One day in my sophomore year of college, I walked into my Contemporary American Cinema class at IFC Center and there was Steve Buscemi just chillin’ with my professor. I froze a bit—seeing him out of context was an odd thing at 9 AM on Tuesday, and is anyone ever fully prepared to just bump into the wonder that is the lovably wonky smile and buggering eyes of Steve Buscemi? He wasn’t doing anything particularly weird—just hanging out in a sweater before going off to pre-production Boardwalk Empire rehearsal. He had stopped by my class to screen and talk about his 2007 intimate drama Interview, which he wrote, directed, and starred in opposite Sienna Miller. And although nowadays he’s mainly known for his role as the anti-hero political/gangster Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire—for which he has won multiple Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Golden Globe—it’s his early film roles that truly exemplify the talented but always weird Buscemi we love so much.
And as today is his 55th birthday, what better way to celebrate his career chock-full of cult favorites than to look back on his best roles—spanning from his work with Jim Jarmusch in the late ’80s, Tarantino and the Coens in the ’90s, and the other goodies in between and after. Enjoy.
Charlie the Barber in Mystery Train (1989)
Told through a series of vignettes all centered around one hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, JIm Maramusch’s 1989 ode to the spirit of Elvis Presley, featured Buscemi in the small but memorable role as Charlie the Barber in the final story of the film, “Lost in Space,” for which he was nominated for an Indepedent Spirit Award.
Mr. Pink in Resevoir Dogs (1992)
In 1992 Quentin Tarantino made his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs, shooting his career forward and garnering him an obsessive fan base. And in the role of Mr. Pink, Buscemi was embedded as a violent and bizarro cult icon for movies to come. The role also won him his first an Independent Spirit Award.
Buddy Holly in Pulp Ficton (1994)
After Reservoir Dogs, of course Buscemi would make a cameo in Tarantino’s next and most acclaimed film, 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Unless you’re paying close attention you might not catch him, but he’s surely there as Buddy Holly in the iconic Jack Rabbit Slim’s Restaurant scene.
Carl Showalter in Fargo (1996)
As the star of Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Fargo, Buscemi got to sink his wonky teeth into the character of desperate criminal, Carl Showalter. The zany 1996 crime drama wasn’t only a career hit for Buscemi but also won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
Donny Kerabetsos in The Big Lebowski (1998)
Reuniting with the Coen Brothers again, Buscemi hopped onboard the cult favorite The Big Lebowski. In the 1996 comedy, he plays the timid bowling buddy Donny Kerabetsos opposite the beloved Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.
Dave Veltri in The Wedding Singer (1998)
It’s been years since I’ve seen the ’80s-set Adam Sandler comedy The Wedding Singer, but when I look back on it, the first thing I think of is Buscemi drunk in a teal suit. His role as Dave Teltri is strange and ridiculous with that Buscemi creep factor you know and love.
Homeless Guy in Big Daddy (1999)
Reuniting with Sandler in the 1999 comedy Big Daddy, Buscemi makes an appearance as a homeless man. Enough said.
Seymour in Ghost World (2001)
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Ghost World tells the story of two teenage outsiders, one of which becomes involved with a misanthropic older man, Seymour. Played by Buscemi with the right mix of humor and sadness, the role got him a Golden Globe nomination and won him a second Independent Spirit Award.