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Nucky Johnson, 'Boardwalk Empire' and the real-life gangsters of the show

By Melissa Bell

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.

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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)."

By Melissa Bell  | September 20, 2010; 10:43 AM ET
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Comments

Okay, first off, 1920 isn't "Depression-era." Maybe later in the series it gets into the dDepression (1929-1941-ish). But right now we've got NINE years before the depression kicks in.

"Atlantic City was one of the few cities where people could openly drink alcohol..." Nonsense. During Prohibition, people drank "openly" all over the place, it wasn't "one of the few" cities. Yes, AC was more wide-open than many, but that didn't make it "one of the few." There were no "few" during Prohibition.

It's debateable whether Frankie Yale was
one of the "big names" on a par with the others. That could go either way. Yes, he was a Capone lieutenant (until Capone had him wacked). Yes, he ran the Brooklyn outfit (today's Gambino family). Yes, he's in the series. But he's not on a par with Torio, Capone, Luciano, etc. As his Wikipedia entry rightly says, he's been largely overlooked. So he's not a big name. (Whether he should be is another question.)

And Colosimo gets wacked in Episode one, which leaves 10 more episodes without him. And his first name was Vincenzo, not James. "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."
This is pretty much wrong or irrelevant. Yes, he fell for a dancer and married her, and a week later was killed. She was an initial suspect, but 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). His marriage to the dancer didn't make his empire "susceptible to takeover." Anyway, gangsters didn't need "reasons" to shoot their way up the ladder.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 20, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Since when is Al Capone from Baltimore? Who edits this stuff?

Posted by: flanman47 | September 20, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

He's not from Baltimore, but he was working there before Torrio asked him to come to Chicago.

Posted by: Melissa Bell | September 20, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Also, I believe Arnold Rothstein bankrolled the 1919 Black Sox scandal. There was some brief mention of him making $2 million off the World Series.

Posted by: bill_in_damascus | September 20, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

curmudgeon6 seems to know a lot about these goings on. Perhaps he whacked curmudgeons 1 through 5 on his way to the top?

Posted by: TonyMostyn | September 20, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Curmudgeons 1 through 5 sleep wi' da fishes.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 20, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Folks, I saw the first episode yesterday evening. It was painful. I thought Buscemi was forcing his lines--some of which were atrociously drafted. I found him otherwise stiff and wooden, except in those brief moments when he did reflect, which seemed oddly out of place and over the top. As for Scorcese, it's about time the truth was revealed. Sometimes he hits (Raging Bull, The Departed) and sometimes he totally lays an egg (Gangs of New York). This Boardwalk Empire episode falls into the latter category.

I find WaPo's coverage of this first episode--indeed the whole series--to be inappropriately slanted against saying anything critical, almost to the point of deference. Hank Stuever seemed to be biting his tongue. I can't explain WaPo's problem as an institution, but I think the coverage here is symptomatic of larger problems with the newspaper.

Disappointing, WaPo. Again.

Posted by: ktp70 | September 20, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

ktp70 - Get over yourself. I thought the premier was awesome, and I'm sure others who tuned in agree. It fills a void left by Sopranos: a weekly HBO series with f-bombs, guns, violence, and nudity. 30 something guys get to feel like gangsters in the safe confines of their middle-class urban lives. If you're looking for one of the top 100 American Films of all time (Raging Bull comparison, really?), go to Blockbuster. A little escapism is all I need on a Sunday night.

Posted by: jwm1974 | September 20, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Series looks good. More nudity by Paz de la Huerta would be appreciated.

Posted by: wrw01011 | September 20, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Gulp. Curmudgeon6, I'm scared of fishes.

Ktp70, I'm not sure if Stuever knows how to bite his tongue, which is why I love him. And I have to disagree with you on Gangs of New York. Yes, it was not a shining example of Scorcese's oeuvre, but I think the scene of Daniel Day-Lewis' character demonstrating how to kill a man on a pig carcass contains enough genius to make up for even the most pained moments of Leonardo DiCaprio's terrible Irish brogue.

Posted by: Melissa Bell | September 20, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

jwm1974 - Fair enough. I'll get over myself. Maybe I take my television too seriously, and I realize this isn't about perfection. Larger point was that WaPo tapdances around the truth. And the truth is that the show isn't that great--not even close. It didn't "transport" me anywhere (except that I'll be transporting myself to Sunday Night Football from here on out, and I'm not sure that's what they had in mind).

And by the way, ease up a little on blasting me. You assume I'm crazy for wanting Scorcese to live up to his name? In light of the HBO fees and premiums, the HBO hype and the WaPo hype, it seems like a small request to ask the celebrity director to come a little closer to Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Casino, Taxi Drive, The Aviator, etc. than to that steaming piece of shite he served up last night. He should be embarassed. I wouldn't have associated myself with that episode if I couldn't pull it off, and he did not pull it off.

But you thought it was great? Awesome, as you say? Really, you were racked with awe? I suppose Gangs of New York was Oscar-worthy too, right? C'mon, bro. Please at least admit that Scorcese is spotty at times (as he was here). Please also admit that WaPo is playing defense for fear of retribution--scared to tell the truth about the "great" Hollywood elite.

Posted by: ktp70 | September 20, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I liked the show and will watch it. I did find that some of recurring gangster themes (i.e., abusive husband gets worked over and dumped into the river by gangsters) to be getting a big old after all the Godfather films and other mob boss spawns over the years. Gangster films just don't have that shock effect anymore.

Still, this is a good show and is very well done.

Posted by: RealTexan1 | September 20, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Best post of the thread? The award goes to TonyMostyn. That was funny. Don't know all of the historical accuracies or inaccuracies, but I did enjoy the show. I'll be there next week.

Posted by: ANCLvr | September 20, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

The criticisms seem harsh. It's only been one episode of a series. Everyone should recall that time is required to set up a character, establish his personal and professional relationships, interweave his backstory, explain his motivations and aspirations, introduce his friends and enemies, and illustrate his opportunities as well as his obstacles. To believe that Scorcese could jump out of the gate hitting home runs in Episode 1 is somewhat unfair to the craft of series television. Nucky is probably more complex than could be shown in a single episode, which is probably why Boardwalk Empire will be great. With Steve Buscemi, who is generally very highly regarded by his fellow actors, there is a goldmine of opportunity for character development. I am reminded that Tony Soprano's character arc took entire seasons to develop, and was marked by such extremes as his audience pulling for him when he struggled to garrote the rat in "College," and later being completely repulsed when he killed his nephew, Christopher Moltisante, late in the series.

I liked, in Episode 1, that we were made to believe Nucky has (to some extent) a social conscience, he misses his dead wife, he is (initially, at least) uncomfortable with the power he possesses, and he is apparently unafraid of fellow gangsters, as evidenced when he insulted Lucky Luciano (twice). And we are going to see minor characters (a young and tempestuous Al Capone) grow into major characters. That's pretty exciting. I think HBO has a hit series on its hands. So, while I might not rate Episode 1 as "awesome," I do believe the upside potential for Boardwalk Empire is indeed awesome.

Posted by: rmagritte | September 20, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

This was one large stinker, I could not stay with this one, HBO talked about how great the sets were, they looked like something from a Grade Z Western from the 1940's.

Posted by: cjoeidaho | September 20, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

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