November 1996
Photograph by MARY ELLEN MARK
Photo Editor: Jennifer Crandall

Couch potatoes: Buscemi and son Lucian at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Something's wrong here. He hasn't touched his pack of Camels. He has let his first cup of black coffee get cold. He's eating his Swiss­ cheese omelette like Emily Post on Valium, nibbling gingerly from one end to the other. He's speaking very slowly and calmly, smiling frequently, and has uttered the f word only once, almost in a whisper, in the past hour and a half. Who is this guy having breakfast at this Brooklyn diner, and what has he done with Steve Buscemi?

He certainly looks the part: hair slicked back, library‑paste pallor, the midmorning hint of a goatee, a jumble of teeth behind Goodyear lips, and expressive blue eyes so bulging that when he rubs one, you almost want to duck. It's a face that has brought manic life to fast‑talking weasels (in Miller's Crossing and Escape From L.A.), vicious killers (in Reservoir Dogs and Fargo) and bewildered misfits (in... take your pick). But right now it’s the face of a shy, unassuming family man, a thoughtful son who says of his role in Fargo, "It's hard on a mother to see her boy put through a wood chipper."

Buscemi is so polite, in fact, that he won’t correct you when you mispronounce his name ‑ as almost everyone does, including some of his best friends. It's not Bu‑shem‑ee, Bu‑skem‑ee or Bu‑sheem‑ee, people. It's Bu‑sem‑ee. "My wife will call for me at a hotel and say, 'Can I talk to Steve Buscemi?' They'll say, 'Yeah, but it's pronounced Bu‑shem‑ee" he says, laughing. "She says, 'OK, just tell him his wife is calling.'"

"People think of Steve as this cracked‑out, maniac gun guy," says Alexandre Rockwell, who directed the actor in the comedies In the Soup and Somebody to Love (and who says Bu‑shem‑ee). "But there's a real innate kindness in him that not everybody sees."

This is the side Buscemi shows off to poignant effect in his directorial debut, Trees Lounge, a touching drama that he also wrote and stars in. Shot in the working‑class suburb of Valley Stream, Long Island, N.Y., where the actor grew up, it's the story of a well‑meaning loser who has never left the nest and spends his days driving an ice‑cream truck, stumbling through relationships and watering his wilting hopes at the local bar.

For Buscemi, it's the story of what might have been if, at age 20, he hadn’t left home to pursue acting in Manhattan. "My world had gotten very small," he remembers. "I was living a block away from the gas station where I worked and hanging out at a bar across the street from the gas station." When his friends went off to college, he remained behind to drive an ice‑cream truck. "If I had stayed there, maybe I'd have just..." he says, trailing off into a shrug. "But I got out."

Buscemi's father, a Korean War veteran who worked for the sanitation depart­ment, encouraged his son to take acting classes but also prodded him to take the civil‑service exam for the fire department. "He used to tell me, 'You can put in 20 years as a fireman, retire at half pay and then have all the time in the world to pursue the acting,"' remembers Buscemi.

Arriving in New York in 1978, Buscemi worked as a fireman in Little Italy by day and a stand‑up comic by night. Coping with the stress of firefighting, he says, was ideal training for acting: "I used to get very nervous before going into a fire. I'd give myself an objective like, 'I'm just going to work on my breathing so I don't use up all the air in my tank.'"

Buscemi's acting career sparked in 1986 with his role as an HIV infected rock musician in Parting Glances. He was perfectly poised to join the ranks of the burgeoning independent-film movement and went on to work with such directors as Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino. By 1993, the press had dubbed him "the indie king.'

"Steve has such a wide range as an actor," says Jarmusch, who directed the actor in 1989's Mystery Train. "But if he hadn't done all these independents, Hollywood would have just typecast him as a nerd." Hollywood just may yet. Buscemi now has a fam­ily to support ‑ wife Jo Andres, a performance artist, and son, Lucian, 5 ‑ and in recent years, as Hollywood has beckoned, the actor has heeded its call, taking roles in such mainstream fare as Airheads, Escape From L.A. and the upcoming actioner Con Air.

But Buscemi will always be a square peg in a town that worships the round hole. As his friend and fellow actor Stanley Tucci says: "Steve is not your blond‑haired, blue‑eyed, tall, handsome guy, so he winds up playing the quirky bad guys. But that's America, that's not Steve." Rockwell concurs: "Steve doesn't get the melodramatic 'A dingo ate my baby' roles. He gets the weirdo who lights the bus on fire with 50 kids on it."

"I've either played seedy, wired, sleazy guys or weird, nerdy guys, " says Buscemi, his forehead wrinkles deepening. "But I'm always looking for the thing that's in the middle of that." Those who know Buscemi as the Mister Softee that he really is ‑ those like his younger brother, Michael, who appears in Trees Lounge ‑ watch from the sidelines as his parade of freaks and geeks goes by. "My father gets a kick out of it," says Michael. "But my mother, well, sometimes she worries about what the neighbors will think."

Josh Rottenberg has written for 'Details' and 'Premiere.' This is his first piece for 'US.'