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.
Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) – Recognizable as Omar from The Wire, Chalky is Nucky’s bridge to the African American community and also a bootlegger.
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.
Sheriff Elias “Eli” Thompson (Shea Whigham) – Nucky’s brother who helps extend his influence. Likely had his men carry out the hit on Margaret’s husband.
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.
Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) – Nucky’s personal assistant.
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.
Al Capone (Stephen Graham) – Portrayed as a young up and comer, he helps out Jimmy with the Canadian Club heist.
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.
Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) – Interested in gambling as well as moving Atlantic City liquor to New York. The group alludes to his big score on the 1919 World Series.
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.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) – Another New York Gangster interested in bootlegging.
Real-Life Person: Same as Rothstein. Real name and seemingly accurate portrayal.
Mickey Doyle (Paul Sparks) – New Jersey bootlegger who distills his own product. He is aligned with the D’Alessio Brothers and a threat to Chalky White.
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.
Leo D’Alessio (Max Casella) – Philadelphia bootlegger, brother of Ignacious
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.
Ignacious D’Alessio (Edoardo Ballerini) – Philadelphia bootlegger
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.
I am the daughter of Ignatius Lanzetti – real name, Lanzetta.
My father was incarcerated in NJ state prison for four years not for murder – but for running into two pals with criminal records in a public place. The law was abolished by the efforts of my Uncle Pius who bankrolled the appeal. My father was released in 1940 joined his family, his mother and brother,Lucian, in Detroit and eventually became foreman of the foundry of the Ford Motor Company. I can remember my mother dressing my brother and me in our finest and visiting the sentencing judge’s chambers to appeal for leniency. I was too young to understand the significance until much later – but I remember the incident. He died before he was 60 of pneumonia brought on by a stroke.
Rothstein is not the character with the creepy laugh and odd mannerisms. You’re confusing him with Mickey Doyle, the inept bootlegger whom Darmody had ratted out to the Bureau.
Thanks for the feedback Jim. I agree that Doyle is extremely creepy, and I find Rothstein to be odd, in an overly formal sort of way.
Good work my son. For some reason I thought that the D’Alessio bros were based on the Morello-Terranova family but that would have been years before Boardwalk
Thank you Vanna for the story. Very interesting.
Thanks Vanna for sharing.
Love this show….It flys by too fast. Wish it was on for two hours.
check this out.. four loko prohibition / boardwalk empire trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpa8kCYHzYU
Thanks for clearing up the characters. The first episode did fly by the names of everyone and was kind of cloudy on everybody’s roles. But despite that, I love the show and can’t wait for it to come out on DVD.
Vanna…that is so great of you to share, otherwise these things get lost or misinterpreted over time. What do you think of the show?
I really love the show. Hope theres going to be a second series.
No Worries Tabitha. After the successful first episode, a second season was picked up by HBO. And if you believe in the wisdom of crowds, most people who voted on this related post seem to think that it’ll go 4 or more seasons.
And like many of you said, it’s great that Vanna was so forthcoming (thanks again). I didn’t even have the correct last name for the family until she spoke up.
Interesting comparisons. However, there are no “FBI” agents in Boardwalk Empire. The FBI did not exist until 1935. Agent Van Alden clearly identifies himself several times in the show as an agent of the IRS, tasked with enforcing prohibition laws.
It was nice of Vanna to inform us of the other side of the people who “made the history”. Being a child of the “Old” soviet, i have seen first hand an incident between two mob factions, and later described in a documentarie with great inaccuracy. Now this would not apply to the Fiction Writers for they have an artistic license. But for the rest of you readin history books and seing documentaries, keep this in mind. Not everything that happens in history is a “big” conspiracy. There are so many variables involved that the truth is hard to pinpoint. You take “regular” people, mix in some drug use with some mental instability and what you get is lots of irrational actions with deadly ramifications.
P.S. Nice to see Omar back on HBO i hope his new character is expended further so i can stop calling him Omar. And please keep him out of delis and supermarkets:)
what were the names of the bootleggers from canada…for example, who was known as the “ice man”\?
I kind of like this show. I just dont like the lack of historical facts but hey thats life right? I remember my grandpap told me stories about my uncle Frank he was from Italy and he was a bootlegger I think he died in 1950 something. Yep good show……..
Ignacious’ brother pius in the series is my friend and ex boyfriend nick, we call him squeeky. i feel he did a great job in the HBO series and hopefully will go on with the career. i love you squeekkyyyy<3
The “Iceman” was Richard Kuklinski, an American (polish) contract killer for the mafia associations. But he doesn’t fit in this story, since he was born only in 1935.
