14 Surprising Facts About Boardwalk Empire

HBO
HBO

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.

Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt in 'Boardwalk Empire'
HBO

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.

Jack Huston in 'Boardwalk Empire'
HBO

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.

Julianne Nicholson in 'Boardwalk Empire'
Macall B. Polay, HBO

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.

Chris Caldovino, Bobby Cannavale, and Charlie Cox in 'Boardwalk Empire'
Macall B. Polay, HBO

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.

Michael K Williams in 'Boardwalk Empire'
HBO

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.”

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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