These days, everyone knows Steve Buscemi from roles in movies such as “Fargo,” “Reservoir Dogs” or “Ghost World,” or from his current Emmy-nominated portrayal of ruthless 1920s Atlantic City crime boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson on HBO’s hit drama “Boardwalk Empire,” which returns for its fifth and final season Sunday, Sept. 7.
But back in the days before he had his SAG card, the 56-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native was a member of “New York’s Bravest,” a firefighter with Engine 55 in Manhattan’s Little Italy from 1980 to 1984.
And he used his familiarity and his connections with the New York Fire Department to produce “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY,” premiering Monday, Sept. 8, on HBO.
The hour-long film delves into what it’s like to fight fire in New York — pre- and post-9/11 – the tremendous mental and physical toll that can take, and the culture of the firehouse, through interviews Buscemi conducted with the men and women who lived the job.
In the film, the tolls are evident. Former and current firefighters talk with obvious difficulty and pain about fires where they’ve nearly been killed, lost friends or seen things that horrified them.
One was a captain with whom Buscemi went to probationary firefighters school.
“He’s a very reserved guy and I could tell it was very hard for him to talk about it,” Buscemi tells Zap2it. “… And I give him a lot of credit because I think it takes a lot of courage to do that, because it’s obviously still raw. It’s hard for a lot of these guys to go to that place inside of them to talk about this stuff because it does make you vulnerable.
“And I think that’s the challenge of the job,” he continues. “… For their mental health, I think it’s important that they are in touch with that side of it because otherwise it could be really painful to live with some of the things that they’ve witnessed and some of the things that they’ve been through.”
That pain was ramped up tenfold with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which Buscemi calls “the motherlode, really … because every surviving firefighter knew at least 10 or more of the 343 that died that day. So they were constantly going to funerals and then going down to the site and it was just a really, really difficult time.”
On a lighter note, the film touches on the “ball-busting” that goes on in firehouse kitchens, partially as an expression of camaraderie and partially as a stress reliever.
It was there that a nervous young Buscemi tried to keep his acting ambitions a secret from his comrades, but a fellow firefighter who was also an actor ratted him out.
“So I copped to it,” Buscemi recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, you know, I’ve done a little bit of acting.’ And it was kind of great because he was in a theater troupe and he kind of took me under his wing as far as not being afraid of saying that I had these creative interests. And I’m sure the guys busted his balls in his firehouse but he didn’t care. He was, ‘Yeah, I’m an actor. So what?’ So he gave me a lot of inspiration.”