Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
I first dove into HBO’s Boardwalk Empire around the time it was airing during the 2010s, and recently dove back in for a revisit a few months ago. In college, when I was at the peak of my obsession with the series, I could not stop talking about, thinking about, tweeting about, and most importantly blogging on Tumblr about Boardwalk Empire. I was completely taken by the period drama, a revolving door of familiar lead and supporting actors, woven into a multilayered journey throughout 1920s Atlantic City. There, gangsters and politicians (often one and the same) rub shoulders and make plays for power, as illegal alcohol and drugs are carted through and the feds stay close on their tail. What struck me the most in my second watch was less the story and characters, which are rich and routinely gripping, but the sheer beauty and eclecticism of the expansive, character actor-centric cast—something that undoubtedly played into my zealotry when I first became fanatical about a Prohibition-era crime drama as a teenager.
Prolific character actor Steve Buscemi plays what could be defined (at least, for a little while) as the series lead, Nucky Thompson. Thompson is loosely based on the real-life Enoch L. Johnson, a corrupt political figure and crime boss in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the early 20th century. Throughout the series, we follow the various people in Nucky’s personal and professional orbit, which often includes actors playing fictional interpretations of real-life historical figures, like Stephen Graham as Al Capone, or Michael Zegen as Benjamin Siegel. There’s Nucky’s war-torn protégé, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Jimmy’s wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino), and his very young mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol). Nucky’s brother and Atlantic City sheriff, Eli (Shea Whigham), and the New York gangsters doing business with Nucky, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). The Black Atlantic City gangsters Nucky regularly works with, led by Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), and the Prohibition Agent investigating Nucky, Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). Naturally, these are only a handful of the people and narratives interlaced across the series’ five seasons arc.
Despite an illustrious career largely defined by unforgettable supporting parts as villains and various lowlifes, with his trademark large, reptilian eyes and nasally voice, Steve Buscemi has very rarely been allowed a place in the spotlight. Such is the life of the character actor; historically the actors with more unusual faces are kept largely at the sidelines playing eccentric backup parts—though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These actors don’t sell the film to the public at large, but they enhance it and are frequently better than the lead. If the lead is the heart of a movie or television project, then the character actors are the veins supplying precious blood to it.
Enter Terence Winter, who had recently come from writing and executive producing Seasons 2-6 of The Sopranos, and was hired in 2008 to adapt the non-fiction book entitled “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.” Winter had worked with Buscemi on Season 5 of The Sopranos, and Boardwalk executive producer Martin Scorsese had also expressed desire to work with the celebrated actor. The series, thus, placed Buscemi in yet another role as a degenerate scum, not unlike the scum which Buscemi’s distinct look has easily typecast him as before. This time, Buscemi was given the opportunity to be both the villain and the lead protagonist, and a towering, menacing one at that. It was the kind of role which acted in stark opposition to the submissive lackeys and conniving henchman that have otherwise marked his filmography for the past nearly four decades.
Over time, Nucky Thompson takes a few steps back as the HBO series barrels on towards its ultimate conclusion, which aired back in 2014. But Buscemi always remained both the face of the series and its anchoring figure. Almost every storyline can be traced back to him, even if things don’t consistently stay fixated on him. From Steve Buscemi at the helm of the series, focus trickles down to the other character actors which fill out the rest of the cast, like Bill Forsythe, Kelly MacDonald, Stephen Graham, Stephen Root, and the late Michael K. Williams. There are also character actors who have since gone on to have fruitful careers (and becoming far more recognizable to the general public) like Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bobby Cannavale, and Jeffrey Wright.
Then there’s the kind of actor you might not immediately know but you recognize as popping up everywhere and in everything. They make up the majority of Boardwalk Empire. Actors that make you go, “Hey, it’s that guy!” Boardwalk Empire functions like a direct vehicle for dads to point and recognize actors that they don’t know the names of: Shea Whigham, Paul Sparks, Glenn Fleschler, Jack Huston, Michael Zegen, Julianne Nicholson or Billy Magnussen, to name a very small few. And this doesn’t even account for one-off guest spots, like the great Bill Camp in Season 2. Overall, the majority of the actors that appear in Boardwalk Empire aren’t household names, but they are supporting acting heavyweights. They might rarely or never be a lead, but they’re the type to hold their own in whatever scene they’re in.
In my second round with the series, I realized Boardwalk Empire appears to be made exclusively to give the spotlight to our greatest working character actors, a mainstream acting masterclass from the very best, least recognized names in the entertainment business. Thus, the best thing about revisiting Boardwalk Empire nearly a decade later was that I carried a more astute appreciation for its idiosyncratic, gorgeous cast, with whom I was now more than familiar. Even actors who had previously starred in Academy Award-nominated films, like Michael Stuhlbarg in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, or Michael Shannon’s Academy Award-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road, have seen their oeuvres and name recognition increase exponentially since their time spent on Boardwalk Empire. Charlie Cox went on to portray Daredevil for Marvel, Katherine Waterston had a breakout turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and Jeffrey Wright recently played Commissioner Gordon in Matthew Reeves’ The Batman. While Buscemi is ostensibly the series’ lead and arguably its most recognizable face, there is less a pointed “star” on Boardwalk Empire than the fact that the entire cast is each like a gear turning to create one star all together. They’re like a colony of bees working together to create one hive, or a patchwork quilt of unique visages, each performance enhanced by the physicality that that particular actor can bring.
Television has become something of noted haven for the character actor, with mainstream film situating itself as hospitable to those leading men and women with a more conventional sheen to their faces. Perhaps this has always more or less been the case. There is however, especially in recent years, something to be said for the noticeable dearth of interesting faces fronting our most popular media, and the pushback or confusion that arises when it comes to those who don’t quite fit the stereotypical mold. The death of the movie star, attributable to a variety of factors, such as social media and prioritization of brands over people, has also wrought a supply of dull, exquisite celebrities, when icons like Humphrey Bogart or Burt Reynolds or even Brad Pitt were once allowed the dignity of being a little rougher around the edges.
Thus, there is something beautiful about a show whose leading man has notoriously been a punchline for his appearance, and the cast who supports him being just as varied. When I say that Boardwalk Empire is a show exclusively made up of the best and hottest weird-looking character actors, I don’t mean that as an insult, and it shouldn’t be taken as one. There’s a reason that your dad doesn’t forget them, even if he can’t remember their name.
Watch on HBO Max
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.