"Boardwalk Empire" producers were casting the role of Chicago gangster Big Jim Colosimo and reached out to Anthony Laciura, a 27-year veteran of the Metropolitan Opera before his retirement in 2007.
But there's a reason he's called Big Jim, and Laciura's stature didn't quite fit. Good thing, too, for the 58-year-old actor's sake; Colosimo is gunned down at the end of episode one.
Instead, Laciura was asked to read for another role that had been tricky to cast: That of Eddie Kessler, Nucky Thompson's (Steve Buscemi) loyal valet. If Nucky needs a shave, Eddie will do it. Eddie drives him. He is the man who controls who is admitted for an audience with the political boss.
"We were looking for someone who could speak with a convincing German accent and I was shocked when I learned Anthony was actually an Italian American who didn't speak any German at all," wrote "Empire" creator Terence Winter in an e-mail. "He and Steve Buscemi have a wonderfully comedic dynamic, but clearly the relationship is one built on trust."
During a phone conversation, Laciura, of Teaneck, Bergen County, delights in revisiting "Boardwalk Empire," the unexpected second act in his long career. He laughs liberally, slipping not only into his character's accent, but also, at one point, a spot-on imitation of pilot director Martin Scorsese.
As for his character, Laciura describes Eddie as Tonto to Nucky's Lone Ranger, albeit a sidekick on the receiving end of a steady stream of abuse.
"He's humiliated by Nucky in front of people, and he never leaves. He is the definition of dedication. The loyalty that doesn't exist in the 21st century, that one man would take a bullet for another one," that's Eddie, Laciura says.
The Kessler character is the fictionalized version of Louis Kessel, who served as Enoch "Nucky" Johnson's bodyguard and valet.
During the course of filming, Laciura met Kessel's family, even spending time with them in Brigantine. He has a photo of Kessel in his Teaneck home.
"His great-grandchildren are more excited, because this is a history thing," Laciura says. "They stare at me as if I'm their great-grandfather. I really love it."
His co-stars, meanwhile, are quick to praise the actor. Kelly Macdonald, who plays widow Margaret Schroeder, playfully calls him a "showoff and scene stealer." Shea Whigham, Sheriff Elias Thompson - Nucky's brother - on the series, praises Laciura's quick wit and natural comedic instincts.
"This thing can go dark quick with the material, and he's one of the funniest individuals I've come across," Whigham says. "Usually, they send him in right before we're going to cut our throats out, like brothers do."
In early episodes, Eddie serves as comic relief. He interrupts his boss at inopportune times in the bedroom, contributes a quick one-liner to a scene or enters Nucky's office just as tensions threaten to boil over.
He likens the role to those he used to play in the opera.
"There's a buildup of such drama, of peoples lives in the balance and it gets heavier and heavier and heavier," La-ciura says. "There has to be a release."
And, just because Kessler is one thing early in the season, don't be fooled into thinking there isn't more to him. As with every character populating "Boardwalk Empire," there are many layers to this onion.
Not that Laciura will spill any of the details.
"It changes quite a bit throughout the season," he says. "You'll say, 'Whoa, there really is a lot more to Eddie Kessler.'"
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