'Boardwalk Empire' Fans, Meet the Real Nucky
The Atlantic City political boss was a different breed of glad-handing bon vivant than the show makes him out to be, says the author of the book that inspired the series.
What's in a name?
According to Nelson Johnson, who literally wrote the book on Nucky Johnson, series creator Terence Winter drew 70 percent of the fictional Nucky from Johnson's 2002 book of the same name.
When I told Johnson, a state Superior Court judge whom I've known for more than two decades, that it strikes me that the percentages are more like 60 percent fiction and 40 percent fact in the HBO series, he laughed and said, "You're not wrong."
"They are doing their best to do historically accurate fiction," added Johnson, who is unrelated to the historical figure. Judge Johnson explained that by "accurate fiction," he means creating a storyline that captures the essence and possibilities of Prohibition-Era Atlantic City, and not necessarily the verifiable details.
Although the show gets details of dress and period atmosphere right, beginning with the trademark red carnation both the real and fictional Nucky habitually sported on their lapels, it frequently diverges from fact in other ways.
Johnson v. Thompson
Johnson had no role in the casting and only minor input on the details of the series storylines, but he does know that Steve Buscemi was among the earliest casting choices.
"They built the cast around him," Johnson said.
Bringing in the slight, nervous-looking Buscemi, a sad-eyed character actor famous for portraying fast-talking, low-life losers, set a tone for the show's fact-bending from the outset.
The real Nucky, who ruled Atlantic City from 1911 to 1941, was tall, muscular, and imposing; a man who swam five or six days a week to keep in shape. Nucky Johnson weighed about 225 pounds and stood more than 6 feet tall. He had a voice to match his stature, and used his physical presence to meet and mingle. And he always wore glasses.
At 5' 8" and 150 pounds, Buscemi is hardly imposing, and he never wears glasses, even when portrying Nucky. He perpetually appears in need of a nourishing meal and a few minutes in the shore sunlight to brighten his pallid complexion.
"He's even tinier in person," said Judge Johnson, who has met the actor several times. Johnson believes the producers wanted an actor who would not remind audiences of the bearish James Gandolfini, who led another memorable HBO crime series, The Sopranos.
But it isn't just his stature that makes Buscemi unlike the robust, real-life Nucky, who was born in the Smithville section of Galloway Township and raised in Mays Landing and Atlantic City during his father's tenure as Atlantic County sheriff.
The award-winning actor appears frequently—in real life and on film—dressed in something nameless, rumpled, shapeless and black. Although he's well-costumed in the series, Buscemi always seems to be wearing an outfit, not clothes he's at home with.
Unlike the real Nucky, who had an outgoing and forceful personality, Buscemi built his acting career around quirky loner roles—he's been featured in six Coen brothers films—not gregarious leaders.
The residue of those characters somehow lingers for me even when Buscemi channels Nucky. For instance, every time his Nucky Thompson character attempts to court favor in Boardwalk Empire, I can't help but think of his speech, as Mr. Pink, explaining why he doesn't tip in the film Reservoir Dogs.
The real Nucky liked socializing and living large, eating and drinking in Atlantic City's nightclubs and restuarants, freely spending, employing maids and drivers and tipping big as a matter of habit.
Although Atlantic City was a wide-open town that welcomed gangster guests, Al Capone and his cohorts were not routine fixtures, and they certainly did not oversee most of the local rumrunning and racketeering, as the series suggests.
That distinction was held by the local chapter of the Republican Party.
As a historian and lawyer, one of the things that intrigued Nelson Johnson most about Nucky Johnson was the interlocking organization he built. Its reach was vast, extending to the statehouse, the governor's office, the New Jersey Supreme Court and local newspaper—and Nucky Johnson was at its center.
Unlike the fictionalized Nucky Thompson, the real Nucky made it a point to directly meet and interact with the rank-and-file members of the organization, "to know about their loyalties and details of their lives," according to Judge Johnson.
"They aren't showing how that worked," said the judge.
The TV series also doesn't depict Nucky's schmoozing with common people—one of the foundations of his success.
Violence, threats play out differently
Physical violence is an aspect of almost every installment of the TV series. And frequently the violence is carried out by either Nucky or one of his closest followers.
That's not how it really worked in Atlantic City, according to Judge Johnson.
The real violence was the threat of economic ruin—and the security that belonging to Nucky's organization provided. But that's hard, if not impossible, to show on screen.
Instead of physical violence, the people who crossed Nucky and his organization lost their goverment jobs, they were ostracized, their businesses failed, operating licenses were pulled, or they were shut down by complicit police who were a part of the syndicate.
"Atlantic City's corruption was organic," said Judge Johnson. "The season where you could make money was very narrow. You had to scrounge the rest of the year. Depending on a full-time, year-round job was a big deal that bought loyalty and hard workers.
"It was organized crime, but without the violence," he said.
Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning journalist and the author of the book Lynn Bogue Hunt: A Sporting Life.