Great show. Dude from Fargo made it pretty far huh. I like him better in Fargo
Waiting to see S2E2. This is one of the best series on HBO!! huge Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) fan!!! This season look exciting!!!
Thanks Vanna, its so great hearing insight like yours.
There was a casino operator named Eddie kuntz whose brothers organized the checkers union (long shore men ) in phillie . I wonder if we will see that conection in future episode
The Sopranos use to be my favorite show. Boardwalk Empire is better. Don’t kill Chalky, good to see a Black intelligent man fake or real, even if he is a gangster. Long live this show
First of all, thank you Vanna for writng a piece of history that not many people knew, I found it very interesting. I love this show and I hope it has a TV life of at least another 10 years. The show goes by so fast because it’s so interesting. I love all the cgharacters and the story lines. Long Live Boardwalk Empire!!!!!!!!
Chalky is under a lot of stress. He needs coping skills. Only Tony Soprano would be man enough to seek help, even if he won’t admit it.
In my next comments, I might discuss bootleggers as Pullman Porters [on the trains my family lore], if anyone is interested.
This is one of the best shows I’ve seen- in a long time. Very interesting, and the historic look makes it very pleasing. The time does go by fast when watching. Just recently got hooked, have been catching up on past episodes on-line- hbo-go.
I too, hope it goes on 10 years. Keep it coming HBO!
Best show on tv~I love this season. I love how Chalky has a bigger role this season, great character and actor! Jimmy is great too.
How about the character with the mask? anything on him? Who is the actor?
The show is my favorite, keep up the good work.
Richard Harrow, the veteran with the tin mask. seems to be a fictional character, at least within the context of Atlantic City in the 20s and 30s. There’s no mention of any similar person in the book or any other literature from the period, at least that I’ve come across.
The actor is Jack Huston, nephew of Angelica Huston:
I do not know if this is the right forum—–but I am shoced at CXhalky’s conduct when his daughter brought her boy friend hom—–I like Chalky— but are we to beleive he actually paddled his daughters boy firend over his lap????? It sure looked that way—–It did not seem like Chalky as he has such a great family? Any others surprised—-Would apprecaitre comments thansk
I do not think that Mr. White spanked his daughters or his daughters boyfriend. I feel that the director was trying to instill the fact that Chancy didn’t belong with the “educated” part of his family. With him carving that stick I got the impression that that was something a simple minded boy would do if they was mad or in time out. Please remember that he was drunk ( and very upset…. by the look on his face). Please dontremember misunderstand, I am not trying to say that Chancy is simple minded (and he is anything but. The man just has street smarts not book smarts.)
Frank–Thanks for your reply—-but I guess I do not understand what you mean—some got paddled—–who got paddled? I just assumed it was the boyfriend—Could you repeat waht youink–I am sorry you did not understand thanks
I was wondering the same thing about the tin mask guy. I love his character. This show is the best! HBO has the best shows, hands down.
I was shocked at Chalky paddling some one—-His family is so refined—–I like Chalky alot–He is very smart——–but it was a shock about the whipping—He had to paddle someone who was it?
Great read about Richard Harrow, the guy behind the mask:
I am enjoying every episode but I would like to see more character development than just killing! I like jimmy thought he kills alot of people—–Do others see something strangely good in Jimmy—-though I know he is bad! I like the fact he loves his son! If his wife is dead—–I think he will go crazy—Hope for some answers on this? thanks
The Jimmy Darmody / Jimmy the Shiv connection seems likely as well considering how they had Darmody playing around with a combat knife a bunch of times in the first season. I remember him showing off his knife and pointing out the large knob at the base of the hilt to someone and explaining it was called the ‘skull crusher’. It was interesting to see you brought up the ‘shiv’ reference, and I would have to agree with you.
anyone surprised when the priest took Margret’s money?
Yes–I was surprised the priest took the money—I do not think he was stealing it for himself—but it was not appropriate—He reinforced her belied in Divine retribution—-and bargaining with God—-not good spirituality.
Now, for my real reason for writing—Last night episode was a little too much for me—I love the show ( I am addicted to it!) but it went too far into the dark side of human behavior—sex between mother and son—-the bloody death of Jimmy’s wife–Jimmy trying to kill his mother and then killing his dad—–Nooky turning on Margaret shocked me–as his love for Margaret was his one saving grace in my mind—–I may be in a minority—-but the dark side just went too far last night—I did not sleep well!
I can’t believe Jimmy’s mother raped him….ouch, her maiden name wasn’t Sandusky was it?
i really liked last nights episode jimmy is my favorit he reminds me so much of myself but i didnt sleep with my mother lol
Is Manny Horovitz based on a real person boythchik?
