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Who Do You Think You Are? USA: Steve Buscemi, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Who Do You Think You Are? USA: Steve Buscemi, BBC One

Who Do You Think You Are? USA: Steve Buscemi, BBC One

The low-key Brooklynite discovers a suicide note, civil war and an assault accusation in his past. All involving a dentist

Steve Buscemi discovers even more darkness in his family's background

Steve Buscemi says he’s “from the country of Brooklyn”. In the wake of  Boardwalk Empire he could have said the empire of Brooklyn. Although the family history disinterred was genuinely strange, this first entry in the new series of Who Do You Think You Are? USA was no emotional roller coaster, mostly because of Buscemi’s low-key affability.

At times, he looked surprised to be the subject of the programme. Yeah, he’s the cadaverous, snaggle-toothed, weasel-faced Buscemi we love. But look at those dark-rimmed eyes. Bush baby big, they’re made for surprise. He was taken aback by what the programme revealed, but setting his engagement knob to a cool two didn’t make the revelations the edge-of-seat stuff they could have been.

His great-great grandfather was a dentist – much wry comment on that from the orthodontically challenged Buscemi

But that seems to be who he is. Just as well his charm carries him. And just as well that what was turned up here was so intriguing. On his mother’s side, Buscemi knew his grandmother had committed suicide. Seeing him amiably talking this over with his mum and dad in their suburban house was unsettling. Its utter unremarkableness was at odds with what they were discussing. It’s the type of house lining the streets of blue-collar America from coast to coast, the type that lined the streets of Trees Lounge, the first film he directed. He wanted to know if his family history contained more darkness, similar to that colouring many of the characters he plays and so much of what he appears in.

The usual Who Do You Think You Are? elements were there: the surprise meeting with a previously unknown relative, driving while musing, filling the family in on the discoveries at the dining table, poring over documents in archives. After some digging, his previously unknown great-great grandfather Ralph B Montgomery was found. Montgomery was a dentist – much wry comment on that from the orthodontically challenged Buscemi – whose path through life was strange, tragic and overflowing with loose ends. Perfect for a film. Montgomery left a suicide note by a river, but no body was recovered. Research found his dentistry career was cut short by an accusation of assault.

This  programme confirmed the darkness in the family line. Buscemi continues the family tradition

Although the charge was dropped after a couple of years, Montgomery’s downward spiral continued and he abandoned his family, tried or faked suicide and then joined the Union Army in 1861. He deserted twice, once in the wake of taking part in the horrific Battle of Fredericksburg, a disastrous rout for the Union (see below for a potted history of the battle). Eventually, he ended up a shopkeeper in New Jersey with a new family – Buscemi’s antecedents – and died young.

Buscemi didn't create fireworks for the camera, so this became Montgomery’s story. The half-hour format of the American counterpart to Who Do You Think You Are? meant only one ancestor was dealt with in depth and the programme felt truncated, as though extracted from something longer. Just as there were loose ends in Montgomery’s life, passing comments were left hanging. Buscemi said his family name was Sicilian. That was all on that. Still, he did discover that Montgomery had lived in Philadelphia and Virginia. There was more to his American background than the country of Brooklyn. This matter-of-fact programme also confirmed the darkness in the family line. In his acting, Buscemi continues the family tradition.

Watch Carencro High School’s video on The Battle of Fredericksburg

Buscemi wanted to know if his family history contained more darkness, similar to that colouring the characters he plays and much of what he appears in

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