Burt Young, best known for his riveting portrayal of Paulie in the iconic “Rocky” films, passed away on October 8th in Los Angeles at the age of 83. His passing was confirmed by his devoted daughter, Anne Morea Steingieser.
The actor, originally from Queens, exhibited a rugged charm that landed him roles in more than 160 films and TV shows, from gritty crime dramas like “Chinatown” and “Once Upon a Time in America” to the poignant portrayal of Paulie, the brother of Adrian and Rocky’s loyal friend. This particular role would garner him an Academy Award nomination, showcasing his ability to infuse a tough exterior with a deep-seated vulnerability.
Lee Strasberg, the legendary acting teacher, once described Young as a “library of emotions.” This sentiment perfectly captures the depth and versatility that Burt Young brought to the big screen. Even when he embodied a criminal or thug, Young never settled for one-dimensional characterizations. Instead, he delved deep, adding layers of complexity and raw emotion to every role.
His collaborations with renowned figures in the film industry were extensive. Among those notable partnerships was his work with filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. They teamed up for projects like “The Killer Elite” and “Convoy”. As his daughter recalled, their bond was cemented through mutual respect for their craft and a shared disdain for mediocrity. “Both were mavericks and outlaws, with a deep respect for art,” she remarked.
Throughout the 1970s, Young left an indelible mark with standout roles in television series like “MAS*H” and films such as “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” However, it was his role in “Rocky” alongside Sylvester Stallone that truly catapulted him to widespread acclaim. Recollecting their initial meeting, Young recounted how Stallone approached him, humbly introducing himself as the writer of “Rocky,” pleading, “You’ve got to do it, please.”
Looking back at the first “Rocky” film, Young emphasized its essence in a conversation with Bright Lights Film Journal, stating, “It really wasn’t a fighting story, it was a love story, about someone standing up. Not even winning, just standing up.” The film’s impact was monumental, securing 10 Academy Award nominations and taking home three, including Best Picture.
Born on April 30, 1940, in Queens, Young’s early life was fraught with challenges. From his initial stints at various schools to joining the Marines at the tender age of 16, Young’s journey was as colorful as his film roles. Boxing became a passion during his time with the Marines, which he pursued professionally under renowned trainer Cus D’Amato. However, a chance encounter with acting, initially rooted in his interest in being a bartender with dreams of studying under Lee Strasberg, changed the course of his life.
Beyond his illustrious acting career, Young was an accomplished painter, drawing inspiration from the likes of Picasso and Matisse. As he once mentioned in a 2016 interview, he never allowed himself to be pigeonholed, whether as an actor or an artist.
Burt Young‘s legacy is a tapestry of powerful performances sprinkled with instances of intense rage and tender vulnerabilities. While many remember the explosive moments of his character Paulie in “Rocky,” the man behind the role once mused, “Paulie was a pretty ugly guy many times,” but hastened to add, “I’m a lovable son of a gun. It’s just that I go astray here and there.”
Young’s departure leaves a void in Hollywood, but his remarkable contributions will forever resonate in the annals of cinematic history. He is survived by his daughter, Anne Morea Steingieser, brother Robert, and a grandson.
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