All too often, Steve Buscemi has been the twist of weirdness that directors have used to spice up their movies. To his credit, whether as the whiny cheapskate gangster Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs or the Fargo kidnapper who winds up in a wood chipper, his talent is such that the camera always finds magic in his hangdog eyes and crooked teeth.
"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, 53, told The Hollywood Reporter in July when he scored his first Emmy nomination for lead actor in a drama for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (for which he already won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards).
But if you think Buscemi got robbed as he left empty-handed at the Emmys last week in Los Angeles, that's nothing compared with the conspiracies, thugs and murders he'll preside over as the second season of Boardwalk Empire gets under way tonight on OSN. No longer the garnish, Buscemi's now the star. He drives this Prohibition-era 1920s drama like a Bugatti Royale. The Atlantic City boardwalk bustles like Times Square as his character, the half-politician/half-gangster Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, figuratively dances on the teeth of sharks. He plays his ambition, greed and ruthlessness against conflicted feelings of tenderness towards the beautiful Irish widow Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) and generosity for the less fortunate.
Yes, Nucky's the guy who runs everything, but this season, he finds himself about to be run out of town, or much worse, betrayed by family and friends or by budding gangsters who want a fatter slice of his bootlegging pie.
"It's not Lucky Luciano and Al Capone that we know today," the Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese, who won an Emmy for directing last year's pilot, says in an HBO trailer. "It's the youth version; they're gangster-toddlers, they're just beginning. There's always been a love-hate relationship with the American gangster in American culture. It's the dark side of the American dream."
The title of last year's finale, A Return to Normalcy, hinted at dealmaker Nucky's high hopes that he'd put the worst behind him. Hardly.
Now, his American dream will turn nightmarish as Commodore (Dabney Coleman) and his former protégé Jimmy (Michael Pitt) plot his downfall; the religious fanatic, fetishist and federal agent Van Alden comes after his hide; Jewish and Italian mobs scheme to put him out of business and it's anybody's guess how long Margaret's love will last amid his corruption.
"Incorrectly, I think (Nucky) feels he can buy his way out of anything, and he doesn't realise that sometimes what these people actually really need is just love and emotion and understanding," says Terence Winter, the show's creator and executive producer.
"As soft as that sounds, it actually would make Nucky a smarter businessman if he were to even feign those emotions to these people. But instead, Nucky expects everybody to just suck it up and move on. And unfortunately, these people, deeply wounded by his actions, begin to conspire against him."
Also this season, racism rears its ugly head as Ku Klux Klansmen with machine guns sorely test Nucky's alliance with his counterpart in the black community, Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, previously of The Wire). A furious Chalky barks at Nucky: "You go school these crackers."
So the heat's on. But some may recall that Buscemi worked as a New York City firefighter for four years in the early 1980s — and showed up at his old firehouse the day after the September 11 tragedy in New York to dig through rubble with his old comrades looking for missing firefighters. So don't be surprised if putting out "fires" is what Nucky does best this season.
Season 2 of Boardwalk Empire premieres in the UAE at 10pm tonight on OSN First HD and OSN First.