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"Boardwalk to Success": Oklahoma native Paul Sparks turns advice, acting experiences into successful career

Melissa Hayer Published: September 27, 2013
Paul Sparks, an Oklahoma native, stars as Mickey Doyle in "Boardwalk Empire." - HBO Photo
Paul Sparks, an Oklahoma native, stars as Mickey Doyle in "Boardwalk Empire." - HBO Photo

(This article was published Sept. 27, 2013 in the Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.)

Growing up in a family full of coaches and sports-oriented small Oklahoma towns, “Boardwalk Empire” star Paul Sparks thought he was headed toward a career as an athlete.

But, after some advice from his father, Mike, also Marlow High School’s football coach at the time, Sparks took a speech class his freshman year and found himself having fun acting in plays.

“My father never made me take a class … except when I started high school at Marlow. He said, ‘You know what? I think you ought to have to take a speech class because I took a speech class when I was in college.’ And he felt like that was such a great thing to be able to want to speak in front of people,” Sparks said during a phone interview.

Sparks’ speech teacher, Paula McConnell, who was also the drama teacher, later suggested he try out for a theater scholarship to accompany his academic scholarship at Oklahoma State University, where he planned to study chemistry.

“So, I auditioned for it and got that scholarship at Oklahoma State. I just thought I was going to take some acting classes, and it turned out you had to audition for plays if you had that scholarship. So, I did and was fortunate enough to get cast in some plays when I was there. And then slowly my life started to revolve around the people that were involved in the theater, and I enjoyed that.”

Sparks was then encouraged to make a go at a career in acting.

“So, eventually I would meet some people that were from the East Coast, and they would say, ‘You should come out here and really try and be an actor.’ I was sort of young and naive and had no idea what I was getting into, so I just decided, ‘OK, I’ll go to New York.’ And my father sort of talked me into trying to go to school there to finish up my undergraduate degree, and luckily I got into NYU. So, I finished up there, and I studied acting and philosophy.”

All of this advice, along with the good decisions he made after receiving it, have definitely paid off for the actor.

Sparks, 41, has been nominated for five Drama Desk Awards for his theater work and is in his fourth season of the HBO drama “Boardwalk Empire.”

Sparks has played bootlegging gangster Mickey Doyle since the beginning of the series, which is set in 1920s Atlantic City and has a cast that also includes Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon and Jack Huston. “Boardwalk Empire,” from Terence Winter, Emmy Award-winning writer of “The Sopranos,” and Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese, airs at 8 p.m. Sundays on HBO.

‘A joyous character to play’

Doyle is a fun character for Sparks to portray.

“There’s a sort of, I don’t know if it’s intelligence, or lack of intelligence, or just brazenness, but he’s such a joyous character to play in that I love that he is inappropriate and that he thinks so many things are funny,” Sparks said. “And, he’s so slippery, and, so, I think, smart, the way he kind of navigates through these very dangerous people.

“The process of being in a show where you get to play a character that’s so far out on a limb, which that character is, you don’t get an opportunity to do that very often anymore in the acting business,” Sparks said. “I’m actually not much like Mickey Doyle, but they’ve just kind of let me run wild on that show.

Since all of Sparks’ relatives are in Oklahoma, the East Village resident brings his wife, actress Annie Parisse, and son, Emmett, back as much as possible.

“I wish we got back more, but usually we get back once a year or so, sometimes twice. I was just there this summer, in June. I bring my family, and I have … a 3-year-old that’s almost 4 in October. He gets to see all his cousins and his uncles … They have tractors and live on farms and things, and it’s a different atmosphere he absolutely loves, so we definitely come back a lot,” Sparks said.


Here’s what Oklahoma native Paul Sparks had to say about working with Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi and Michael Shannon on the award-winning HBO series “Boardwalk  Empire”:

On Scorsese: “That was one of the most terrifying, and yet, it was a huge learning experience, because, of course, it’s Martin Scorsese. … You’re like, ‘How am I working with this legendary person?’ And he has a ton of energy, and he’s very, very meticulous and smart. … He has crazy stories about famous people, that you just can’t believe it. He’s constantly telling those things and reassuring everybody who he knows are kind of like nervous and stressed out that he’s going to be mad at them or something, I don’t know. But he’s very good about saying, ‘You know we’re going to get this.’ I can hear him talking, going (imitating Scorsese’s’ voice), ‘Hey, we’re going to get this. Don’t worry. We won’t leave until we do.’ He’s very comforting in that way. I will say that when I auditioned for him that I’m pretty sure I kind of blacked out while I was in the room (laughs), so I’m not sure what happened in there or how I got the part. But I know that when we worked together on the actual day, that it was very pleasant.”

On Buscemi: “He’s one of the nicest people you will ever meet. Totally down to earth. I don’t know that there’s anybody that’s nicer than Steve. A lot of times, sets are not such fun places to be, and especially television sets, because everybody works so hard and everybody’s kind of grumbling about getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning and not getting home until midnight. And, so, it’s very important that the person who’s sort of in the No. 1 spot, they set the tone. And Steve is not a complainer, and he’s a guy that’s really game to do stuff,  and he sets the right tone, and it all trickles down.”

On Shannon: “Mike is probably one of my best, if not my best friend.  … We were both kind of like, ‘What? We’re on the same show? Impossible.’ It was pretty funny.”


Are you a fan of the series?

If you’re a “Boardwalk Empire” fan, the HBO Shop has plenty of ways for you to express your admiration for the show and its style. You can pick up a new soundtrack featuring a song by St. Vincent, aka Tulsa-born musical artist Annie Clark, and the recently released third season is also available on DVD or Blu-ray. Other options include a leather journal, a wool Italian ivy cap, and an oxford and carnation key chain. For more information, go to

– Melissa Hayer

Follow me on Twitter: @MelissaHayer


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