HBO

Which Actors Benefited Most From the 'Prestige' of Boardwalk Empire?

The cast of Vinyl should take notes.

Why does it smell like cocaine and muskox in here? Oh right, because we're only days away from the premiere of Vinyl, HBO's latest drama from Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese.

If you worried that Billions might be the season's only series to insist that hyper-masculine arrogance is, like, totally fucking deep, bro, then you can take heart. Vinyl is set in the world of late-'70s rock and roll, where a music executive is hustling to make it big. And that music executive is played by Bobby Cannavale. There will undoubtedly be slo-mo shots of strippers in gold hot-pants and/or male singers nailing a recording session despite the needles hanging out of their arms.

BUT I DIGRESS. No matter what it's about, a television show created by this particular team comes with undeniable prestige. Even if it turns out to be boring, one can assume at least some of the cast members will find their reputations burnished for years to come. Case in point: Boardwalk Empire, the previous Winter/Scorsese joint. Nobody really liked that show, but it still had the aura of importance around it, what with its expensive-looking production design, period setting, and dude-violence-is-beautiful ethos.

Many of Boardwalk Empire's cast members did, indeed, ride that series to a new level of success. A couple of them are even women! But which ones got the biggest boost? Or, to put it another way: which Boardwalk Empire regulars should Vinyl's ensemble hope to grow into someday? Here's a helpful ranking of the folks who earned the most from Prohibition.

  1. Paz De La Huerta
    Oooops! You can see how De La Huerta's role as a breathy moll in love with a gangster who treated her wrong might have led to great things. After all, Kim Basinger played basically the same character in L.A. Confidential and won an Oscar for it. But when an actress can't make her character more than a collection of cooing noises -- and when she gains a reputation for being a nightmare on the set -- then all that potential gets blasted to hell.
  2. Steve Buscemi
    It's weird, right? Even though he was the star of the series, Buscemi seems to have gained little from his time there. In fact, his run as Nucky Thompson may have done more harm than good, since it was hard to shake the feeling that he never found the necessary menace in the role. He's a great actor, but in this context, he seemed out of place.
  3. Paul Sparks, Vincent Piazza, Shea Wigham, & Stephen Graham
    Consider these fellows the stand-ins for all the interchangeable thugs and coppers who flowed through this show. All of them are good actors, and all of them had interesting moments to play. But when you're one of a hundred fedoras (and you don't have the benefit of missing half your face), then it's hard to stick out.
  4. Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Shannon, Kelly Macdonald, Jeffrey Wright, & Michael Stuhlbarg
    Meanwhile, these actors entered the series without much fame but with tons of cred. Before Boardwalk Empire, they had all appeared in Oscar-fêted movies or high-profile HBO projects, and that's the kind of thing that makes a drama feel "prestige-y" in the first place. Crucially, they all managed to find more in their characters than the scripts gave them, which only cemented the perception (or my perception, at least) that they were good. This show may not have bumped them up, but it can be used as supporting evidence when you're trying to argue at a bar that they're all "undervalued."
  5. Dabney Coleman
    In his roughly two dozen appearances as the Commodore, Dabney Coleman reminded the world he was not dead. Ten points to Buffalo Bill. (Not the skin-suit one. The other one.)
  6. Jack Huston
    I'll tell you what: Ol' Half-Face is certainly hard to forget, and Huston's consistently strong performance often made his character the most compelling one on screen. You can actually remember his work here, is what I'm saying, which is no small achievement.
  7. Patricia Arquette
    A fascinating case! Exactly how much credit do we give her arc as Sally Wheet for helping her win an Oscar for Boyhood? Her episodes were airing right in the middle of her campaign, but by 2014/2015, the series had lost its grip on the public imagination. Still, I think it probably helped her gain a few votes, even if she never seemed in danger of losing the trophy. Boardwalk Empire is the kind of project that ups your bona fides in the eyes of older white dudes: without even watching her season, those voters might've felt the Winter/Scorsese stamp of approval was further proof that Arquette was a "serious" actor. And without all those accolades and "fancy" projects, Arquette almost certainly wouldn't have landed the series lead on CSI: Cyber. That show might be terrible, but it still underlines Arquette's recently earned clout.
  8. Michael Pitt
    Here's the thing: even though he was apparently fired for being an unreliable mess, Michael Pitt still managed to be the best thing on this show. In those early seasons, he seemed like he should be the star, since he had all the magnetism and conflicted emotions that Buscemi did not. Troublemaker or not, it's always good to be remembered as the best thing in a series.
  9. Gretchen Mol
    For the longest time, Gretchen Mol seemed destined to be a cautionary tale about what happens to talented young people when they get too much praise too soon. But now, no matter what, her CV includes a major role on a prestige drama -- and a role that allowed her to demonstrate her legitimate acting chops to boot. Toss in some very good theater work she's done recently, and her career now looks like an inspirational tale of survival. So pay attention, Shia LaBeouf: maybe it's time to play an incestuous drug addict in the 1920s!
  10. Bobby Cannavale
    How to put this politely? I find Cannavale to be a...limited actor. In the same way that I find Sour Patch Kids have a limited flavor profile. Yet in both cases, there appear to be plenty of people who want to get blasted by the same thing over and over until they go numb. In Cannavale's case, this even led to an Emmy win for this show. An Emmy! For being sweaty and loud all the time! And now he's the protagonist of a new show. And will probably win more Emmys. And will yell and sweat forever and ever until he winds up replacing Jefferson on Mt. Rushmore and the clouds rain Sour Patch Kids upon us all.

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