14 Surprising Facts About Boardwalk Empire
By Sarene Leeds
Three long years after The Sopranos cut to black on HBO, the premium cable channel unveiled a real doozy for viewers still hankering for a good New Jersey gangster story.
Boardwalk Empire, created by former Sopranos writer and executive producer Terence Winter, was a lavish drama set in the freewheeling 1920s, while exposing the dark, seedy underbelly of the Prohibition era.
The TV series, which aired from 2010 to 2014, starred The Sopranos alum and Coen brothers mainstay Steve Buscemi as corrupt-politician-turned-bootlegging-murderer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. Throughout Boardwalk’s five seasons, audiences were transfixed as Buscemi’s Nucky slowly transformed himself from the colorful, glad-handing Atlantic City county treasurer into a cold, manipulative criminal.
But the show was always much more than just weekly kills and illegal deals; Winter and his colleagues used Boardwalk to also take a hard look at American society at the time. They didn’t shy away from the brutal African-American experience—or the mainstream acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan in a northern state like New Jersey. And while Boardwalk will never win any awards for female-centric casting (of the 21 actors who appeared in the opening titles, only four were women and two of them were gone after the second season), it regularly explored the severe social and financial limitations placed on women from 1920 through 1931.
Although it’s only been four years since Boardwalk had its last call, with Nucky paying the ultimate price for his decades of power-hungry greed, there is still much about this often-overlooked show that deserves to be celebrated. So turn on some hot jazz, raise a glass “To the Lost,” and check out some of these fascinating facts about Boardwalk Empire. Compared to the snooze that was Al Capone’s vault, our list is just the bee’s knees.
1. THE PILOT EPISODE OF BOARDWALK EMPIRE WAS DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE … AND TERENCE WINTER WAS EMBARRASSED TO GIVE HIM A NOTE.
When you have Hollywood royalty directing the first episode of your brand-new series, the last thing anyone wants to do is correct his work. But that’s exactly what creator/showrunner Terence Winter was forced to do when he noticed an egregious etiquette error during the shoot. Speaking on the season one DVD commentary for the Boardwalk Empire pilot, Winter recounted how Michael Pitt’s Jimmy Darmody (Nucky’s protégé) was walking through a room full of women—with his hat on. The culture of the time (January 1920) dictated that a man would take off his hat when in the presence of ladies.
Winter needed to alert Scorsese, but the first assistant director told him, “No one’s ever given [Scorsese] a note before.” The Wolf of Wall Street writer called what he did next “the longest walk of my life.” Fortunately, Scorsese—who has a little experience with period films—agreed with Winter’s change and the scene was reshot with Jimmy removing his hat.
2. STEVE BUSCEMI’S CHARACTER WAS BASED ON A REAL PERSON.
Boardwalk Empire was populated by actual historical figures of the era; Stephen Graham’s Al Capone and Vincent Piazza’s Charlie “Lucky” Luciano were main characters for all five seasons. But when it came to his protagonist, Winter opted to fictionalize Atlantic City’s onetime political boss Nucky Johnson into “Nucky Thompson” for the sake of creative freedom. “If everybody is real, I can’t manipulate the story the way I want to,” Winter told NPR.
3. MICHAEL STUHLBARG SCHOOLED THE BOARDWALK WRITERS ON ARNOLD ROTHSTEIN.
Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water; Call Me By Your Name), who portrayed notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein for four seasons, had done so much research on his character that Winter brought him in to educate the show’s writers on the man. Per the Boardwalk pilot DVD commentary: “We realized we’ll never know as much as Michael did,” said Winter.
4. BOARDWALK EMPIRE GOT THE SESAME STREET TREATMENT.
Leave it to Sesame Street to turn a TV show about gruesome murders and backroom alcohol deals into a G-rated lesson about compromise. In “Birdwalk Empire,” a gang of ducks led by “Nucky Ducky” and “Mallard Capone” go up against a crew of hot-headed chickens led by “Clucky Luciano” in a fight for the birdwalk turf. Thanks to “Agent Van Cuckoo” (modeled after Michael Shannon’s shady federal official Nelson Van Alden, down to a spot-on recreation of Shannon’s signature baritone), the “bunch of flappers” figure out a way to enjoy their beachside stroll in harmony. If only the Boardwalk characters had taken a page from the birds’ playbook ... eh, never mind—if that had actually happened, the show would’ve ended a lot sooner than season five.
