The Original Gangsters: Nucky, Capone, Luciano and 'Boardwalk Empire'

HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire' recreates the Atlantic City of the Prohibition era, complete with gangsters, bootlegging and everything that made the '20s roar.

By Michael Pritchard
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Sep. 15, 2010

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The first mob meeting? A scene from HBO's brilliant new series, 'Boardwalk Empire,' which debuts Sunday, Sept. 19, at 9pm.

Photo by HBO

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.

10, 9, 8 … when the clock strikes midnight, the place erupts with cheer, optimism and a good share of decadent joy.
But this party doesn’t happen on New Year’s. Rather, it’s a couple of weeks later — January 16, 1920, to be precise. The countdown is for the start of Prohibition. As the rest of the country prepares to go dry (well, on the surface), Atlantic City is braced to launch a new era — a decidedly “wet” era.

And perhaps, by some standards (the party hardy, loose cash and even looser morals standard), its greatest era.

This Sunday (Sept. 19), there will be a similar countdown as Atlantic City prepares for yet another complete makeover of its image. At least that’s the hope.

The new series produced by Martin Scorsese, written by The Sopranos scribe Terrence Winter and starring Steve Buscemi, carries with it a simple wish from the city it portrays.

Please, please make us cool again.

It’s a challenge that Winter, who is also a producer, is ready for.

“I’m really pleased that this is coming at this time,” says Winter in an interview with Atlantic City Weekly. “Atlantic City is a great city. It’s so important and not just selfishly for our show. It’s a national treasure that completely deserves to be revitalized.”

Still, there’s more to Boardwalk Empire, than Atlantic City. Winter and Scorsese are documenting the rise of a new era, one that touched New York, Chicago and all points in the country.

It’s the rise of the original gangsters.

Atlantic City’s rising gangster is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Buscemi who steps out from years of supporting and character roles to take the star turn. Thompson is a fictionalization of the real life Nucky Johnson, who ruled as “boss” of Atlantic City as a politician and bootlegger throughout Prohibition.

Empire is based on Nelson Johnson’s 2002 book, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City. But while the book covers decades of city history, the show focuses on the 1920s, a time of profound change in America, especially where crime is concerned.

Early in the show, viewers not only meet Nucky, they meet guys like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, New York gangster Arnold Rothstein and some of the most famous criminals of the era. The show also includes World War I vets, immigrants, corrupt politicians, uptight feds, African-American bootleggers and a host of other characters — 14 regular characters in all — that bring home the wide impact of the 18th Amendment.

“It’s a big, sweeping epic,” says Winter. “I like to think of it really as an epic novel with all the characters it brings in and how their lives sort of intersect and storylines collide with each other. You may even meet people in early episodes that you might not see again for several seasons. It’s part of creating this real world.”

At the center of the show, however, is Buscemi’s Thompson, who finds himself caught in the middle of the change that is exploding around him. 

Buscemi takes Thompson on a roller coaster ride, at times portraying him as a gentle, caring city father who just happens to know a few legal shortcuts, and at others a scheming and even violent gangster on the rise himself.

“Nucky is a complicated guy,” says Winter. “I think he’s equal part politician and gangster. He’s got a dark side, but he also has a benevolent side. I think the real Nucky probably didn’t see himself as a criminal. I think he was more of a pragmatist, in the sense that he felt, that in order to keep the city running, he had to skirt the law.

“But the world was changing so quickly around him,” says Winter. “Nucky is sort of changing with that too. The world he was used to was more genteel in its criminal element. But there are young guys all around him ready to use violence and he has to get comfortable with that.”

Youth does play a factor. Gangsters such as Capone and Luciano are not the famous bosses seen so many times before in dozens of gangster flicks. In 1920 they are brand new, still being mentored by more established gangsters like Rothstein (famous for fixing the 1919 World Series). Capone, for example is merely a flunky in the opening scenes.
But their quick tempers and quicker trigger fingers foreshadow the age that’s coming.

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Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. Anonymous said... on Sep 16, 2010 at 11:21AM

“There should be a lot of information on Max "BooBoo" Hoff but I don't see him mentioned. Is he included because he should be. He was quite involved in Atlantoc City during this era.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Sep 17, 2010 at 12:49AM

“a cousin is in the Boardwalk Empire series

watch for TRACY SALLOWS-she plays a mom in the 3rd or 4th episode”

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3. Anonymous said... on Oct 29, 2010 at 08:02PM

“500,000 per year”

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4. Anonymous said... on Dec 6, 2010 at 11:46PM


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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 26, 2011 at 05:28PM

“Ok NUCKY OR NOCKY????? his real name ENOCh so I think its NOCKY anyone know different ??”

Report Violation

6. Peter Gladue said... on Oct 13, 2011 at 09:01PM

“I don't have HBO this year, so I have to get my BOARDWALK EMPIRE fix with these updates”

Report Violation

7. Spooky said... on Dec 5, 2011 at 03:22PM

“Is Jimmy Donahme a real player from back in the day or fictional to add spice to the teleplay?”


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