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Steve Buscemi proves the right choice for ‘Boardwalk Empire’

This is how low-key Steve Buscemi is in real life: He can enter the Cupping Room Café in New York’s Soho district and initially go unnoticed even by someone keeping an eye out for him. Hard to imagine such anonymity for a man who has appeared in dozens of movies since the 1980s and who is currently starring in one of HBO’s critically acclaimed new series, “Boardwalk Empire.”

Eventually, he finds who he’s looking for and takes a seat, speaking softly and thoughtfully. “I’ve had people, strangers, after I get to talk to them a little bit, say, ‘Oh, you’re calmer than the characters you play,’ or something like that,” he says. “But I don’t know what characters they’re referring to.”

Buscemi may not. But anyone familiar with his oeuvre of twitchy, motormouth, vaguely malevolent, low-life weaselly characters (there’s a reason he so effectively voiced a lizard in “Monsters, Inc.” or ended up in the wood chipper in “Fargo”) will understand. Over the years, Buscemi has appeared in everything from low-budget indies to Adam Sandler yuk-fests. But barring a few exceptions (say, an eccentric lonely heart in “Ghost World”), he’s clearly made this niche his own.

Then there’s “Boardwalk Empire.” How to explain Steve Buscemi as a leading man? The series, based in 1920s Atlantic City, N.J., was already bejeweled by the presence of executive producer and director Martin Scorsese and lent additional premium cable legitimacy by “The Sopranos” veteran writer Terence Winter before the ensemble’s centerpiece, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on the real-life Atlantic City treasurer of the time, Enoch Johnson) was cast. They wanted a big boss type, a ladies’ man with insight but few scruples, a guy who didn’t like to get his hands dirty but could rise to the occasion if necessary.

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Steve Buscemi did not immediately spring to mind.

“I’m pretty sure he was my idea, though,” says Winter, recalling his conversations with Scorsese over how to fill the role. “The thing is, if you were to cast someone who really looked like Nucky, you’d cast James Gandolfini. This burly, barrel-chested guy. But we all knew Jimmy wasn’t going to pick up the phone for that call,” he says of the actor who’s had his fill of mob boss roles after “The Sopranos.”

So Winter took an impromptu poll during a visit to Atlantic City — and it turned out Enoch Johnson was less than a legendary figure there. “Which was amazing, because in the book [“Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City,” by Nelson Johnson, on which the series is based], he’s so powerful,” says Winter. “Because no one had heard of him, we were free to cast anybody. Marty said, ‘Let’s think outside the box.’”

Enter Buscemi, who had directed three of writer Winter’s “Sopranos” episodes and had a guest role in more than a dozen. “I had this inside track on how people thought of him,” says Winter of the slightly built actor. “We’d go out location scouting and everybody who approached him had a different take on him — he means different things to different people. He has so many colors. If I go to a movie and find that Steve is in it, I know that part of the movie will be good at least. So I thought, ‘Why not make him the lead? You know it’ll always be good.’”

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Being cast somewhat against type doesn’t bother Buscemi. “I think I was not the obvious choice for this character, and I give Terry and Martin Scorsese a lot of credit for supporting me. I don’t think HBO would have preferred to go that way. But they trusted me and Marty. And the thing is, to me it’s more like real life — in real life you’re always saying, ‘Oh, I knew her in high school; we didn’t think she would amount to that.’”

Buscemi spent his first season as Nucky settling into the role, proving to possess even more facets than Winter had imagined. Over 12 episodes, he turned Nucky into one of TV’s more nuanced, iconoclastic leads, evolving slowly from low-level politician into “full-blown corruption,” as Winter puts it. Audiences may have seen the actor do seedy criminals with a few ounces of power before, but Nucky is in charge of both his office and of the ladies. He’s sold audiences on both.

“I knew he could pull the romantic stuff off,” says Winter. “I said, ‘By Episode 5, you’ll be fully on board with Steve Buscemi as this guy.’ And I was right: He is a leading man. Steve is not the guy from the Adam Sandler movies. He’s extremely in control in reality, and can turn that on and off. I knew people would get there; they just had to give him a chance to do it.”

At this point, it’s safe to call the casting inspired — Nucky garnered Buscemi his first Golden Globe in January, and lightning may strike twice in September (he’s a strong lead actor Emmy contender). The series itself also has a Golden Globe, and for a show that hasn’t yet aired the first episode of its second season, all of the pieces do seem to have fallen into place. It’s as if Nucky himself were running things behind the scenes.

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As for Buscemi, he’s just happy to finally have what he’s always wanted: a long-running job in his hometown of New York. After more than 25 years in the business, he’s settled into his first steady TV role with an ease that surprises even him. “It’s been really nice. It’s a unique experience to explore this character. As Martin Scorsese said, ‘The movie just keeps on going.’ And that’s what this feels like: one long, continuous movie.”

calendar@latimes.com


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