What's in a name?
When it comes to comparing Nucky Johnson, Atlantic City's real-life politics and racketeering boss, to HBO's fictionalized "Nucky Thompson" in the series Boardwalk Empire, the answer is more than just the TV character's fictionalized name.
Author Nelson Johnson, who literally wrote the book on the real Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, says HBO's Terence Winter has said the fictionalized character created for the TV version of Boardwalk Empire is 70 percent drawn 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 quickly said, "You're not wrong."
"They are doing their best to do historically accurate fiction," added Johnson, who is not related to Nucky Johnson. Judge Johnson explained that by "accurate fiction" he meant creating a storyline that captures the essence and possibilities of the Prohibition era in Atlantic City, not necessarily the verifiable details.
While the show gets details of dress and period atmosphere right, beginning with the trademark red carnation both the real and fictional Nucky characters habitually sport on their suit lapels, in other ways the show frequently diverges from fact.
Johnson v. Thompson
While Johnson had no role in casting and only minor input on the details of the series' storylines, he does know that actor Steve Buscemi, best-known previously as a sad-eyed character actor accustomed to portraying fast-talking and nervous low-life losers on screen, was among the first actors cast.
"They built the cast around him," said the history writer.
Buscemi's casting sets 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, 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.
On the other hand, Buscemi is not physically imposing. The actor has a high-pitched voice, stands just 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighs under 150 pounds and is very slight. He never wears glasses, even when portrying Nucky.
"He's even tinier in person," said Judge Johnson, who has met the actor several times. He believes the producers wanted an actor who would not remind the audience of the bearish James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano in another memorable HBO crime series, The Sopranos.
But it isn't just his small size that makes Buscemi look 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 the Atlantic County Sheriff.
Buscemi perpetually appears in need of a nourishing meal and a few minutes exposed to sunlight and fresh air to brighten his always pallid complexion. Next, the award-winning actor seems a strong candidate for a clothing intervention, appearing frequently—in real life and on film—dressed in something nameless, rumpled, shapeless and black.
And while he's well-costumed in the HBO series, Buscemi's Nucky Thompson 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, the characters Buscemi built his acting career around previous to Boardwalk Empire tended to be quirky loners—he's been featured in six offbeat Coen brothers movies—not gregarious leaders. The residue of those characters somehow lingers for me even when Buscemi channels Nucky. For instance, I can't help but think of his character's whiny speech explaining why he doesn't tip in the film Reservoir Dogs everytime his Nucky Thompson character attempts to court favor in Boardwalk Empire.
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.
Ray Osbeck, a former inspector with the Atlantic City Fire Department and a nephew of Nucky Johnson, said the physical differences between the two Nuckys are huge, though he praised Buscemi's acting, as did Judge Johnson.
Osbeck otherwise had nothing more to say about the Boardwalk Empire series, adding he and his siblings knew "Uncle Nuck" when they were children, after his heyday.
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 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 not patronized, operating licenses were pulled, or they were raided and shutdown by complicit police who were a part of the organization.
"Atlantic City's corruption was organic. 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," said Judge Johnson.
The organization's pervasive clout meant physical violence was seldom needed.
"It was organized crime, but without the violence," said the judge.
And speaking of organized crime, while Atlantic City was a wide-open town that welcomed gangsters as guests, Al Capone and his cohorts were not routine fixtures in town and they certainly did not oversee most of the local rumrunning and rackets, as the series suggests.
Locally, it was Nucky's organization—the Republican Party—that promoted the racketeering that financed their political power.
As a historian and lawyer, one of the things that intrigued Nelson Johnson most about Nucky Johnson was the interlocking organization he built, starting on the street and precinct level, then to the ward level, not just in Atlantic City, but in nearby towns and throughout county government.
The fact is, the organization was actually the ruling Republican Party and all of its many minions, from street captains on up, said Judge Johnson.
The organization was vast: its reach extended to the statehouse, the governor's office, the state Supreme Court and the operations of the local newspaper.
Nucky Johnson was at the center of the organization.
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.
"They really don't show the rank-and-file, just the ward heelers" and the TV series also doesn't depict Nucky's schmoozing with common people—one of the foundations of his success, said Judge Johnson.