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Differences Between Real Nucky Johnson and HBO's Nucky Thompson Go Beyond the Fictionalized Name

"Boardwalk Empire" is a hit television show that shares the same name—and a few facts—as the nonfiction book that inspired the HBO series.

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.

The organization

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.

ASH48 November 14, 2011 at 02:45 PM
Now that Vince Fumo is back in the news, I cannot believe how similar Nucky and Fumo are! Vince Fumo even resembles Nucky with the buggy eyes! but it's their behavior that strikes me as amazingly similar. Likeable, Helping out people - While stabbing others in the back and stealing, lying and being basically despicable. then feeling so persecuted.
david linnig November 14, 2011 at 07:47 PM
Great show , has me looking forward to Sundays. Great actors costumes and scenery. Just simply the best era series.
david linnig November 14, 2011 at 07:51 PM
Great show,has me looking forward to Sunday night . Great actors,costumes and set. Best era show out there .
valerya mcgriff November 20, 2011 at 12:03 AM
embellishing the facts, makes for good entertainment. Braveheart had mel gibson as william wallace. Wallaces sword was taller then gibson, and the story was 30% fact. But it was great entertainment like broadwalk.
valerya mcgriff November 20, 2011 at 12:24 AM
Embellishing facts is entertainment. Mel gibson was no taller then willam wallace's sword,the character he played in braveheart. And like boardwalk 30% fact.great entertaiment
Jose November 28, 2011 at 02:48 PM
I agree that embellishing facts is entertainment and thats why <a href="http://www.hbomax.tv/hbo-la/boardwalk-empire">Boardwalk Empire</a> is a great show. I love Nucky's character and the way Buscemi plays it. Can't wait for this weekend.
Carol A. Weil, Esq. November 30, 2011 at 09:44 PM
The series is historically accurate, even to the child, Emily, contracting polio. I was torn up watching that. At least the writers didn't have it affect her lungs because the iron lung wasn't even invented until 1929. She'd be dead, like so many children in that era.
obiyo chioma May 15, 2012 at 03:13 PM
I just love the character nuck don't want to kwn the real nucky.Buscemi is the best.
obiyo chioma May 15, 2012 at 03:16 PM
I just love the character nucky & don't want to kwn the real nuck.Buscemi is the best.
Steven Hager July 20, 2012 at 09:01 PM
Loved this story, and I enjoy the real, less violent Nucky better than the one portrayed. Here's some details I'd add: http://stevenhager420.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/5-worst-things-about-tvs-best-show/
Cynthia Terry McCann October 01, 2012 at 04:04 AM
I simpy love Boardwalk Empire, it is both historical and entertaining.
patrick October 10, 2012 at 12:56 AM
The only thing I hate about this show is that it only last an hour. My wife and I get angry when it ends and we gotta wait a week. Great job . I would have liked to see gandolphini play nucky though. He woulda been good at it.
timothy walker November 05, 2012 at 07:20 PM
Great show, nice to look at history with such an intertaining lense.
prudence padorski November 12, 2012 at 09:03 PM
I like the show. The fact fiction stories have become more popular recently ( cold mountain ) etc. Great show, boardwalk empire,need more just like it
Roy Bordelon November 18, 2012 at 01:40 AM
Just love it.cant wate till sunday
Bob R November 18, 2012 at 05:15 PM
The show is a watered down version of The Sopranos set in 1920's Atlantic City. Moves too slow but is enjoyable enough.
Vernon Gayle November 18, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Well i guess you cant have it all historical because you have to have the threat that nuck could be killed. Knowing that the real nuck died at 85 years old takes away from that drama. Its bad enough knowing that capone and rothstein and meyer cant be taken out.... i still wish jimmy was on the show!!
Miranda Powell November 21, 2012 at 12:51 AM
The real Rothstein was shot and died in his forties so he can (and most likely will) be 'taken out' in the show.
Marshall Dennis November 29, 2012 at 02:02 AM
Great production values, and some good performances-but it has nothing to do with the the real boardwalk empire. I don't know why they didn't just do a fictionalized story set in the 20's with some historical figures. The Buscemi Nucky really has nothing to do with the historical figure other-other than the carnation. What made the Spranos great was that it was fiction but plausible. Despite its entertainment value, this is a wasted opportunity-with some realloy silly story lines.
donna louise December 03, 2012 at 03:21 AM
I. Love this. Show we need more mob shows since the sopranos we got geared up for a new one and here it is!
donna louise December 03, 2012 at 03:27 AM
Mark walberg is a genius with Martin socorse at his side brilliant show hope it lasts!
Laur Chiciak December 03, 2012 at 05:27 AM
The real Nucky would have been alot younger than Buscemi. He was born in 1883 and in the twenties would only be in his 40's.
jason December 03, 2012 at 07:38 PM
steve has amazing presence on film with great timing and reaction I feel he was a good cast even though there are some phsical and the guy that played Gyp Rosetti and also stared in the other guys and another role as a police captain,is an awsome actor hope to see more of him in the futer.....
jason December 03, 2012 at 07:39 PM
physical differences*
El Patron January 28, 2013 at 07:45 PM
BoardWalk Empire one of the best shows. I love the old school Mobster Movies and to have a show with Nucky, AL Copene, and Lucky Luciano this show has the big shots, of the old times. GREAT SHOW

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