An inside account of how HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire' came to the small screen
It began on the page.
By 2000, Hammonton-based historian Nelson Johnson had compiled the first comprehensive history of Atlantic City between two covers, and enlisted the help of two New York literary agents in structuring and marketing the manuscript. His book, called Nucky’s Town (after political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson), presented a road map through the storied city by the sea, complete with detours, pitfalls, and pockmarks.
There was just one problem. No one wanted to publish it.
“We couldn’t get anyone interested, one rejection after another,” Johnson tells Atlantic City Weekly.
Interest, fortunately, can be a function of persistence. In late 2001, Johnson sent the manuscript unsolicited to Plexus Publishing, a regional house in Medford, New Jersey. It landed on the desk of editor-publisher John B. Bryans, who was looking to build a front list, and had a long track record elsewhere with historical novels. Johnson’s storytelling, as much as the compelling history, caught the editor’s eye.
“What grabbed me was the novelistic style of moving you into a chapter,” says Bryans. “It’s a great story . . . a true story.”
When Plexus published the book the following year, it sported a new name. House counsel Gabe Perle had given the manuscript his legal stamp of approval, but offered a personal opinion: change the title. Bryans credits Johnson with the resonant Boardwalk Empire, and says that the title itself subsequently opened doors.
As it turned out, some very large doors. From the start, author Johnson saw the Atlantic City saga as material fit for the screen and, after reading The Perfect Pitch by Ken Rotcop, he contacted the pitchman himself for an extra tip or two. The former production executive suggested a trip to Los Angeles to attend a pitching session (guess whose), whereby eager scribes present their wares to potential buyers. Johnson figured it was worth the airfare and, a year or two after his book’s publication, headed west for a few days.
And the portals swung open to Hollywood.
Not the moment Johnson walked into Rotcop’s “Pitchmart,” of course, but he believed he held a key. Armed with a handful of copies of Boardwalk Empire, a photograph of Nucky and wife Flossie Osbeck taken on the day before the seashore boss went to prison, and Rotcop’s tactic of leading with a question to ignite discussion, Johnson posed this doozy to agents and producers: “Where was organized crime born?”
New York. Chicago. Las Vegas . . . wrong. When the movie folk learned that the correct answer was Atlantic City, they were duly impressed but not necessarily ready to pitch the project to Steven Spielberg. One veteran agent, however, thought he could make something happen. Johnson gave him a thumbs-up and four copies of the book.
Like Nucky’s smuggled booze, Boardwalk Empire fermented during the next couple of years in the wilds of Hollywood. In June 2006, then Endeavor agent Brian Lipson emailed Bryans at Plexus, expressing interest in the book as a film property. Two months later, Plexus and Johnson signed an agreement with the agency. In January 2007, they accepted an 18-month option offer from HBO, which intended to develop the material into a series.
Projects of this scale take shape only after “name” talent gets involved. Manager Stephen Levinson and actor Mark Wahlberg, the producing powers behind HBO’s hit series Entourage, were attached to Boardwalk Empire early on. Wahlberg reportedly had interest in working with his Academy Award-winning director from The Departed, a fellow named Martin Scorsese, on a new project, and a period gangster drama set in Atlantic City was just the thing (Wahlberg is not currently among the cast of Boardwalk Empire.) Scorsese liked it so much that he wanted to direct (which he did) the opening episode. To do the scripts, HBO hired Terence Winter, a principal writer and producer for the cable network’s huge hit, The Sopranos.
Now a small publisher in Medford, and an historian in Hammonton, were among the ranks of Hollywood heavyweights.
A third New Jerseyan became a key player in the production, which recreated 1920s Atlantic City at shooting sites in Brooklyn. Atlantic City native Ed McGinty, a former Columbia University film student, hired on as the principal research advisor in August 2008, several months after HBO had picked up its option. McGinty had read Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire three times, and when he learned about the series-in-the-making, he sought out screenwriter Winter and provided him with a photograph-rich research packet. Winter hired him on the spot.
McGinty’s eye has been useful to the production’s writers, set designers, costumers, and special effects technicians
”I wanted to show them the lay of the land,” he says. Though fictionalized, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is historically authentic. Lead character Nucky Thompson, portrayed by quirky character actor Steve Buscemi, exerts the same flamboyant autocracy as the real-life Nucky Johnson, who ruled his Boardwalk empire from a floor’s worth of suites at the Ritz-Carlton, a building that still stands in Atlantic City. McGinty’s grandfather was a bellhop at the Ritz, his father a late-1930s page boy who delivered messages to, among others, Nucky Johnson, known as a liberal tipper.
“He [Johnson] was very charismatic,” says McGinty, steeped in family lore and Atlantic City history. “It was a jumping-off point to tell the writers what the character was like.”
Other Side of the Tracks
The emergence and rise of Atlantic City is an American story of equal parts inspiration and exploitation. The seashore resort was built largely on the backs of imported black tradesmen and laborers, who kept the wheels greased and turning at its hotels, piers, and restaurants. Their reward, per the time, was racism and a berth beyond the railroad tracks on the less choice side of town. The north side.
When author Nelson Johnson summarized their story in a single chapter in his Boardwalk Empire, he knew that it called for a book of its own. Now that expanded version is about to arrive in hardcover. The Northside: African-Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City is due around Thanksgiving, and promises a wealth of detail and insights about the community built by Atlantic City’s foot soldiers. Teaming once again with Medford-based regional publisher Plexus, Johnson has provided portraits of the people who fashioned bare bones into black culture and institutions at the seashore.
Will Northside leap from the page to the screen, like its predecessor? Plexus editor-publisher John B. Bryans likes its chances.
“It’s born to be a documentary,” he says. — JW
A public discussion entitled “The Atlantic City Experience: The Roaring ’20s” will be hosted by the Atlantic City Free Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 13, in the Atlantic City Historical Museum
"It’s almost foreshadowed in the pilot when Jimmy tells Nucky: 'You can’t be half a gangster anymore,' and I knew that at one point Nucky would cross that line and fully become a gangster."
"The book is the book, the show is the show, the book is what inspired the show and the show, with the benefit of some really creative people, is going to re-tell the story of Prohibition through the eyes of criminals. And the focal point of that is Nucky."
Judge Nelson Johnson's latest book 'The Northside,' on Atlantic City's history of African-Americans, is missing key components says community leader. Johnson's previous book Boardwalk Empire was turned into the 2010 HBO series, the second season of which is filming now.
Early in the premiere episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, a crowd of dapper Atlantic City movers and shakers, partying well into the night in a spiffy supper club, make a familiar countdown, cocktail glasses held high...
It was a windy and rainy mid-September night for the Atlantic City premiere of the much anticipated new HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Regional storms pounded the beach and Boardwalk with crashing ocean waves and assaulting wind gusts. We're talking not only hold onto your hat, but everything else, too.
"There have been so many great performances by guys like Stanley Tucci and Andy Garcia. And they play him as this slick guy and you see what he became. And you certainly don’t want to betray the popular image. But through the research you have to kind of work backwards. You have to go back to the beginning and try to understand where he came from and all the events that shaped his life."
A huge audience of 4.8 million people watched the Sunday night premiere, which ran against a big football game featuring the New York Giants and the Indianapolis Colts, more than any other HBO premiere episode in more than five years...
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