The plot thickens each week in HBO’s new hit series Boardwalk Empire, but don’t ask the cast to reveal any juicy tidbits about how the story line will unfold in the show about crime and corruption in Prohibition-era Atlantic City.
“We’re actually not supposed to talk too much about the show,” says veteran character actor Dabney Coleman, who portrays Commodore Louis Kaestner.
Besides, even if the cast could discuss the story, they probably wouldn’t know too many details anyway. Few of the actors have actually seen full scripts, according to Coleman.
“We don’t get scripts,” said Coleman during a chat recently at the Atlantic City premiere of Boardwalk Empire at Caesars Atlantic City. “We get our pages [of dialogue], so there’s a lot about this show that I don’t even know about.”
So sketchy was the story — at least to the actors — that Coleman said he had to call series creator and writer Terence Winter when he got his lines to ask a few basic questions.
“Before we even shot, I would call [Winter] and ask, ‘By the way, [which character] am I talking to, and what do I mean by what I’m saying here?’” said Coleman, whose character is both mentor and muse to crime boss and politician Nucky Thompson, played by series star Steve Buscemi.
In his 50-plus years acting in motion pictures and television, Coleman, 79, said he’s never experienced anything quite like this on a movie set.
“It’s very strange, but very interesting because everything’s kept very quiet,” he said. “[But] even that in itself is kind of exciting. There’s a dangerous quality to that.”
Like most of the characters in Boardwalk Empire, Coleman’s character is partially modeled after a real person.
Kaestner is loosely based on Louis “The Commodore” Kuehnle, the Atlantic County Republican party boss who ruled Atlantic City at the turn of the 20th century, and who paved the way for Nucky Johnson to take control of the town during Prohibition.
Coleman, who has appeared in more than 60 films, including On Golden Pond, 9 to 5, War Games and You’ve Got Mail, said he relied on “word of mouth” to prepare for a role that’s based on a character who’s fictional and yet historically accurate.
During his first breakfast meeting with Winter, which also served as Coleman’s interview for the part, Winter gave the actor a synopsis of his character. As filming began, Winter would supply additional tidbits of information about Kuehnle/Kaestner.
“I would get bits and pieces of information about ... my character, and I would ask hopefully pertinent questions,” he explained. “What kind of guy was this? What would he do in this situation? And so piece-meal, I think we put it together very well.”
Coleman had nothing but praise for Boardwalk Empire executive producer Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot episode.
“I just think it reeks of the time and the period and the atmosphere and the glamour and the danger and the fun of that time,” Coleman said.
Then, revealing himself to be a master of understatement, he added, “I think we’ve got a really, really good show.”
Coleman, a native of Corpus Christie, Texas, who studied law before turning to acting, said he really didn’t know much about Atlantic City and its checkered and tawdry past before he began work on Boardwalk Empire.
He was familiar with the old tune “On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City,” but beyond that, he had no idea how prominently the resort town figured not only in the spread of bootleg booze across the country, but also in the formation of organized crime syndicates.
“My vision of it was like a resort town with the little push-carts,” he said, referring to Atlantic City’s famous Boardwalk rolling chairs. “But I knew nothing about the [illegal] gambling, and the bootlegging. That was all new to me.”
But Coleman does have a story about getting lucky in Atlantic City more than 20 years ago, and he wasn’t anywhere near a dice table or a slot machine.
The fifth annual AC Cinefest, presented by the Downbeach Film Festival, will feature Robert Downey Sr. in addition to Terry Winter, award-winning creator of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and actor Peter Dobson.
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