Gyp Rosetti Sharpens Boardwalk Empire's Edge

"Nobody here can take a joke."
"What's that? A gun? I got a gun. He got a gun. He got a gun... Everybody got guns!"
"Nothing's personal? What the fck is life, if it's not personal?!"
"You smug kike midget, creeping around like a fcking dentist with the ether."

-- Gyp Rosetti, Boardwalk Empire's villainous savior.

Gyp Rossetti
You talkin to me?

Boardwalk Empire was getting pretty boring. Fortunately, the show creators seemingly realized this -- and adjusted course accordingly, killing off a major character at the end of season two and introducing a new one in the current season.

This effectively administered a jolt of much-needed vitality into the HBO series, based (loosely, very loosely) on a true crime story about fortune, power, and greed centered on 1920s Atlantic City, but also in Chicago, New York, and tertiary locals.

Somewhere in the second season, it seemed increasingly apparent that despite all the great character actors, slickly written dialogue, lush wardrobes, and well-crafted scenery, something big was missing: a compelling enough story to set the whole thing in motion.

Then the second season ended with a bang -- literally -- the sound of Nucky firing a bullet into his "son," Jimmy Darmody, a character who carried so much screen time during seasons one and two, it was unbelievable that the producers would off him.

[UPDATE: IMDB apparently has the last word on the official story of the character's early death, noting that Darmody actor Michael Pitt told the media that his departure from Boardwalk Empire "was due largely to artistic differences and disagreements over production direction." Whenever an actor talks about "artistic differences" it's usually a euphemism. As per UpRoxx, which seems to have the real down-low on what happened, a production source dished out a lot of dirt, writing that "Pitt was written out of the show, not because it was the best thing for the series, but because the cast and crew on the show could no longer stand to be around him. The source added: [Pitt was] late a lot (this costs production money), [he had] trouble remembering lines (they had to reshoot an entire scene because he couldn’t remember his lines…this costs production money), [was] constantly questioning his character’s storyline, tried to change dialogue a lot, would wander from the set, got into a little fist fight with William Forsythe during the Jimmy death scene, etc. They had plans for him and Angela’s character but they pretty much just got tired of him. Many of  Pitt’s scenes had to be filmed with stand-ins, because he’d forget his lines, and they’d have to film Pitt’s side of entire scenes after the rest of the cast had left for the day. The site offers a wealth of gossip about the show, much of it focused on Pitt, but also "crazypants Paz de la Huerta," who reportedly shaved her vag onset or something. Going into the HBO series, she was reportedly engaged in a mega-lawsuit over sex harassment claims that had nothing to do with Empire; bet you didn't even know that. Difficult to believe but sexual harassment didn't begin with Harvey Weinstein.]

Paz delivered a strange performance. But hey, she held your attention.

It was all to the show's betterment, in this blogger's opinion. No one has probably even thought of the Darmody character since Gyp Rosetti joined the series in season three, currently running on HBO on Sunday nights. Gyp is a New York gangster who while journeying southward to purchase booze from Nucky had an epiphany about how to swiftly increase his power by moving in on both Nucky and Rothstein's action. (Almost a foreshadowing of what happened with Bugsy Siegel later on when he was puttering around in the Nevada desert?)

This new character brought a large degree of badly needed mystery and danger to the show.

Boardwalk Empire still had great aspects. The Chicago story with Al Capone and Johnny Torrio is absorbing, as is New York's Arnold Rothstein-Charlie Luciano-Meyer Lansky storyline. The big budget was nowhere more visible than in  the realistic re-creations of the streets of America's fastest-growing cities. And inhabiting those streets, serious actors pouring their all into their performances. All, apparently, except for Pitt.

Stephen Graham does excellent work playing a ruthless, young Al Capone. Graham's New York accent is flawless on Empire. You'd think he was born in Brooklyn. Graham actually is a Brit so that isn't a natural accent. His portrayal also offers a more complicated version of the Capone than the cartoon Americans have long been weaned on.

