As a sucker for historical dramas, I’m big fan of Boardwalk Empire. I love the fact that there are so many characters who are based on historical figures. In honor of last night’s premiere of the show’s second season, I decided to do a bit of research and see just how the characters compare to like their real-life counterparts.
The series is adapted from Nelson Johnson’s book, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City.” The lead character in the show is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played expertly bySteve Buscemi. Thompson is based on the real-life political kingpin, Enoch L. Johnson. Show creator Terrence Winter may have decided to portray a fictionalized version of Nucky to allow the writers to create a show worth watching, but they seem to have captured his persona completely. Here’s a look at how Nucky and the rest of the show’s colorful characters compare to their real life counterparts.
Enoch “Nucky” Thompson/Enoch L. Johnson
Buscemi’s character does great justice to the real-life Johnson. He may have ruled the underworld of Atlantic City, but to the public he was a savior that rode in a chauffeur-driven limo yet gave generously to those who needed help. In the show as in real-life, Nucky lived like a king, wearing expensive designer suits with his signature red carnation in his lapel, and strolling the boardwalk after waking up from his comfy bed in his suite on the eighth floor of the Ritz-Carlton.
“The Commodore” Louis Kuehnle
Nucky would have never have risen to power without the help others. Before “The Commodore” Louis Kuehnle was convicted on corruption charges, he established the system of kickbacks that made him and then Nucky rich. After his fall from grace, Johnson was able to take the reigns of power. The show has Dabney Coleman playing the Commodore, who is also Jimmy Dormady’s (Michael Pitt) father. This father/son story line may be pretty cool, but unfortunately it’s not true. And although “The Commodore” did challenge Nucky’s leadership, in actuality, the two eventually reconciled, and Johnson backed Kuehnle’s successful campaign for City Commissioner in 1920, a post he held until his death.
Sheriff Elias “Eli” Thompson/Alf Johnson
Sheriff Elias “Eli” Thompson (Shea Whigham) is his brother and henchman on the show. His character is based on the real-life AlfJohnson, Nucky Johnson’s actual brother. Alf, Nucky and their father all rotated in-and-out on the office of County Sheriff. And while this is depicted in the show, the time line is off, as Alf didn’t make it into office until after 1920.
Jimmy Darmody/Jimmy Boyd
Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) is Nucky’s protege, a Princeton dropout and WWI vet with brains and a vicious bite. His character is loosely based on Jimmy Boyd, who was Nucky’s assistant when he was head of the 4th Ward and county clerk. The show has Jimmy robbing bootleggers, which he did not do. He also was not involved in any way with Al Capone, but he was responsible for delivering bad news and helping maintain order in his ward.
Agent Nelson Van Alden/William Frank
Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) is the overzealous FBI agent trying to purify Atlantic City and rid the country of liquor by any means necessary (even if it means taking the law into his own hands). His character is based on William Frank, who oversaw a joint IRS and FBI task force to bring Nucky to justice. The only problem is that his operation began in 1936, which is well after the show’s setting. Either way, seeing Shannon on the small screen in Boardwalk Empire will tide us over until he plays General Zod in Man of Steel.
Margaret Schroeder/Mary Ill
Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald) starts off as one of Nucky’s loyal followers, but after she is beaten by her abusive alcoholic husband (who ends up dead via Nucky’s brother), she becomes his mistress. Her character is loosely based on Mary Ill, who was also involved with local women’s groups and charities. Her extensive interviews were used as research for the book and helped to create Nucky’s character in the show. However there is no evidence that she and Nucky became romantically involved, or that he arranged for the brutal murder of her husband, although at least one source claims he did have the man banned from local gambling halls, as is depicted in the show.
Eddie Kessler/Louis Kessel
Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) is Nucky’s German man servant. In the show, his character adds a tiny amount of comic relief with his bumbling actions. v is based on Louis Kessel, a retired cab driver who was Nucky’s butler while he lived in the Ritz-Carlton. He was Nucky’s driver and bodyguard, and was later arrested for prostitution. I assume he wasn’t the one turning tricks.
Al Capone (Stephen Graham) is shown in a manner audiences are not familiar with on screen; a young family man just starting out in a life of crime. His character is based directly on the real-life crime boss who ruled Chicago and was one of the biggest bootleggers duringprohibition. I love DeNiro as Capone in The Untouchables, but Graham is one hell of an actor and is great in the show.
Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of the dealers players in Nucky’s empire. His goal is to move liquor from Atlantic City to New York. Like Capone, his character is relatively accurate, and is based on the real-life gambler and businessman who rose to the top of the Jewish mafia. In the show and in real-life, Rothstein was known for wearing bow ties, and was reputed to have fixed the 1919 World Series.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano
Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) is an up and coming mobster in the show who seems to be falling in love with Jimmy’s showgirl mother. Just like Capone and Rothstein, his character seems to be historically accurate. Luciano was seen as the father of modernorganized crime. He not only split New York City into five different Mafia crime families, but he was responsible for creating the “Nathional Crime Syndicate”.
Mickey Doyle/Mickey Duffy
Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) is a pseudo-Irishman who distills his own liquor and is trying to take over bootlegging for the state of New Jersey. After aligning with the D’Alessi Brothers, he becomes a major threat to Nucky. His character is based on Mickey Duffy, who was actually a bootlegger in Philadelphia and like his character, was really Polish, not Irish. Duffy was murdered in Atlantic City in 1931, so I have a feeling that he won’t make it too long in this show.
Boardwalk Empire airs Sunday nights at 9:00 PM EST/PST on HBO