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Boardwalk Empire: The true story behind the key characters

Boardwalk Empire

Feature by Jack Foley

ACCLAIMED HBO prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire borrows more from history than just the swinging 1920s setting and dangerous glamour of the speakeasies.

While the narrative itself is fiction, the era, specific events depicted, and even some of the characters are lifted straight from the history books.

Steve Buscemi’s Enoch Thompson and Dabney Coleman’s ‘Commodore’ Kaestner (among others) take inspiration from real people, while characters including Stephen Graham’s Al Capone and Vincent Piazza’s Charles Luciano see the actors portraying the infamous men more directly.

With the Blu-ray and DVD of Boardwalk Empire’s first season released on January 9, 2012, we’ve delved into the history behind some of the show’s most interesting characters to show that the best fiction can be rooted in fact.

Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) – Enoch L. ‘Nucky’ Johnson

Boardwalk Empire focuses on the fortunes during prohibition of Atlantic City’s powerful and intelligent treasurer Nucky Thompson. From his offices occupying an entire floor of the Boardwalk’s Ritz-Carlton, Nucky effectively runs the city. With the mayor, the Police, judges and senators in his pocket, Nucky is able to make the most of prohibition by importing and distributing the newly illegal alcohol.

Enoch Johnson, on whom Thompson is based, was the real treasurer of the county while leading the Republican organisation that effectively ran the local governments of Atlantic City and County. Much of Thompson’s lavish lifestyle was that of Johnson. An Entire floor of the Ritz-Carlton, a blue Rolls Royce, the finest tailoring and a fresh red carnation are just some of the hallmarks carried into the HBO show. It is claimed that Johnson’s illegally obtained income during prohibition exceeded $500,000 a year – he was no stranger to the practises of questionable legality enacted by Buscemi’s Nucky!

‘Commodore’ Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman) – Louis Kuehnle

The Commodore has for some time before the events of Boardwalk Empire acted as a mentor to Nucky Thompson. We learn that he held Nucky’s position in Atlantic City before Nucky’s meteoric rise to power. This is the relationship that Republican businessman Louis Kuehnle had with Enoch Johnson. Known as the Commodore only by merit of his chairmanship of the Atlantic City Yacht Club, Kuehnle did run a brief campaign to unseat Johnson, as is Kaestner’s intention for Thompson in the show. In reality, however, no son of the Commodore worked for Nucky, and their differences were eventually reconciled.

Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald) – Mary III

Boardwalk Empire

Emerging in the first season as the female lead, Trainspotting star Kelly MacDonald’s Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder moves quickly from abused housewife through woman’s rights campaigner and prohibition activist to catch the eye of Nucky Thompson. Margaret is certainly based on Atlantic City resident Mary Ill, who was indeed heavily involved in the aforementioned activism. While there is no evidence that Mary was romantically connected to Thompson, her knowledge of the man and Atlantic City under his reign helped flesh out his character.

Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano (Vincent Piazzo)

Vincent Piazzo’s hot headed Italian-American Lucky Luciano also comes to Atlantic City to claim his allocation of the prohibition riches. And again we are treated to a dramatisation of the eventual infamous mafia boss’s early days. From running card games for Arnold Rothstein in New York to running rum and whiskey as a bootlegger in Atlantic City, Luciano’s real-life experiences prepared him to become the father of modern organised crime.

Think of every movie you’ve seen about the Italian-American mafia – and you can thank Charles Luciano for the story. This man organised the mafia crime syndicates into the notorious five families, was the first head of the Genovese crime family, and helped to set up the ‘Commission’ that oversees the vast criminal empires of La Cosa Nostra in the USA.

Al Capone (Stephen Graham)

Boardwalk Empire

Perhaps one of the most notorious gangsters in US history, Al Capone worked his way up though the underworld to eventually control crime in Chicago and much of the Midwest. The Capone excellently portrayed by British actor Stephen Graham in Boardwalk is just starting down that path. We see flourishes of ambition in the young family man as he carves himself a piece of the prohibition riches. Prohibition really did give Capone the start he needed on the road to infamy.

Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg)

Head of the Jewish Mafia in New York, Arnold Rothstein, played with perfect subtlety by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a major player, and certainly one of our favourite characters. His immense wealth and intellect places him on the highest criminal tier in the show, a rival to, if not above, Nucky Thompson. Rothstein is accurately portrayed as a serial gambler, but also a man of control, patience, wit, and a deadly effective devotion to his affairs. Although often seen drinking only milk, Rothstein is quick to invest in the prohibition’s opportunities and plays a near flawless game, manipulating and managing his relationships with perfection. These traits can be attributed to the real Arnold Rothstein, who, while never proven, is said to have fixed the 1919 baseball World Series.

The complete first season of Boardwalk Empire is available on Blu-ray and DVD on January 9, 2012. Read our review