Trailers for the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire—which jumps forward seven years from Season 4—have provocative taglines like “All empires fall” and “No one goes quietly.” And native New Yorker Vincent Piazza, who plays mobster Lucky Luciano, a formidable adversary of Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, is stoked the final eight episodes of the award-winning HBO series will rock with more glitz, glamour and guns.
Piazza, who previously portrayed Tommy DeVito of The Four Seasons in Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, can see why gangsters were glorified in the Prohibition era: “In some ways, Prohibition made organized crime. It was the one moment in history where these guys were considered like Robin Hood-type characters. Not only getting the booze flowing but also opening the fancy clubs to get a drink and listen to the fantastic music.”
We corralled the hockey-mad Piazza—who briefly played the sport at Villanova—to talk culture, cocktails and crime. Oh, and Islanders.
“Along with Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano helped create the National Crime Syndicate. What amazed me was how earnestly they worked on something so illicit. They were hell-bent on a life of crime, exploring different angles.”
Your father was an Italian immigrant. How did your own roots inform playing your immigrant character?
My father emigrated from Italy to the US in 1963, so understanding the changes through his eyes was informative. And, going back to Sicily and visiting relatives, in terms of my character, was very relatable. Probably when Lucky immigrated, in the early 1900s, it was a harsher immigration story, but certain factors I felt were unchanged.
Did you run across “neighborhood” guys growing up in Queens or hear stories?
I was old enough to see this last generation of the old mafia. John Gotti was going to jail, but there were still players out there. Now, my old neighborhood is very different, gentrified. But as a kid you heard about crimes that happened in the neighborhood, bank robberies, shootings, so it was around.
What has been the cultural impact of Boardwalk Empire?
It was the jazz and Gatsby era, great clubs opened. So our show captures that look and feel—we actually bookend Prohibition, starting in 1920 and ending in 1933. It was such a robust, alive, decadent time to look back upon. Obviously, the show slides into the dark underbelly of this as well. I think Boardwalk Empire has had a big cultural impact. Maybe a chicken and egg thing, but shortly after it started airing, friends would say, “Let’s meet at this cool speakeasy uptown.”
And drink fancy cocktails?
Exactly, you saw contemporary mixologists whipping up some great concoctions, as fancy drinks from the 1920s came back into fashion. I got into Manhattans, just an amazing cocktail. I also tried some quality Scotch, like The Macallan, now that is smooth. A couple of standout drinks I’ve inherited from the show.
Trailers for the new season have your character saying “There’s a better way of doing things… run it like a business.” What’s afoot?
Right now, because we’re going into the Great Depression, there’s this ambitious, almost ravenous desire for taking over other territories. Now that there’s real suffering going on in the country, you can imagine how people are clawing and scratching, so bolder moves are being made. Not just with Luciano but with everyone, an ensemble making big moves.
Bad guys in big hats: Charles “Lucky” Luciano and the man who portrays him.
Luciano is called the father of modern organized crime in the U.S. What did you learn in your research?
Along with Meyer Lansky, he helped create the National Crime Syndicate. What amazed me was how earnestly they worked on something so illicit. They were hell-bent on having a life of crime, exploring different angles. And what’s so brave about the show is, right away Luciano is a bootlegger. But then the show goes, ‘Did you know he also introduced heroin to the scene, and all these other rackets?’ The series’ creators really delve into what these guys were involved with and how they were building their empires.
Martin Scorsese directed the very first episode. What did you learn from him and other award-winning people like creator/writer Terrence Winter?
It’s been extraordinary. The cheap way is to say I’ve learned so much, but it’s true. I’ve learned from top to bottom, what it takes to work on a television series for several seasons, about working with great people, how you can learn about commitment and other things from people like Steve Buscemi, Stephen Graham, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mike Shannon. It’s been just a huge lift as an actor and an inspiration as a human.
You played hockey at Villanova until you got hurt. How much do you love the sport?
Oh, man, I became a fan of the Islanders very young through TV. I later went to Stanley Cup luncheons, met players and filled up my autograph book. It was so great. My older brother was a goalie, so he got me shooting at him and got me into playing. The early eighties was the Islanders’ heyday, with legends like Trottier, Bossy, Nystrom, Gillies, Billy Smith—these guys were amazing and my heroes. I won John Tonelli’s stick from a raffle. Our mother would take us to Islander practices out in Nassau County, driving at ridiculous hours. Maybe they’d throw us a puck. So the Islanders are deeply rooted in me.
Will the Islanders-Rangers rivalry continue when the Islanders move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2015?
Legendary hockey maven Stan Fischler told me the rivalry will be re-energized. The New York Americans initially played at Madison Square Garden and joined the NHL in 1925. The “Amerks” were the original New York NHL franchise, and were started by bootlegger “Big Bill” Dwyer during Prohibition. And there was another bootlegger in Brooklyn who said he was going to start his professional team there. And it was like this big gang beef. But they quashed that team from coming to life. And now 90 years later, we’re going to see a team in Brooklyn face off against one in Manhattan, finally!
How bittersweet is it to finish filming Empire?
I wrapped Friday night in mid-August, and this might be my last job ever working on 35mm on a TV show. How many TV shows are still shot on film? It’s sad to see it go. But it was such a blessing in every way, creating so many other opportunities from a career standpoint. I’m excited to go out into the world and see what’s next.