Steve Buscemi: The master misfit
As Boardwalk Empire returns for its second season, it's time to salute Steve Buscemi, a superb actor finally triumphing in a deserved lead role.
Little about Steve Buscemi suggests Hollywood megastar. Yet his shaggy hair, pallid complexion, those large eerie eyes and slighly crooked teeth have combined to make him one of the most recognised faces in cinema. The quirky looks, and an unprepossessing character, mask an absolutely brilliant performer.
He brings such complexity to the bad guys he plays - often neurotic oddballs - that his name must be on speed dial if casting agents want the perfect creepy, convincing misfit.
In HBO's Boardwalk Empire he got his chance top be the main man and the awards have flowed for his portrayal of Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson. The second series is back on Sky Atlantic tomorrow.
Buscemi is a fascinating character off screen, too. Born in Brooklyn in 1957, he came from an ordinary, non-acting family of Sicillian descent (his mother was a hostess and his father a sanitation worker) and he survived his own share of scrapes. As a youngster, he fractured his skull when he was hit by a bus and was also hit by a car while chasing a ball. The dramatic incidents continued in adulthood. In 2001 he was stabbed three times when he was caught in a bar brawl involving his friend Vince Vaughn.
Buscemi, now 53, did some minor acting in high school before, at the age of 20, working as a stand-up comedian (he was a fan of the brilliant American George Carlin) but it failed to take off and he missed the cameraderie of acting. Perhaps one of the reasons he excels at portraying idiosyncratic characters is that his own past is so varied. "I drove an ice-cream truck. I was a furniture remover. I was a dishwasher. I was a bus boy," he recalled.
And from 1980 to 1984, he was a fire fighter in Engine Company Number 55 in the Little Italy district of New York. He was wary of telling his fellow-firemen about his acting ambitions. As he recalled: "I thought they would think it was less than a manly thing to do." Once they knew, they backed him to the hilt, "forcing me to perform at parties".
Later, as a renowned actor, Buscemi was hit hard by the 9/11 tragedy and rushed to help his old unit, working long shifts sifting through the World Trade Center rubble in September 2001. In an interview with John Lahr in The New Yorker, Buscemi's wife, the artist Jo Andres, said: "He'd come home covered in ash. The smell was so intense on him he'd take everything off at the door and try to go right in the shower." Buscemi said: "It was like being on another planet. You had no reference for it."
He felt it was an honour. It was the fire fighters who had helped persuade him to pursue his dreams of acting and backed him in learning his trade in the theatre. One of his big cinema breaks came in working for the Coen Brothers, with whom he has made six movies. The Coens first used him as Mink in Miller's Crossing. He was also Donny in The Big Lebowski and, perhaps his finest role for them, Carl Showalter in the magnificent Fargo. "In Fargo, they not only killed me, but they beat me up and shot me in the face and had an axe in the shoulder. I die a lot," he said.
Buscemi can play outright creepy - Mr Pink in Quentin Taratino's Reservoir Dogs - or comedy creepy as he showed in Con Air, when he played the mass murderer Garland Greene. In one scene his character sings He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands. Buscemi said: "People like the song. People sometimes sing that to me." It was a mark of his growing reputation that the part was specifically written for him and he did not have to audition.
He's also got a fine sense of humour. He's appeared as himself in The Simpsons and when his dentist suggested fixing his teeth, he told her: "You're going to kill my livelihood if you do that." Outside of acting, his interests are broad. He's written a song for Lou Reed and composed his own poems.
But is for acting he so deservedly shines. And on big or small screen, he is unique. You could see some of his early talent on an episode of David Simon's Homicide, where he played a gunman, and he was superb as Tony Blundetto - the cousin and childhood friend of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. In fact, he directed one of the finest episodes - Pine Barrens. He said: "I feel really privileged to have been a part of it and to have worked that closely with it, as a director and as an actor. And as an audience member, I'm still in awe of the show. For me, it never lost that sense of, 'Holy shit... this is f----- great."
But, at long last, Buscemi got what he deserved: the starring role. And he's been brllliant as the artful, cynical yet vulnerable manipulator In Boardwalk Empire.
So far, he has won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor and two Screen Actors Guild Awards for his role in Boardwalk. He said: "This is one of the best parts I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s just so exciting for me to go to work and know that these scripts are so strong, and to play a character who is ambitious. He certainly has a dark side, but there’s also a lot of humor that goes along with it. I think he genuinely has a good heart."
There is one part that got away from him. And it might have been the most intriguing role of all. He auditioned for the rol
of George Costanza on Seinfeld. Now just how creepy would a Steve Buscemi Costanza have been?
Boardwalk Empire Series 2 begins on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Saturday 8 October.