Gangster lore permeates the streets of Queens: the land on which Juniper Valley Park in Queens now stands was seized from alleged World Series-fixer Arnold Rothstein’s estate over back taxes; “Goodfellas” was based on characters and events from Ozone Park; and dozens of gangsters’ graves pepper the city’s cemeteries — including Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Mere miles separate the final resting place of Luciano at St. John Cemetery and the house where the man who now portrays him on “Boardwalk Empire” — whose season three premieres Sunday — grew up.
Vincent Piazza — born in Middle Village before moving to neighboring Maspeth shortly thereafter, where his family still lives — grew up watching the films of Martin Scorsese, never imagining he would one day be directed by the film giant.
Only what he described as luck and a “series of coincidences” led him to acting and the famed director.
His childhood was a typical Maspeth upbringing: he attended Our Lady of Hope, played 104th Precinct roller hockey, loved Rosa’s Pizza and graduated from Archbishop Molloy High School.
At Molloy, Piazza did not partake in plays or acting, or even harbor thoughts of one day making it a career — he considered himself a hockey player.
Upon graduating, Piazza found himself at Villanova University to pursue the sport, but a recurring shoulder injury forced him to hang up the skates.
Returning to Maspeth, Piazza’s future was still uncertain.
“I was just picking up the pieces of what in my eyes was a broken dream,” he said.
He worked construction with his father and played men’s league hockey. It was there, through happenstance, he met someone who worked in finance and invited him to take a shot on Wall Street.
Wearing his Molloy clothes — khakis, a collared shirt and tie — Piazza headed to the financial district to try his hand.
He became a licensed broker and traveled through Europe and the Middle East.
“It was an eye opening experience,” the 35-year-old said of the globe-trotting. “I really learned a lot about the world outside of Maspeth.”
Still not knowing if this was where he wanted to end up — he loved traveling, but wasn’t happy wasting away in a cubicle — Piazza questioned his future.
One thing he did have a knack for was impersonations and being the office clown — even calling office mates as the boss to fire them.
“Man, you’re wasting your time, you have to be an actor,” he was told.
The death of his mentor and the man who helped him break into the field pushed him in that direction.
“Is it about money, or is it about being happy,” Piazza asked himself. “So I decided to look into acting.”
Standing in line ahead of Piazza as he awaited his head shot was Alice Spivak, a well-known acting coach. When Piazza returned home, a book he was reading surreptitiously mentioned the acting coach’s name, convincing him to call the photographer for her number.
This led to a meeting.
“I sat down, she was like, ‘Look, if you’re interested in trying to be famous, don’t waste my time. If you want to learn a craft, then we’ll talk.’”
Twenty or 30 no- to low-paying jobs later, Piazza took $30 he had in his pocket to perform in front of casting director Nadia Lubbe.
This led to him reading for a role in the independent film “Rocket Science.”
He made a tape he called “brave” or possibly “naïve,” that generated a meeting with the film’s director, Jeff Blitz.
“He said, ‘I had to meet you because I wasn’t sure if you were insane or you just took a really big chance [on the tape].’”
The job was his.
Jobs begot jobs and the work ethic formed in Maspeth continued as he broke into Hollywood.
“Too often you see people abusing the privilege of acting or show business,” he said.
Working on indie films — “Stephanie Daley,” “Assassination of a High School President” — Piazza had an itch to create a new character, a classic gangster.
Walking around Chelsea, he happened upon someone selling old books.
Leafing through the collection, he found one titled “On Our Block,” an old, unpublished collection of Christian-infused children’s stories.
“They were very heavy handed. Children should be seen and not heard,” he said.
This inspired him to write one of the stories into a monologue of himself fathering a child and disciplining the child as a gangster.
He put it on film and sent it to his agent who was unsure what to do with it.
The video was filed away.
More than a year later, the breakdown for “Boardwalk Empire” came out.
“[My agent] calls me up and says, “You’re not going to believe this, remember that tape that you gave me? Martin Scorsese’s looking for a young Al Capone, a young Luciano. I’m sending his office your tape.’”
After growing up quoting his films with his friends, Piazza was about to meet Scorsese, who directed the pilot and is the executive director of the popular show.
“So what are we going to do Lucky,” Piazza remembers in a nearly spot-on Scorsese impression of their first encounter.
Stuttering and stammering, the two discussed Scorsese’s take on the role.
Coincidence led to this point; now Piazza was Lucky.
He watched films, read biographies and pored over court documents about the criminal.
“There’s been so many glamorizations of him as this omnipotent, very grand gangster,” Piazza said. “But underneath all the silk is a thug.”
Filming in the city allows Piazza to walk the streets and frequent places Luciano did 80 years prior.
Piazza remembered one scene at John’s Italian Restaurant in the East Village with himself, Joe Masseria, Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky.
“We’re filming a scene of these four historical characters and they once inhabited the exact same space.”
Viewers will be introduced to these characters more than a year after last season’s shocking conclusion (Piazza was only made aware of the ending days before it aired, he said. He too was floored).
“I have to credit the writers, because you would think after the climax of last season there would be a falling off, but this show manages to one up itself.”
Season three of the popular HBO period drama picks up as America is entering 1923, when the 20s began to roar, Piazza said.
“It’s the ‘Year of the Gangster’ on the show,” Piazza teased of the show that will film debut on Sunday, September 16 at 9 p.m. “It’s a bit less political and a lot more street.”