He’s been beaten up, shot in the face, betrayed by a hooker (“Well, the little guy, he was kind of funny-looking.… He wasn’t circumcised”) and fed into a wood chipper—and that was all in Fargo, one of 100-plus roles in his quarter—century-long movie career. He’s had his skull fractured in a bus crash, gotten hit by a car and been slashed in a bar fight—all in real life. Now everybody’s favorite quirky character actor stars on Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s bid to make a new epic worthy of the bandwidth that brought you The Sopranos and The Wire. As Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Steve Buscemi has found a role to sink his snaggly teeth into for the next year or three, an intense, sometimes creepy character who rules the underworld of Atlantic City in the crooked days of Prohibition.
At 53 Buscemi has slithered through several incarnations on his way to a very modern sort of stardom. Long before there was a website devoted to his buggy, unforgettable eyes or a Golden Globe for best actor on his mantel, Buscemi was a Brooklyn kid with a taste for cinematic tough guys—he couldn’t peel those bug eyes off the TV when Bogart or Cagney pulled the trigger. Unfortunately, he had no clue how a guy becomes an actor. Buscemi’s hardworking father had a backbreaking job with the city, his mom worked at a restaurant, and skinny boy Steve was so shy that the thought of kissing a girl practically gave him a panic attack. How he got from there to Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Fargo, Con Air, The Big Lebowski, Armageddon and a dozen other indelible pictures on his way to Boardwalk Empire is one of the more oddball career stories you’ll ever hear. For one thing, he used money provided by the city of New York to get his start in acting. He flopped as a comedian, took lousy jobs to pay the rent on a lousy apartment and finally broke through as a gun-toting crook named Mr. Pink. The rest is a strange slice of Hollywood history—with a happy ending back where he began. Today Buscemi lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with his wife, Jo Andres, a conceptual artist. They have a 20-year-old son, Lucian. When they met, Andres was the more famous one, a choreographer and experimental filmmaker known for her work in New York’s avant-garde scene in the 1980s. Now she’s often called Mrs. Buscemi. Andres takes that with deadpan humor, once calling herself “president of the chopped liver club.”
We sent Kevin Cook to meet Buscemi at a bar on New York’s West Side. Cook is something of an expert on tough guys; he’s also written a book about America’s greatest con man, Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything. “I’ve followed Buscemi since Reservoir Dogs,” Cook says. “In fact, Quentin Tarantino showed me a rough of the film before it came out, way back in 1992. He pointed to Buscemi on the screen and said, ‘That guy beat me out of a part I wrote for myself!’ Buscemi was almost unknown at the time, but he was so good that Tarantino stepped aside and gave him the role that got his career going full-speed.
“He showed up alone for our talk at a pub on Hudson Street—no publicist or entourage, just Buscemi in a plain brown shirt, a patch of graying stubble on his chin, squinting in noonday sun that made him shield his sunken eyes. ‘How ya doin’? I’m Steve,’ he said. After a quick handshake we ducked inside.”