Steve Buscemi puts the “character” in character actor. Since the mid-1980s, he’s appeared in hundreds of films and television shows, while living a storybook life filled with tragedy and triumphs. Although this unconventional movie star was trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute, the creepy and charismatic actor is known as much for his crooked chompers as his acting chops. The Guardian once described him as a “strangely attractive shoelace.”
While Buscemi earned award nominations for playing slick mob boss Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire, the prolific actor, who was born on Friday the 13th, has made his mark playing unlucky oddballs, mumbling psychos, and bumbling criminals who often don’t make it to the end credits. But think twice before you judge him or his roles. “I don’t see any of these people as losers,” Buscemi told The Guardian while discussing his characters. “I refuse to call them losers. I don’t see why people have to be defined as winners or as losers. To me, they are people who have problems and struggle. They are trying to live their life and a lot of these guys have a lot of heart, which I really appreciate.”
Speaking of heart, let’s shine a spotlight on one of Hollywood’s most interesting actors. This is the untold truth of Steve Buscemi.
This former firefighter is a real-life 9/11 hero
Before becoming a Hollywood star, Steve Buscemi was a New York firefighter in the early 1980s. He eventually left the FDNY to pursue his acting dreams but returned to duty decades later under dire circumstances. “When 9/11 happened, I came back here on the 12th and had my gear, I still had my old, you know, my turnout coat and my helmet and the boots,” Buscemi told CBS News. The Armageddon actor dug through rubble, searching for survivors for five days at Ground Zero. “It was really confusing and disconcerting,” he recalled. “There was something about being there that was also very comforting, and I remember that surprising me. I went there to help, but I was the one who was helped, you know? It really helped me.”
Buscemi’s support for his fellow first responders didn’t end there. In 2014, he produced an HBO documentary titled A Good Job: Stories of the NYFD. The project encourages first responders to seek help. “Firefighters are great at helping others,” says Buscemi. “They’re great at helping each other. But they don’t always know that they themselves are in need, you know? Their first reaction would be, ‘Oh, the next guy has it worse, you know? It was nothing, you know, that I went through. It wasn’t just that bad. But that guy? Oh, that family, you know? They had it worse.” According to the New York Daily News, the doc “accomplishes the hardest of all feats with firefighters: making them exactly life-size.”
His crooked teeth are his most valuable commodity
With his bulging eyes, stringy hair, and crooked smile, Steve Buscemi has the kind of face that only a casting director could love. Although the “Chicks With Steve Buscemeyes” Tumblr page went viral, the Emmy-nominated actor’s moneymaker is his legendary snaggletooth. “I’ve had dentists who have wanted to help me out, but I say, ‘You know, I won’t work again if you fix my teeth,”’ Buscemi told The Hollywood Reporter.
Funnyman Seth McFarlane even had a go at Buscemi’s grill on a memorable episode of Family Guy, which featured the 2011 Golden Globe-winning actor handing out an Oscar alongside Scarlett Johansson. In the episode, lead character Peter Griffin comments that “every one of Buscemi’s teeth are in business for themselves.” The actor’s infamous choppers then argue about which Oscar after-parties they will attend. While Buscemi had done some voice work for the show previously, the hilarious cartoon cameo caught him off-guard. In an appearance on Running Late with Scott Rogowsky, Buscemi recalled the moment he saw the clip. He was watching the show muted while helping his son, Lucian, with his homework. “Who do you think that’s supposed to be?” Buscemi asked. Lucian said, “Dad, it’s you.” The actor said, “There’s no way that’s me, and, yeah, it was me.”
Can you guess Steve Buscemi's favorite death scene?
Steve Buscemi has been shot, stabbed, and wood-chipped for our entertainment. The prolific actor’s characters often meet their demise in the movies and on the television shows in which he appears. “When I get cast, I always flip to the end of the script to see if my character gets beaten up or killed,” he told The New York Times. “I really thought that after getting killed on The Sopranos, I should not accept scripts where I die. I mean, there’s nowhere to go after getting killed by Tony Soprano.”
Buscemi’s death scenes in Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, Con-Air, and countless other projects have been celebrated with video tributes (Sorry, spoilers ahead) which have made him a sort of cult figure. During an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the actor was asked to identify his favorite way to bite the dust. “The one that amused me the most was dying of a heart attack in The Big Lebowski,” said Buscemi, who is both a frequent collaborator and victim of the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) filmmaking team. “When I read The Big Lebowski I thought ‘this character (Donny) is such a nice guy that there’s no way that they’re gonna kill him.’ And then when I got to the [part where] there’s the heart attack and I was like ‘Dammit, again!'”