This Capone also is a prankster, a family man who loves to laugh, who lived life with a passion and poured unconditional love on his deaf son. (We are highly surprised at how popular cocaine seemingly was in Boardwalk Empire's days. Capone seemed to sniff it quite frequently -- maybe a bit too frequently??? We wondered: was Al Capone a cokehead? It turns out, Yes, he was, as we discovered while reading medical reports from his incarceration at Alcatraz. Capone suffered all the severe medical problems of a chronic cocaine addict. Turns out Boardwalk was probably underplaying Big Al's addiction.)

Stephen Graham delivers a flawless turn as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire.

Then there is the story of the seemingly psychotic former federal agent Nelson Van Alden, the fearless muscle who eyeballed Nucky. Van Alden embodied to perfection the hypocrisy that drove Prohibition, a narrow-minded, unfair assault against immigrants still referred to as the Noble Experiment. (When we use that term, it is always ironically.). That hypocrisy/duplicity -- you can't have one without the other, right -- would help to explain the seemingly bizarre twist this character's story arc takes. The lawman becomes a murderer, one with a larger-than-life streak of the bizarre. He reveals this aspect of his character while slowly murdering his partner, another federal agent, in one of the show's most graphic and brutal scenes,  drowning him in a river in a bizarre mimic of a Christian baptism.

Actor Michael Shannon brings an incredible level of creepiness to his portrayal of Van Alden. Having fled Atlantic City, the fugitive Prohibition agent is living incognito in Chicago eking out a living peddling irons door to door (of all things!). He also lives with a strong, blonde, blue-eyed Nordic lady who proves she is in fact extremely devoted to this repressed, deeply troubled man for whom we can't help but have some pity. This woman living with him and taking care of (their? his?) son literally bashes another federal agent's brains in when she thinks he is about to arrest her beloved mann.

In a comical twist as bizarre as anything we've seen in years, it turns out the agent was merely an unhappy customer who showed up at their door to return the piece of crap iron that Van Alden has sold him. The federal agent, in other words, had not tracked down a fugitive former federal agent. The wife's murderous efforts are immediately stopped by Van Alden, but it is too late. The man, his head busted open, is convulsing, and dying -- but not slowly or quietly enough.

"I vill 'old 'is legs," the wife says.

"Please avert your eyes," Van Alden tells her, in that maddening, too-formal voice. 

He then lays atop the man to finish the job in the form of suffocation. What a couple!

Van Alden was known for his lady-killer smile.

He later goes to Capone enemy Dean O'Banion, whom Van Alden met earlier in another comic relief moment in which the fugitive lawman inadvertently saved the Irish gangster's life. At the end of the last episode, Van Alden visits O'Banion's flower shop for help getting rid of the federal agent's body. It looks like this fugitive fed's shooting skills may come in handy once again.

Two mob wars are poised to break out. The knowledge that this will happen adds an overall backdrop of suspense to the show. We know bodies will start dropping in Chicago, where Capone will fight O'Bannon for supremacy, and New York, where Joe the Boss Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano will eventually start shooting it out. The two mob wars roughly coincided. In Chicago, it reached a crescendo of sorts in February 1929, when Capone is believed to have ordered the St. Valentine's Day Massacre to kill Bugs Moran, who by then was head of the North Side Gang.

With Masseria, Frankie Yale's death in July 1928 may have had something to do with his decision to take the warpath in a move to assume control over New York City's various Mafia gangs, all of which were formally reorganized in 1931, with Luciano sitting at the head of the table.


So this rich tapestry of subplots peopled by a colorful cast of characters makes the show worth watching whatever its shortfalls.

Now, Steve Buscemi....the somewhat ghoulish-looking actor from New York....

Buscemi is solid, excellent, but we think another actor was a better fit.

Buscemi clearly has proven his chops as a great actor and is certainly at the top of his game here. But I can't help but feel that this plump pearl of a role should have gone to another actor, one who more closely resembles the man upon whom the character is based. (I really hate it when actors look nothing like the people they are playing -- and with the reality TV explosion, this has grown exponentially annoying for me.)

