One of the most recognizable characters in modern American cinema, Steve Buscemi is an eccentric, and often grimly humorous attitude to standout men. In addition to directing five films of his own, he has worked with many of the Titans we Independent cinema, from Jim Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara via Quentin Tarantino to five collaborations with the Coen brothers. He’s also an unrivaled presence on the small screen, having appeared in the historical series The Sopranos (2004-06) and Boardwalk Empire (2010-14).
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When and wherever it appears, in central performances or fleeting cameos, you guarantee something captivating, often funny and always obliging. Here are 10 major Buscemi joints to keep track of.
Mysterious Train (1989)
Filmed in Memphis, Tennessee during the summer of 1988, Mystery Train is an independent anthology film focusing on the most iconic musical cities. Featuring a dry, dark, anti-establishment wit, it’s an early classic from Jim Jarmusch. In the “Lost in Space” segment, Buscemi appears alongside The Clash’s Joe Strummer. As a heavy drinker Charlie, he’s the perfect person for the unstable and dizzying Johnny Stramer (aka “Elvis”).
King of New York (1990)
New York crime thriller directed by Abel Ferrara features Buscemi in the rare non-comic role of Test Tube, a bespectacled member of Frank White’s criminal organization (Christopher Walken). With a soundtrack featuring hip-hop icon (and regular Ferrara collaborator) Schoolly D, King of New York has an impressive roster of notable actors from early big-screen outings, including Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Wesley Snipes, and David Caruso. Watch out for Walken’s electric dance moves, a sure precursor to his appearance in the Fatboy Slim ‘Weapon of Choice’ video a few years later.
Barton Fink (1991)
“Are you mutant or subtle?” Inquire the Buscemi Chet to a confused John Turturro screenwriter named Barton Fink, a typical dark-comedy drama examining writer’s block and art versus mass entertainment and the Hollywood machine of 1941. Despite a poor showing at the box office, Barton Fink proved to be a critical success. She won the Palme d’Or and Best Actor for Turturro at Cannes. After Crossing Miller (1990), this was Buscemi’s second collaboration with the Coens.
Tank Dogs (1992)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
As Mr. Pink, the unflappable and mismatched member of a group of diamond thieves, Buscemi made an unforgettable impression as part of the killer squad in Quentin Tarantino’s thriller debut, more than holding on to an impressive appeal for both. Notable actors and men, including Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, and Harvey Keitel. Tarantino’s affinity for free-flowing dialogue demonstrates Buscemi’s brilliant delivery and comic timing.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
In a short but sweet, usually unforgettable cameo role, Buscemi plays “Buddy Holly,” the waiter at a 1950s Jack Rabbit Slims restaurant. As he did in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino uses Buscemi’s rigid, diminutive timing to great effect as the actor mocks $5 milkshakes and Douglas Circus steaks with John Travolta and Uma Thurman.
As petty prankster Carl Showalter, Buscemi spends the latter part of Fargo as a continuous gruesome mayhem after being shot in the face when the ransom is wrongly paid. This story of murder, deceit, and black comedy in and around snowy highways and small towns in Minnesota is one of Queens’s best efforts. Fargo provides Buscemi with a bigger role than usual and the ability to showcase his incredible talent. In typical Coens fashion, whatever can go wrong he does, as Buscemi and his psychopathic partner, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), roam the bars, brothels, and motels of the Twin Cities.
Tree Lounge (1996)
Director: Steve Buscemi
A Long Island drama with a fine line in black humor, Trees Lounge was Buscemi’s directorial debut. A simple but beautifully represented piece, it features Buscemi alongside some of New York’s leading actors, including Chloë Sevigny, Debi Mazar, and The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli. Played with poignant sensibility, Buscemi’s unfamiliar Tommy Basilio is instrumental in the Trees Lounge bar, caught in a cycle of self-destruction, wine and drugs.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
In this comedy classic from the Coen brothers, Buscemi plays the cutest guy Donnie, a 10-tooth bowler who is perpetually soft-spoken and awkward. Always unclear about what’s going on around him, Donnie is the brunt of the frustrations of Walter’s friend (John Goodman). Walter, an uneasy veterinarian in Vietnam, comes to an end from the first moment with Donnie’s inability to comprehend the narratives of life, leading him to bark much now often quoted: “Shut up, Donnie!”
Ghost World (2001)
Director: Terry Zwegoff
“I can’t speak for 90% of humanity,” Seymour (Buschimi) stated in Terry Zvigoff’s quote from Daniel Close’s comic book of the same name. Sure, Seymour is one of those outsiders who seems to be human-hating and far from everyday life. But scratch below the surface, as does Enid (Thora Birch), and we see a complex, sensitive guy who loves rare blues and jazz and just wants some good company. For anyone who’s ever been awkward and doesn’t really like to dance, Seymour is one of those characters you can relate to.
Stalin’s Death (2017)
Director: Armando Iannucci
Almost unrecognizable, Buscemi plays Soviet statesman Nikita Khrushchev in this edgy historical comedy from Armando Iannucci—proof that director and satirist can generate humor from impossibly grim themes, in this case starvation, death and a totalitarian regime. Buscemi appears alongside an impressive array of fine we and British acting talent, including Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Bell and Paul Whitehouse.