He got stabbed in a bar brawl involving Vince Vaughn
Steve Buscemi’s characters often die in movies, but he almost lost his own life in a bar brawl in 2001. The Domestic Disturbance actor, his co-star Vince Vaughn, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg reportedly got into it with some good old boys at a North Carolina bar. According to The Guardian, two local men allegedly picked a fight with the Hollywood trio, who was in town filming the ill-fated John Travolta-thriller. One of their girlfriends supposedly began “talking” to Vaughn. An argument ensued and (just like in the movies) the confrontation was taken outside. “Police on patrol broke up the fracas, but not before Buscemi had been stabbed above the eye and in the jaw, throat, and arm,” The Guardian reported.
A source for Entertainment Weekly said the “situation could have been life threatening.” Vaughn was reportedly “maced, arrested, fined, and released,” while Buscemi was taken to an emergency room then flown to New York to consult with plastic surgeons. According to the Star News Online, the fella wielding the knife was a college student named Timothy Fogerty. He was reportedly charged with assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to a minimum of 25 months in custody. Assistant District Attorney Ben David said Mr. Fogerty “picked the right victim,” alluding to Buscemi, because the Con-Air actor reportedly wanted Fogerty to get help for potential substance abuse or mental health problems instead of serving hard time.
Steve Buscemi's directorial debut was personal
Steve Buscemi has played countless eccentrics, criminals, and even God over the course of his distinguished career, but he kept things personal for his feature writing/directing debut. The 1996 comedy drama Trees Lounge stars a self-sabotaging, aimless barfly named Tommy who is largely autobiographical. “That was my life when I used to live in Long Island,” Buscemi told CNN. “I used to work in a gas station. I drove an ice cream truck. Trees Lounge is a real bar and mostly all the characters are based on people that I know there.”
With a $1.3 million budget, the project starred a stellar ensemble cast, including Chloë Sevigny, Samuel L. Jackson, and Buscemi, who found being in front of and behind the camera challenging. “A lot of times I would get stressed out,” Buscemi told Interview. “I wished I’d had more time, because once I started to get the hang of it, the shoot was over.” The indie film premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and was well received, earning 3.5 out of four stars from famed critic Roger Ebert. “Trees Lounge doesn’t paint a depressing portrait of Tommy, just a realistic one,” Ebert wrote. “Any alcoholic knows that life is not all bad, that there comes a moment between the morning’s hangover and the night’s oblivion when things are balanced very nicely, and the sun slants in through the bar windows, and there’s a good song on the jukebox, and the customers might even start dancing.”
His Seinfeld audition is the stuff of urban legend
Can you imagine Steve Buscemi playing George Constanza on Seinfeld? In an interview on The Howard Stern Show, actor Jason Alexander revealed that Buscemi was one of the many actors who could have played Jerry Seinfeld’s neurotic sidekick. Other contenders reportedly included Nathan Lane, Paul Shaffer, Danny DeVito, and Chris Rock. While inserting Mr. Pink into the sitcom role that Alexander made famous is beyond intriguing, it’s not true, according to Buscemi. “I never auditioned,” he said on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “I don’t know where that came from but it’s been on my Wikipedia, IMDb but I never did and I don’t know how to correct it because I don’t know how the internet works.” The multiple Emmy-nominee went onto say that he couldn’t see anyone but Alexander playing that part and made a playful plea to dispel the online rumors: “Can someone help me change it?”
Although Buscemi was never actually on Seinfeld, he is a big fan of the titular comedian, telling Entertainment Weekly: “I used to do stand-up, or rather I used to go to the improvs and not get on the stage, but I used to sit in the back of the club and this was the improv that was in New York, the improv club in New York in the ’70s, and I used to watch a lot of comics and Jerry was one of the comics that I loved.”
Steve Buscemi's late wife was his favorite artist
According to The New York Times, Jo Andres, Buscemi’s wife of 31 years, died in January 2019 at their Brooklyn home. The longtime couple met when Buscemi was still moonlighting as an actor while stationed with the New York Fire Department’s Engine 55. “She wasn’t impressed that I was a fireman,” Buscemi told CBS News. “I was trying to impress her with the boots and the coat — and she didn’t care!” Andres laughed and added: “He was the only person I knew with a real job that made money.”
While Buscemi would become a household name, Andres was a talented artist and filmmaker in her own right. She was a fixture of New York’s ’80s underground performance scene for her film/dance/light performances. Her short film, Black Kites (starring the couple’s son Lucian) aired on PBS and played at several film festivals. In an interview with the Independent, Buscemi revealed that his favorite work of art was “probably something by my wife Jo Andres.”
Buscemi thanked his dearly departed in a heartfelt awards speech at CinemaCon 2019 (via Entertainment Weekly): “You know, this business can be a challenge to relationships, but you stick it out and there are rewards and I am so grateful to her. She was my biggest supporter and, also, audience and my biggest inspiration.”
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