When Steve Buscemi Was a Firefighter — and Took It Up Again After 9/11

Steve Buscemi’s roles in movies like In the SoupThe Big Lebows­ki, and Ghost World have asso­ci­at­ed him for life with a cer­tain kind of char­ac­ter: awk­ward, inef­fec­tu­al, and even slight­ly creepy, but nev­er­the­less strange­ly endear­ing. But types and the actors who play them can, and usu­al­ly do, diverge, and that goes espe­cial­ly for Busce­mi. He may have made his name por­tray­ing a host of los­er-ish men, but his skill at bring­ing them and oth­er char­ac­ters to dis­tinc­tive life have kept him a high­ly suc­cess­ful per­former for decades now. And what did he do before that? Why, he fought fires — and he did­n’t hes­i­tate to do it again after becom­ing famous.


Uni­lad’s Alex Watt quotes a post on the Broth­er­hood of Fire Face­book page which reveals how the Board­walk Empire star entered his oth­er pro­fes­sion: “In 1976 Steve Busce­mi took the FDNY civ­il ser­vice test when he was just 18 years old,” became a fire­fight­er a few years lat­er, and for four years “served on one of FDNY’s busiest, Engine Co. 55.” He returned to that very same engine after Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, “and for sev­er­al days fol­low­ing Broth­er Steve worked 12-hour shifts along­side oth­er fire­fight­ers dig­ging and sift­ing through the rub­ble from the World Trade Cen­ter look­ing for sur­vivors.”

Though he avoid­ed pub­li­ciz­ing his brief return to fire­fight­ing at the time, Busce­mi has spo­ken open­ly about it since, as he does in the CBS Sun­day Morn­ing clip at the top of the post. Many who hear the sto­ry of a high-pro­file actor putting his life on hold and rush­ing right into a dis­as­ter site might rush right to the urban leg­end site Snopes, which does­n’t just ver­i­fy it, but also col­lects some of Buscemi’s own words about his fire­fight­ing days. He start­ed, he recalls, when he “was liv­ing in Man­hat­tan, work­ing as a fur­ni­ture mover dur­ing the day, doing stand-up com­e­dy at night and look­ing for a change. I liked the job — the guys I worked with and the nature of the work. I think I would have been hap­py doing it if I had­n’t had a greater pas­sion for act­ing.”

Buscemi’s fire­fight­ing expe­ri­ence and abil­i­ty to appear onscreen come togeth­er in A Good Job: Sto­ries of the FDNY, the doc­u­men­tary just above. Co-pro­duced by Busce­mi him­self, the film goes “behind the scenes” of the New York City Fire Depart­ment, show­ing just what it takes to put out the blazes of Amer­i­ca’s most demand­ing city. (You can see Busce­mi talk­ing about his expe­ri­ence dur­ing 9/11 around the 43 minute mark.) The “good job” of the title, one retired fire­fight­er explains, means “a real­ly tough fire.” And no mat­ter what kind of “job,” Busce­mi says, “they’re all fright­en­ing. Any time you go into a burn­ing build­ing, there’s the poten­tial for dis­as­ter. I nev­er had any real close calls, though there’s no such thing as a rou­tine fire.” No doubt he keeps him­self men­tal­ly pre­pared for anoth­er — just in case.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Steve Buscemi’s Top 10 Film Picks (from The Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion)

Quentin Taran­ti­no & Steve Busce­mi Rehearse Scenes for Reser­voir Dogs in 1991 (NSFW)

William S. Bur­roughs’ Home Movies, Fea­tur­ing Pat­ti Smith, Allen Gins­berg, Steve Busce­mi & Cats

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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