5. A SCENE FEATURING A KU KLUX KLAN MEETING WAS SHOT IN HARLEM, CAUSING A BIT OF TREPIDATION.
Boardwalk Empire takes place predominantly in Atlantic City, but most of its shooting locations were in the greater New York City area. So when Winter noticed that a major scene calling for a big Ku Klux Klan meeting in the season one episode “Anastasia” was scheduled to be shot in Harlem, he was “a little nervous.” As he recounted on the DVD commentary for the episode, “We were very careful to make sure no extras walked outside in a Klan costume ... I just had visions of this being in the paper the next day.”
6. THE INSPIRATION FOR RICHARD HARROW CAME FROM AN ARTICLE ABOUT A WOMAN WHO CREATED MASKS FOR DISFIGURED SOLDIERS.
About midway through Boardwalk’s first season, viewers were introduced to a character who, despite his talent for killing (he was a skilled sharpshooter), would become the series’ most tragic figure. Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) had returned from the Great War a shattered man, both on the outside and on the inside, his mangled face (rendered via CGI) now covered by an equally creepy tin mask. He was an excellent reminder of the horrors that had taken place on the battlefields of Europe only a few years earlier while the rest of the country had moved on. While Richard wasn’t based on anyone in particular, executive producer Howard Korder said in the season one DVD commentary for Boardwalk episode “Paris Green” that the inspiration for the character came from an article he read in Smithsonian Magazine about a Boston sculptress named Anna Coleman Watts Ladd. Ladd created lifelike masks that hid the returning soldiers’ facial disfigurements.
7. ONLY FIVE MAIN CHARACTERS WERE STILL ALIVE BY THE CONCLUSION OF BOARDWALK EMPIRE’S FINALE.
Unless you were a real-life mobster, Boardwalk Empire tended to view its characters as expendable—even Nucky Thompson (which, given Buscemi’s track record of dying onscreen, was inevitable). As Korder semi-joked in the season two Blu-Ray commentary for the episode “Gimcrack and Bunkum,” “Anyone can die unless they have a Wikipedia entry.” That meant that infamous criminals such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano—both of whom were main characters throughout the show’s entire run—were among the fortunate five to outlast Boardwalk’s 1931 expiration date. The other survivors were, justifiably, the three people Nucky had hurt the most: his estranged wife Margaret Thompson (Kelly Macdonald), his resentful younger brother Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham), and the permanently damaged Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol).
8. ALTHOUGH THE CHARACTER OF ESTHER RANDOLPH WAS FICTIONAL, HER BACKSTORY WAS THAT OF ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL MABEL WALKER WILLEBRANDT.
One of the coolest female characters to go head-to-head with Boardwalk’s boys’ club had to be Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson). Introduced in season two as Nucky’s formidable election-fraud case foe, this fictional prosecutor had a fascinating background drawn from the life of Assistant U.S. Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt. Like Willebrandt, Randolph had previously been a public defender in California who regularly represented prostitutes.
9. THE BEACH MATRON FINING ANGELA DARMODY’S SOON-TO-BE LOVER FOR SHOWING TOO MUCH LEG? THAT WAS A REAL THING.
In the season two episode “Two Boats and a Lifeguard,” Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino) witnesses a fellow female beachgoer get fined for what was then considered indecent exposure: not covering her legs with stockings. Not only were these modesty patrols a common sight at beaches during the 1920s (click here for a cringe-worthy photo of a male cop measuring a woman’s bare thigh), but according to this New York Times clipping, the Boardwalk scene in question was likely based on an actual incident: The year and location match up (Atlantic City, 1921), and the woman arrested was named Louise—just like Angela’s eventual new bedmate.
