Nucky Johnson, 'Boardwalk Empire' and the real-life gangsters of the show
Last night aired HBO's answer to our collective longing for "The Sopranos" reincarnation, only this time it's dressed in the dapper swagger of Prohibition-era Atlantic City.
Hank Stuever called "Boardwalk Empire" critic-proof, thanks to the wild expectation for the show, and it lives up to those expectations, as "an irresistible trip back in time" with a "remarkable" Steve Buscemi.
Although HBO seems to be setting the show up as the second coming of "The Sopranos," most people are comparing it to another hit show about brooding men: "Mad Men." Those millions of dollars have gone into making the prohibition era set as true to its time as the 1960s New York advertising world on "Mad Men." But unlike the hit AMC show, with its fictional cast of characters, the men in "Boardwalk Empire" are based very much on famous gangsters of the past.
Steve Buscemi's character Nucky Thompson is based on Enoch L. Johnson, the sheriff of Atlantic City, who ruled Atlantic City for 30 years as the boss of the Republican political machine. Unlike the thin Buscemi, Johnson was a 6-foot-1, 200-pound man who rose to power by allowing crime to flourish while he and the police force looked the other way. Nelson Johnson, author of the book "Boardwalk Empire," on which the series is based, told the Press of Atlantic City that Enoch Johnson held power in two distinct circles -- organized crime and politics -- and "was able to make those two spheres one thing."
Under Prohibition, Atlantic City was one of the few cities where people could openly drink alcohol, and drink they did. Atlantic City became one of the most popular holiday destinations and won the nickname the "World's Playground." Johnson took a percentage of every gallon of alcohol sold.
"Johnson was famous for sporting flashy suits, his $14,000 powder blue limousine, pinky rings, a red carnation on his lapel (which he wore daily) and devouring platters of eggs and ham in his luxury suite after a night of debauchery with money-hungry showgirls," Ginger Adams Otis wrote in the New York Post.
He was also famously helpful to the poor, and they helped him right back by providing the votes he needed to steer senators and congressmen into power. After three decades of power, though, a couple of documents Johnson thought had been flushed down the toilet led to Johnson's arrest and conviction for tax fraud.
The other big names in the show might be more familiar to mafia watchers: Lucky Luciano, Big Jim Colosimo, Al Capone, Johnny Torrio and Frankie Yale. Here's a quick run-down as a primer for the show.
Lucky Luciano: The first boss of the Genovese crime family, which purportedly still functions today. Luciano is credited for much of the organization of the organized criminal world. He divided the mafia in New York into the five families and he set up the Commission to settle mafia disputes. He was connected with the start of casinos in Atlantic City, Cuba and Las Vegas.
Jim Colosimo: The kingpin of Chicago's flesh trade, Colosimo owned one of the most popular nightclubs in Chicago and most of the brothels with his partner and wife Victoria Moresco. He fell victim to the same vice he pedaled: lust. He fell for a young dancer, divorced his wife and made his empire suddenly vulnerable to take over.
Frankie Yale: Yale was a New York gangster who heard of Colosimo's infatuation with the young dancer. He saw an opportunity to take over his business, so he headed for Chicago where he reportedly shot and killed Colosimo, though the police were never able to prove the murder. However, his takeover attempt failed and he returned to New York where he maintained a gang in Brooklyn.
Johnny Torrio: Torrio had been brought from New York to Chicago to help Colosimo run the brothel business. After Colosimo's death, he took over the business and created a vast empire.
Al Capone: Last, but not least, one of the most famous gangsters got his start in 1920s Baltimore. Capone was a bookkeeper whom Torrio plucked from the city to work for him in Chicago, but Capone quickly rose to become Torrio's partner and eventually took over the business after a failed assassination attempt scared Torrio back to a life in Italy.
How these gangsters all help or harm Nucky Thompson remains to be seen on the HBO screen.
Got more questions on Boardwalk Empire? Read Hank Stuever's chat here.
Updated, 1:30 p.m.
Reader Curmudgeon6 posits a different theory to Colosimo's death: "Everyone now pretty much believes his #2, Johnny Torrio, set it up (bringing in Yale as the shooter, although Capone has also been suspected). But the motive had nothing to do with "lust"; it had to do with Torrio taking over the racket because Colosimo refused to get into the liquor business (see "The Godfather," where Don Vito and the other pessanovantes don't want to get into drugs)."
| September 20, 2010; 10:43 AM ET
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