Chris Nashawaty
March 05, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Steve Buscemi holds an unlit Marlboro in ONE hand and a thick knot of $100 bills in the other. He’s wearing a champagne-colored sharkskin suit, an olive green shirt, and a gold chain around his neck chunky enough to double as a horse’s bit. His hair is a slick of Brylcreem. He looks like some long-lost Vegas lounge singer — like Vic Damone.

We’re in a dark corner of Nuovo Vesuvio restaurant. Actually, it’s a replica of the restaurant inside a Queens soundstage. But with its tacky paintings of Pompeii and its waiters shuttling past with steaming plates of rigatoni and meatballs the size of grapefruit, it looks and smells exactly like you’d imagine the wiseguy joint from The Sopranos would.

Buscemi ignores the cigarette in his right hand and focuses on the fat roll of C-notes in his left. ”Shouldn’t I have more money?” It’s hard to tell if he’s joking. Not only because the wad of bills is already the size of a Big Mac. But also because every sentence filtered through his slightly nervous, high-pitched voice sounds sarcastic.

Like everything else regarding the fifth season of The Sopranos, the particulars of today’s scene between Buscemi and James Gandolfini are top secret. In fact, all that can be revealed about Buscemi’s new character, Tony Blundetto, is that he’s Tony Soprano’s cousin and former partner in crime; he’s fresh out of jail after a 15-year stretch; and his release from prison, along with those of several other high-level mobsters put away in the ’80s, is the match that lights the fuse on the new season. Here’s one more thing about Buscemi’s character culled from today’s scene: He’s the kind of guy who can effortlessly work one s — -, one c — -sucker, and two artfully florid variations on the F-word into the span of about two sentences.

Beyond that, what happens to Buscemi this season is anyone’s guess. Still, it’s hard to imagine things going well for him. After all, Steve Buscemi is not the kind of actor who sees a lot of happy endings. He almost never gets the girl and he doesn’t usually stick around for the sequel. Instead, Steve Buscemi is the kind of actor who tends to get the snot kicked out of him (Trees Lounge), end up the butt of teenage girls’ cruel jokes (Ghost World), or wind up in wood chippers (Fargo). Such is the fate of the character actor. And Steve Buscemi may just be the best character actor working today.

Two months after his mafioso makeover at Vesuvio, Buscemi is lunching on a chocolate croissant and thumbing through The New York Times at Soho House, a swank private club in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. When he gets up to shake hands, the first thing that strikes you is how surprisingly handsome he is. Stories about Buscemi tend to riff on his looks as if he were some sort of weaselly hybrid of Don Knotts and Quasimodo, mistaking him for the lowlifes and scumbags he often plays on screen. This frustrates him to no end. ”So many times when I read about myself in an article it starts off: ‘The bug-eyed, snaggletoothed, sleazy weirdo….’ And it’s like, okay, I guess I’ve done enough of those roles that that’s what sort of sticks. But I don’t feel like that’s what I’m all about.”

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