Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Charles "Lucky" Luciano from HBO's Boardwalk Empire

I say I don’t wanna be a stereotype as I eat pasta and sausage!” laughs Vincent Piazza as he takes another bite.

The actor is sitting in a Wall Street-area restaurant picking at a bowl of orecchiette. “Italian-American actors can be pigeonholed,” he continues. “I worked hard at the beginning of my career to not play Italian characters. But this was too good to pass up. It’s quintessential Italian-American.”

Piazza is speaking of his role as a young Charles “Lucky” Luciano on HBO’s stellar 1920s gangster epic “Boardwalk Empire.” Piazza exudes great presence in the large ensemble cast. Luciano, who would become the father of organized crime and the man who separated the mob into the five families, is one of the only household names on the show. But this tricky part requires the subtlety to portray not a legend, but a legend-in-the-making — and play backup to Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson.

“Historical figures like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, are peripheral,” Piazza says. “It would be too obvious for us to be front and center all the time. They tell the stories of these other guys, but right around the bend we’re looming.” So is Piazza’s potential as a leading man.

“Boardwalk Empire’s” hotly-anticipated third season premieres on Sept. 16. Piazza is careful not to leak any spoilers. Earlier this month, the crew filmed the destruction of an actual warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “I won’t say if I was there,” Piazza says, “but I won’t say I wasn’t. The ‘20s didn’t get roaring until 1923, which is where this season starts. It is full-on speakeasies, gangsters and culture clashes. This season is shoot ‘em up and intriguing.”

In his newsboy cap, Piazza admits that his personal style has been affected by constantly being in period garb for the show.

“I learned how things fit,” he says. “The care that these guys went through. Off-the-rack wasn’t prevalent like it is today. If you got a suit you were going to the tailor to get the neck and shoulders right. Now when I buy a suit or collared shirts, I’m really, ‘Nah, this hangs a bit.”

Piazza has been dating Ashlee Simpson since 2011. On that subject, Piazza politely demurs, and will only say, “We’re in a very happy place.”

He’s more than comfortable talking about his gangster character. Maybe too comfortable, as he describes in precise detail the era’s harrowing treatment for gonorrhea Luciano endured. Hearing it would make any guy double over. “It was like the male giving birth,” he adds in a chipper tone.

Luciano died at age 64 in 1962 of a heart attack. But Lucky’s longevity doesn’t get Piazza complacent about his place in the “Boardwalk” universe.

“You won’t die by the bullet,” Piazza says, “but they can always shift the camera and move focus to other people.” The show has to be cutthroat with the cast for art’s sake. In Season 2’s devastating finale, one of the leads, Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt) was whacked.

Despite his paisano name (and looks), Piazza is half Italian (the other half is German). He grew up in Maspeth, Queens, the younger of two brothers.

Piazza’s first love wasn’t acting, but ice hockey. He attended Villanova University to play on their team with a dream to go pro. “I had a shoulder injury,” he says of leaving the sport, “and a realization I’m just not good enough to go to the next level. So, I decided to look out for another career. I went into finance, which was bizarre. But it wasn’t for me. It didn’t feel like home I felt like I was visiting.”

He then began studying acting and went on to stage work and parts in the “Law & Order” franchise. Next year he will appear in the indie road-film “3 Nights In The Desert” alongside Wes Bentley and Amber Tamblyn. An early gig that stands out for him was his guest role in the sixth season of “The Sopranos.” “I had a one-line interaction with Tony and it was amazing!” Piazza recalls, smiling at the memory.

Before “Boardwalk” was on the horizon, Piazza geeked on gangsters. In 2008, he bought a 1915 children’s book at a Chelsea flea market for $35. “I thought I’d like to do a monologue of a gangster talking to his son,” Piazza says. “I learned one of the stories and asked a buddy to film it. I put on a suit and to this make-believe kid off-screen, I went into this whole spiel. I gave it to my agent.”

His agent held onto the footage. “Two years later she called and said, ‘You’re never gonna believe this, Martin Scorsese and HBO are looking for a young Lucky Luciano,’ ” Piazza recalls. “She sent them the tape.” Piazza was called in to read.

“I was aware of Vincent from his work on ‘The Sopranos,’ ” says “Boardwalk Empire” creator and executive producer Terence Winter, who also worked on that show. “But since he was playing a completely different character, I didn’t know what to expect when he came in to read for the role. What was required was someone who would come across in some ways like a kid, but still carry enough weight so that it was believable that he’d become one of the most powerful and feared gangsters in history. I knew within 30 seconds of watching Vincent’s audition I’d found the guy.”

“He is a joy to work with,” Winter says. “Because of his research, he knows more about Luciano than I ever will.”

Piazza still finds wonderment in production. “I was shooting a street scene a few weeks ago,” he says. “I saw laundry hanging from fire escapes. I looked closer and saw a few open windows. They must have rented the apartments and they had extras in them, a woman beating a rug on a balcony. And this is maybe a pixel of a frame! They went through those pains to create authenticity. I’m proud to be on the show.”



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