And what is really irritating is that we have an actor who closely resembles Nucky Thompson, the fictional version of real-life Atlantic City political boss Enoch L. Johnson, and this actor would've been great. The only problem is his name is James Gandolfini, and the "Boardwalk" producers seem to have put commercial concerns before artistic; or maybe it's the other way around, I just don't know. I could imagine the reasons not to use Gandolfini: He just played Tony Soprano, he's already done the gangster thing, he will expect too much money, etc. and so forth. For whatever reason, I think it's a shame because Gandolfini has not done a thing as an actor that is worth remembering since Tony Soprano faded to black in that jam-packed New Jersey eatery.

I am not the only one who thinks this about the casting. Reading around I found an article in which "Boardwalk" creator Terence Winter is quoted as having said: "If we were going to cast accurately what the real Nucky looked like, we'd have cast Jim Gandolfini."

The article also noted: "Winter wanted to stray from the real life Johnson as much as possible."

Why? Why did he want to do that? So he'd have an excuse for not casting Gandolfini?

Then we have this bit of trivia courtesy of The real life figure of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson served as the inspiration for the "Nucky" Thompson. Johnson was a physically commanding man, both tall and heavyset, with a receding hairline. He was quite unlike actor Steve Buscemi and resembled the character of Tony Soprano from The Sopranos. "Boardwalk Empire" creator Terence Winter also wrote for The Sopranos and created the character "Nucky" Thompson with Buscemi in mind, partially to make a central figure differing largely from Tony Soprano.

There you have it: differing largely from Tony Soprano.

The problem with Buscemi is that he does not have a powerful presence, and with this character Buscemi is definitely "playing against type," as they call it. Virtually any member of the cast, including the women, look like they could beat the crap out of Nucky even on a bad day.

Buscemi does turn in a masterful performance; Gandolfini would've created magic.

But Nucky's biggest problem -- and this is where his lack of personal weight really is highlighted -- is that since he was kicked out of the treasurer's office, he seems to have no real power base -- no soldiers, no gunmen behind him to protect him and carry out his every order. He has some protection -- the old German who is quick with his pistol and who has already saved Nucky's life once; and the Irish guy who seems bright and daring enough to one day betray Nucky, but also too smart and ethical to actually do it. Besides, he has already betrayed Nucky in another sense by screwing Nucky's repressed Catholic wife, who these days has nothing better to do than create an educational program to teach women about the birds and the bees. How does that subplot strike you? I wonder sometimes if Winter and Martin Scorsese, a creator and producer of the show as well, are playing a joke on us here, but I don't spend a lot of time wondering about it.

So I was really hesitant to get involved in season three this year, and almost made up my mind to drop it from my schedule of "TV shows that I religiously watch each week." But I did watch it. And I was in for a treat. I am talking about, of course, the Joe "The Boss" Masseria-affiliated Gyp Rosetti.

Played by the sleek, superb Bobby Cannavale, Gyp is an ultra-violent Sicilian gangster from New York City, whose mood can turn from happy to psychotic on a dime. He finds insult in the most inane, conventional remark or cliched phrase. "Good luck" really pisses him off. Gyp, to me, represents the kind of old-world "mustache Petes" that Lucky and Meyer would eventually have to deal with, as they would and did deal with Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. This is where well-known Mafia history comes into play; we know what happened to Joe and Sal -- but since Gyp, apparently, is a fictional character, we do not know his fate.

But we do know that he doesn't kill Nucky, Rothstein, Luciano or Lansky.

Winter, ever the studious scribe, has even created a profile for Gyp, fleshing out this character: "Gyp Rosetti was born and raised in Sicily. His family was extremely poor and lived in a cave carved on the side of a mountain, not a house.

"Personality-wise, Rosetti has a strong inferiority complex and a very short temper, reacting violently to comments that he perceives as disrespectful, and in particular to those that make reference to his own ignorance. Many times this isn't actually the intended meaning of those comments. By his own admission, Rosetti often doesn't even consider the possibility of a message being innocuous until after he has reacted already to it, his temper having clearly the upper hand over his rationality."

Put it like this -- remember Pesci in Goodfellas? Rosetti makes him look like a naughty school kid who likes to put a rotten apple on the teacher's desk when her back as turned.

