HBO offers a pretty solid summary of the first episode. One of the big issues with the show is that the first episode was that it was a bit hard to follow. It was nearly the length of a movie and had a ton of characters, most of whom seemed to be suit-wearing men between 25 and 50. Let’s take a closer look at the likely recurring characters and also whether or not they had real-life counterparts. Much of the information below was gathered from Nelson Johnson’s excellent Boardwalk Empire book.
Who was real and who was fake?
Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) – Nucky is the Atlantic County Treasurer. He is ruthless in his pursuit of power and will dispose of people who bother him. He says he lost a wife to consumption (tuberculosis), but it’s unclear whether or not this is true as he lied about his youth in a speech to the Women’s Temperance Union. His brother is the County Sheriff.
Real Life Person: Enoch L. Johnson. This seems like a spot-on character match as they both share the same nickname, political positions and affiliations with organized crime. Johnson was the public face of organized crime in Atlantic City’s Prohibition-era heyday. Johnson lost his wife to tuberculosis (consumption), so one can assume that fictional Nucky is telling the truth about having had a wife. Real Nucky was a lot bigger than Buscemi, standing an imposing 6′4. He also probably did not order hits on adversaries, just simply cut them off from doing business.
Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) – Jimmy, who looks like a cross between a Culkin and DiCaprio, is Nucky’s protege. He was attending Princeton but dropped out to enlist for World War I. The war seems to have hardened him and made him more inclined to use violence to achieve his ambitions, a blend of money and power. Darmody is approached by the FBI who offers him a job, but he declines and instead sends them to bust Mickey Doyle, a bootlegger he dislikes.
Real Life Person: Jimmy Boyd, who served as an assistant to Nucky, was head of the 4th Ward and a county clerk. He wasn’t Nucky’s driver and almost definitely didn’t rob bootleggers, but Boyd did do dirty work, delivering bad news and maintaining order in his ward. After Nucky’s reign, Boyd rose to be Frank Farley’s right-hand man. Among the scams he had was cornering the boardwalk ice cream market. Boyd was almost definitely unaffiliated with Al Capone. It’s possible the Darmody character has elements of Capone’s New York crony, Jimmy “The Shiv” DeStefano. Since The Shiv never made it out to Chicago, so this would be a loose interpretation as well.
Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon): To infiltrate the bootleggers and organized crime, he picks up Jimmy and offers him a job with the FBI. Jimmy has no interest but sees an opportunity: to get rid of a bootlegger he dislikes and create an ally on the right side of the law and gives up the bootlegger’s location. Expect him to be a major presence, trying to find angles of sheer illegality and tax evasion to bring down the crime ring.
Real Life Person: William Frank, a lawyer, led a joint IRS and FBI task force to take down Nucky. The operation began in 1936, well after 1920, so this character’s historical accuracy is low.
Margaret Schroeder (Kelly MacDonald): Irish housewife who is subject to an abusive alcoholic husband. Nucky orders a hit, carried out by the sheriff’s department, on the husband. She will likely have a large role in the future, as Nucky has a soft-spot for her and her two children will need support.
Real-Life Person: This character appears in the Boardwalk Empire book’s prologue, and in the footnotes it’s revealed to be Mary Ill, who was involved with local women’s groups and charities. Mary Ill was interviewed extensively for the book and those interviews were the main source of building Nucky’s character.
Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman) In the same way that Nucky is Jimmy’s mentor, Nucky learned from the Commodore, who is basically retired. Nucky tells Jimmy that he should’ve stayed in school and to quit being so ambitious, that his time will come if he works his way up the ladder, much like he (Nucky) did with the Commodore.
Real-Life Person: Louis Kuehnle, a businessman known as The Commodore due to his chairmanship of a yacht club, was Nucky’s predecessor as a Republican Party power broker for the region. He helped establish the system of kickbacks from illegal industry to local government. He was friends with Nucky’s father, who alternated between sheriff and undersheriff as a way to circumvent consecutive term limitations. Kuehnle went to prison in 1913 for awarding his own firm contracts as chairman of the Water Comission.
Real-Life Person: It doesn’t seem like Chalky is based on a real-life person, though Michael K. Williams does allude to the fact that there was a boxer on whom he was based. Chalky Wright would seem to be that guy, but he was fighting out in California at the time, so the accuracy can’t be too close. Nucky was generally on very good terms with the African-Americans due to his charity, but it’s not known if he had an actual conduit.
Real-Life Person: Alf Johnson. Nucky, his brother and his father were all County Sheriff at some point in their careers. Alf wasn’t Sheriff in 1920, but he was at some point after that.
Real-Life Person: Louis Kessel, a short, pudgy former cab driver was essentially Nucky’s butler at his 9th floor residence at the Ritz. He was also Nucky’s primary driver and bodyguard. He was later arrested in a prostitution sting.
Real-Life Person: Unlike some others who underwent slight name changes, Capone’s name went unchanged. The New York-born Al Capone, an up and comer in 1920 and based out of Chicago, was among the biggest bootleggers by the end of the decade.
Real-Life Person: This non-name changer seems like another fairly accurate portrayal. Rothstein was a known gambler, mostly involved in sports and accused of being the mastermind behind the 1919 World Series. He moved into bootlegging with his New York associates, including Luciano at the outset of Prohibition. It’s not clear whether real-life Rothstein had a creepy laugh and odd mannerisms, but he did wear bow ties.
Real-Life Person: Same as Rothstein. Real name and seemingly accurate portrayal.
Real-Life Person: Mickey Duffy, who was actually Polish and born with a completely different name, was a Philadelphia bootlegger and brewer. He was known for throwing opulent parties with his illegally obtained riches and was murdered in Atlantic City in 1931, so he could be killed off anytime, given the show is loose with timelines.
Real-Life Person: Leo Lanzetta. Part of a clan of six brothers, Lanzetta’s family had interest in numbers (illegal lottery), drugs and bootlegging. Their preferred method of procuring alochol was to give tenement-dwelling “alky cooks” the raw materials to distill and buy the liquor once it was finished. They would then resell to saloon owners at a 10 fold profit. Leo was considered the leader of his clan.
Real-Life Person: Ignatius Lanzetta. For some reason, his first name is spelled differently in Boardwalk Empire. He and Leo were rumored to have murdered a rival bootlegger. He was known for being impeccably dressed. Daughter, Vanna, cleared up that the family name was Lanzetta, rather than Lanzetti.