10. BOBBY CANNAVALE WAS THE SOLE CAST MEMBER TO SNAG AN ACTING EMMY FOR HIS SEASON THREE ARC.
Talk about making it count: Bobby Cannavale only appeared in a single season—as Nucky’s season three antagonist Gyp Rosetti—but managed to walk away with the series’ lone acting Emmy. After Cannavale’s monstrous character met a well-deserved death (stabbed in the back by one of his own men!), the Vinyl star took home the Outstanding Supporting Actor trophy in 2013. Despite its dearth of awards in the acting categories (the show did slightly better at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards), Boardwalk still wrapped its run with a total of 57 Emmy nominations and 20 wins.
11. THE SERIES’ TIME JUMP BETWEEN ITS PENULTIMATE AND FINAL SEASON WASN’T THE MOST SEAMLESS OF SHIFTS.
Following its fourth season, which took place in 1924, Boardwalk Empire’s story lines took a pretty hard turn: The fifth and final outing skipped ahead seven years to 1931, placing the series’ unscrupulous characters at the twilight of Prohibition. From a narrative perspective, this choice made sense, as Winter had wanted to finish the show at least close to the end of America’s questionable experiment with making alcohol illegal. What also likely contributed to this abrupt time change was HBO’s decision to cancel the series, along with a downsized eight-episode order for the final season (as opposed to the usual 12). For the most part, Winter wrapped up everyone’s story arc nicely—except for Stuhlbarg’s Rothstein. In reality, the legendary numbers fixer had the bad sense to die in 1928, putting Stuhlbarg out of a job for Boardwalk’s fifth season and turning the character into a footnote.
12. IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST EXPENSIVE SERIES EVER PRODUCED.
Another possible reason for Boardwalk’s cancellation? Its hefty price tag. Between the period cars, a $2 million set of the 1920s-era Atlantic City boardwalk, and the extravagant wardrobes worn by both the men and the women (Michael Kenneth Williams’s Chalky White always had the best outfits, IMO), this was not a series that could be done on the cheap. The pilot episode alone was budgeted at a whopping $18 million, whereas average episodes reportedly cost an estimated $5 million each.
13. THAT SALACIOUS-SOUNDING DITTY BUGSY SIEGEL SANG AFTER BEING CAPTURED BY NUCKY IN SEASON FIVE’S PENULTIMATE EPISODE WAS NOT MADE UP FOR THE SHOW.
Before Michael Zegen garnered notices as Midge Maisel’s philandering Jewish husband in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, he was honing his philandering Jewish husband chops as aspiring gangster Benny “Bugsy” Siegel on Boardwalk Empire. In one of his more hilarious moments, Zegen’s Siegel, having been kidnapped by Nucky and tied to a chair, chose to annoy his captor by loudly crooning about “My Girl’s P*ssy.” Turns out Bugsy wasn’t just being obnoxious: He was singing a real tune from 1931.
14. IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE DAUGHTER MAITLAND’S HAUNTING, A CAPPELLA VERSION OF “RIVER OF JORDAN,” MARGOT BINGHAM INSISTED ON RECORDING THE SONG ON SET, RATHER THAN IN THE STUDIO.
As she told Rolling Stone, Margot Bingham (Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It), who joined Boardwalk Empire in season four as tortured blues singer Daughter Maitland, “fought” against recording her evocative rendition of “River of Jordan” in a studio. Because Daughter initially sings the traditional tune while riding in a car (the extended version of the track played over the closing credits) during the episode “White Horse Pike,” Bingham didn’t see the sense in going into the studio, where all of the raw elements of her performance would be scrubbed away.
“The sound department was like, ‘We’re going to pick up feed,’” said Bingham. “I totally understood that, but at the same time [I figured], ‘If I’m going to be singing it in a car then I should stay consistent to the song.’” Bingham’s argument won out: “I sat in the car, and they closed down the whole set and everyone was super-quiet and we just had the microphone and boom come in and we recorded it there.”