tommaso DeLouise in Queens, New York, on April 30, 1940, Young’s early life was marked by the raw experiences that would later become his hallmark as an actor.
Before his foray into acting, Young capitalized on his love for boxing and became a boxer in real life. He stepped into the ring for a total of 17 professional boxing bouts, securing victories in all of them. What’s more, he shared the ring with none other than the GOAT, Muhammad Ali to raise funds for a charitable cause, leading to a lasting friendship.
Casting in the Original “Rocky”: Paulie Comes to Life
1976’s “Rocky” was a turning point not just for Sylvester Stallone but also for Burt Young. The film was a labor of love for Stallone, who penned the script and played the titular character. When it came time to cast Paulie Pennino, Rocky’s ornery yet endearing brother-in-law, it was Young’s rough charm and authenticity that won him the role.
Aged 36 when he first slipped into Paulie’s flannels and blue puff jacked, Young’s boxing experiences in his youth brought a street-tough authenticity to his role as Paulie. Though it was never mentioned in the series, you could just imagine that maybe Paulie took a few shots at some point in the past.
Young’s chemistry with Stallone was powerful. We never knew Rocky’s full history with Paulie, but it’s hinted that they go way back, probably to school days (remember Paulie fixed Rocky up with his first girlfriend?). Their on-screen relationship grew from young toughs, to “my crazy best friend”, to brothers-in-law. Burt Young’s performances added depth and authenticity to the six films in the “Rocky” series in which he appeared. He was the everyman, a character you couldn’t help but love even when he was at his worst (well, maybe not when that turkey flew into the alley, but – you know what we mean.)
Relationship with Talia Shire: A Cinematic Bond
Young’s connection with Talia Shire, who portrayed Adrian, Paulie’s sister and Rocky’s love, was more than just on-screen chemistry. The triumvirate of Stallone, Shire, and Young formed an unforgettable trio, both on and off-camera. Young later confessed that he was in love with Tally, and his feelings for her made their dramatic scenes together hard to endure.
The pair reunited on screen in between Rocky and Rocky II when they appeared in the 1978 TV movie “Daddy, I Don’t Like It Like This”. Young actually wrote the script for the movie, which tackles the sensitive subject of child abuse. In the story, he and Shire play a working-class New York couple, and their shy young son (played by Doug McKeon) has a hard time making friends, suffering abuse from other kids, parents – even teachers. In the most painful part of the story, the boy’s father (Young) pays local bullies to beat him up in an effort to toughen him.
The Unforgettable Deleted Scene: Paulie’s Heartfelt Confession
In 2006, Burt Young returned to the “Rocky” series with “Rocky Balboa,” demonstrating that age had not dimmed his ability to breathe life into Paulie Pennino. Yet, one of the most poignant moments that showcased Young’s depth as an actor was unfortunately left on the cutting room floor.
In “Rocky Balboa,” there was a deleted scene that underscored the depth of Young’s acting prowess. In a heartfelt moment, Paulie opens his heart about the loss of his sister, Adrian. Very regrettably deleted from the final cut, Young’s scene was a masterclass in emotional delivery, revealing the layers of a character who had been there from the very beginning.
Paulie’s Farewell in “Creed”
Young’s iconic character, Paulie Pennino, met his fictional end in “Creed”, though we never got to see it, or learn what happened to him. His headstone, placed next to Adrian’s, signified that he had passed away in 2012. It was a bittersweet moment for fans who had journeyed with these characters through the decades, marking the end of an era.
Burt Young: An Artist Beyond Acting
At the time of his passing, Young had four projects in various stages of production which will mark his final pieces of work once ultimately released. These include “Asleep at the Wheel”, “All In”, and “Street Justice” and “Way of the Warriors”, a hockey film which was in production in 2020.
Young’s artistic talents extended beyond the world of acting. He was an accomplished painter and sculptor, and his artwork offered a glimpse into the depth of his creativity. Just as he brought authenticity to his characters on screen, his art reflected a rich inner world of emotions and experiences. Some of his pieces can be seen on screen in “Rocky Balboa” (guess Paulie’s an artist, too!) and are displayed on Burt’s official website.
As we say goodbye to Paulie, let’s raise our glasses of Four Roses whiskey and take a shot for Burt in remembrance, celebrating the life and legacy of a truly remarkable actor and artist, the gruff guy whose friendship with Rocky will forever resonate in our hearts.
Yo, Paulie, we’re gonna miss you.