Jimmy’s mom didn’t rape him, they just had sex. Women can’t rape men
I love that they will follow Al Capone’s rise…If the show continues maybe a thicker story with Lucky Luciano and even further down the line Bumpy Johnson makes an appearance?
[EDITOR’S NOTE: SPOILER ALERT! STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED SEASON 2]
Sucks that they killed off Jimmy and Angela. She was some excellent eye candy, and he was one of the most interesting characters. Even so, great show, and I’m sure they’ll make it even better next season. I do hope they keep Richard, I like him too. I do still miss Deadwood, though!
SWIDGEN! Hang DAI!!!! (Mr. Wu)
[EDITOR’S NOTE: SPOILER ALERT! STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED SEASON 2]
I just finished watching season 2 episode 12. I had mixed feelings about it, without doing any research I’m pretty sure that there will be another season. However it truly was a shame to see Darmody die. Didn’t really get enough of his character. I did expect it somehow, but I just didn’t want to believe it. Anyhow I enjoyed the show and the characters. I’m looking forward to the seasons that are to come. Thank you very much for this article, I enjoyed reading it and the comments as well.
Thanks for reading,
Farkad, The Netherlands
As much as I was disappointed in Jimmy’s death—-I am still hooked on the show—When the next season start? Do we have to wait til Sept? thanks for answering
I am so sad about Jimmy’s death and the fact that Nucky killed him—–the show is becoming too haertless—–I would like a story with the human element that I enjoyed the first season—some romance and dancing and love——I know its not the Waltons but still we could see a little more of the human side of the story—-thanks
Shut up Kelly. Go watch the Cosby’s.
Kelly – I am married to a retired thief. There is little or none humanity in a money-oriented profession. As cool, attractive, and interesting as these characters are… remember: that’s why we like the show. If we had any heart at all we’d be out stealin’ fer a livin’, eh?
I loved season 2. And how do we know jimmy is dead? He or nucky could have been dreaming. If he is dead, well that’s a shame, but nuck’s the only one that coulda done it. On the subject of jimmy, I’m curious to know if the real jims mom is real and if she in fact raped him?
Jay – that’s an incredibly ignorant statement. Of course men can be raped. Especially when the woman holds a power over that man and has been conditioning him for it their entire life. That sicko raised poor jim to be her lover! Remember she said to angie that when she changed his diaper she would kiss his penis? Suprised jim let her alone with his boy, but after you already have stockholm’s syndrome… same thing the mother had from being raped by the commadore when she was little. That being said I think the commadore, as they both aged, grew to love her. See him weep in when she confronted him after he stroked? The way he looks at her as a grown woman? There”s yer humanity from boardwalk kelly, even monsters grow small hearts. Then strok and are murdered by their sons :-P.
Can’t wait for season 3!
I am so disapointed that Jimmy is gone—–but do you think the young Irishman is going to kind of take his place? My God! when Nucky finds out she gave the land to the church—it may make Jimmy’s death seem dull!
I will sure miss Jimmy—He was my favorite male character by far. Wow hisw death swhocked me—–but I think the young Irishman is going to play a biggger role next yr–He is smart and if I were Nooky –or anyone—-I woulod not underestimate him!
PS When does the new season start?
What date does the new season start? thanks
Season 3 Premier: September 16
I don’t think Katie will take the deed to the church. I think she will take it straight to Nucky. She heard them talking about thinking about each other. I also think that somehow Gillian will be the mastermind of everything so far. I feel sorry for that little boy.
Well, i would really like to thank everyone for spoiling that one for me! i just finished watching season 1, so that’s a bummer….
Season 3 doesn’t start until Sept 30th for us, then again we’re based in Poland. Amazing show, how does one go about getting a job on the show? Making teas, errand duties, etc… I’m moving to the US very soon, would relish the opportunity to work on any HBO production. Please help? Any help would be awarded with with great appreciation. I thank you for your time and commitment in aiding in me to future successes.
son of a b! I stupidly read your comments when I had yet to finish season 2…Im going to go curl up in a ball and cry now. Thanks so much!
Just watched season [email protected] hope season three don’t suck because of jimmy being gone. Big character to replace, would have rather seen him live but the show is great so mabey it won’t.
I love this show Steve Buscemi is the best gangster ever in the Hollywood history…….he does a great job playing the part………I even think that there will never be a show as good as this……….
owen slayter and jimmy darmody now its onlt nucky al capone chalky and harold i hope gone stay alive
i hope they gone stay alive i mean
WHY ISN’T ANYONE TALKING ABOUT RICHARD HARRELL?!?!?!?!?!??!?!? He is by far the most interesting character on the show not to mention the fact that we don’t know anything about his background.
Richard Harrell is the best character.. Loyal
You forgot about Torrio and Colosimo! They were very much real too:0)