Pissed off at Nucky for not treating him with the appropriate respect and what-have-you, Gyp concocts a racket right their on the coast between Atlantic City and New York City.

He takes over the town of Tabor Heights, New Jersey, which he found himself stuck in one evening after his car blew one of its tires. A passing motorist makes the ill-fated decision to stop and help, and ends up being beaten to death by Gyp, whom the good samaritan had chided for not knowing that "3 in 1" refers to a brand of oil. Oh, and Gyp later on also sets the town's sheriff on fire and watches him burn to death one night after filling his tank. The sheriff had the audacity to actually wish Gyp "good luck."

It quickly becomes crystal clear that Rosetti is a huge danger to all the criminals in the world of "Boardwalk Empire." He parks his ass in Tabor Heights, buys the police force and hijacks every truck convoy sent north from AC and meant for a waiting anxious Arnold Rothstein in New York.(Every member of the convoy is summarily and unnecessarily shot to death as well.) When the booze doesn't make it far enough north one time too many, we witness the first meeting between Nucky and Rothstein where the two reveal their rage and disgust with each other; Gyp just seems to bring the worst out of people.

We don't hear the end of the meeting, but it's clear Nucky told The Brain: "Meet this guy for yourself. You decide."

Rothstein and Luciano head south and have what could be a late-night dinner with Gyp in Tabor Heights. The men talk a little business, with Rothstein like a geiger counter, picking up every radioactive twinkle emitted by Gyp's sociopathic personality. Rothstein learns where Gyp lives and that he enjoys his evening newspaper.

At the meeting's end, there are handshakes, goodbyes voiced. Gyp invites the two to come to his hotel room -- he gives them his address -- the next evening for a taste of the booze he says he will have on offer for them. This was a clever set-up by Rothstein, who insisted that they'd do business with Gyp only if he was selling the real thing and not that bathtub crap that blinded many an alky in them olden days.

But the next evening Bugsy Siegel, about 16 years old and dressed like a paperboy, shows up. Fleet of foot, he sweeps through the house like a miniature whirlwind, one that fires bullets from its vortex.

Gyp, who we learn also enjoys a little sexual asphyxiation now and again -- you know, when you strangle someone you are having some form of sex with until they almost die? -- and despite a personality that drives him to dominate every person and situation that crosses his path, Gyp prefers to be the one who gets choked. And handcuffed to the bedpost. And spanked on the ass. If not for those handcuffs, Rosetti, who hears the volleys of shots from Bugsy's pistol growing steadily closer, likely would've had the first shot, putting one right between Bugsy's eyes when he kicked the bedroom door open. Who would've invented Las Vegas then?

Gyp doesn't make it to his handgun in time. He improvises -- pulling his reluctant sexual partner in front of him in true gentlemanly fashion, to protect his body by using hers as a shield, her sweet nude frame jerking as the bullets Siegel fires slams through her flesh, maybe some passing through and crashing into the tall, butt-naked gangster cowering behind her, blood reddening the sheets and their bodies.

Gyp, shot or not, still manages to chase a maniacally giggling Siegel out of his duplex, firing shots at the little boy who seems to magically evade the path of each slug. As he runs out of the bedroom and down the stairs Gyp also sees all the bodies of his men supine on the floor, growing puddles of blood under their heads or chests.

The last episode of "Boardwalk Empire" ends with Nucky learning that Siegel killed a lot of Gyp's people, but that the man himself still lives.


  1. Bobby Cannavale stole the whole season.He portrayl of Gyp Rosetti is one of the best and most realistic portrayls of psychopathic gangster in tv and cinematic history,it's up there with Kingsley's Don Logan and Pesci's Tommy DeVito.It's a shame he didn't get nominated fot the Golden Globe.

    1. It sure as hell is a shame! He played a clown on "Modern Family" and was hilarious. The man sure has range.

    2. I saw that episode of MF -- he was great with Stonestreet and certainly does have range. I had a feeling his character would die at the end of the season and it's a shame. The new heroin dealer "Libyan" man is interesting but only to an extent; I miss Gyp -- he was a wonderful villain!!


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