A new drama series, Boardwalk Empire, debuted on HBO, Sunday, September 19, at 9:00 p.m. The series focuses on the Prohibition-fueled rise of organized crime in New Jersey during the 1920s.
It is produced by Martin Scorsese, who directed the first episode, his first excursion into television directing. His film production credits include last year’s The Young Victoria, and his directing credits include the classics Goodfellas and Raging Bull; he won a directing Oscar for The Departed. Boardwalk Empire, scripted by Terence Winter, whose Emmy Award–winning writing kept fans tuning in to The Sopranos week after week, was inspired by the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, by New Jersey judge and historian Nelson Johnson.
The main character, Enoch “Knucky” Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is based on the real-life exploits of Enoch L. “Knucky” Johnson, who ruled Atlantic City through politics and crime for 30 years. Before Las Vegas was where “what happens here stays here,” Atlantic City was the place to go. Johnson saw the opportunities presented by the prohibition of alcohol and made his city into a free-wheeling destination for anyone looking for a good time. In 1929, he engineered the construction of Boardwalk Hall to host conventions lured by ready access to booze—and just about anything else of an illicit nature.
That same year, Johnson hosted an infamous convention, the first-ever national meeting of mob leaders. Its purpose was to divvy up the country between mob families in order to reduce the violence that cut into gang profits. Among the attendees was “Scarface” Al Capone.
In other cities, mobsters had to buy politicians. Johnson put himself into the bootlegging business when he was already a political boss on whose good side was the only place to be in Atlantic City. Charming, deep-voiced and debonair with his trademark red carnation in his lapel, Johnson guided his city through the highs and lows of the 1920s and ’30s.
In the HBO series, the chief nemesis of the fictional “Nucky” will be the Feds, led by Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). It will be interesting, though, to see if the series ever depicts a famous real-life lawman who organized the New Jersey State Police, Col. Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. He oversaw the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping case and became the voice that introduced each episode of the popular radio drama Gang Busters. His son would become forever known as “Stormin’ Norman,” the general who led U.S. forces to victory in the First Gulf War.
Click here to view trailers for Boardwalk Empire.
To read more about Prohibition, see “Uneasy About Alcohol: America and The Booze Question,” by Peter Carlson, on HistoryNet.
Gerald D. Swick compiled and edited Historic Photos of the Jersey Shore and serves as senior Web editor for HistoryNet.