Before Steve Buscemi landed the title role of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in HBO’s upcoming Scorsese-backed prohibition era drama ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ another ‘Sopranos‘ vet was considered for the role: James Gandolfini.
“If we were going to try to cast someone who looked like the real Nucky, we would have tried to cast Jim Gandolfini,” creator and executive producer Terry Winter (also a longtime writer on ‘The Sopranos’) said in an interview Saturday at The Television Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles.
The character of ‘Empire’s Thompson is based on the corrupt former Atlantic City treasurer, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. The real Johnson was portly, bald, and hardly resembled the wiry Buscemi.
“I thought, well we’ve got the guy, but that’s not going to happen,” he says of deciding not to pursue Gandolfini. “We’d just finished ‘The Sopranos,’ and Marty [Scorsese] and I said, ‘Let’s just forget about the real Nucky Johnson.'”
Researching the project, Winter spoke to Atlantic City residents and realized most had no clue who Johnson was, let alone what he looked like. “The guy ran the city for forty years and no one knew who he was,” he says.
That’s when the idea for Buscemi came to them. “We just said, ‘Let’s cast the best actor.’ I brought up Steve, and Marty said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve always wanted to work with him.’ Maybe two days went by and he said, ‘I can’t stop thinking about Steve Buscemi,’ and I said, ‘Neither can I.'”
Buscemi’s agent had already slipped him an early copy of the script and he was eager to jump into the part. “The thought of working with Terry and Marty and this character was really almost too much to bear if it didn’t happen,” he says.
Of the decision to swap Johnson’s surname to Thompson in the show, Winter says he was influenced by other historically-based series.
“The idea to change it actually came from ‘Deadwood,'” he claims. “Realizing that all of those characters were based on real people, the first thing I did, living in the 21st century, was Google everybody. I knew everything about these characters, so it kind of ruined it for me.
“Obviously we have real characters on the show — Al Capone, [“Lucky”] Luciano – people know what happened to those guys, [and] then if you know what happens to Nucky there’s not going to be any surprises, and there wouldn’t be any creative leeway for me. My Nucky is very much inspired by the real person, but my Nucky can veer off in any direction.”
Although based on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, ‘Empire’ shot on and around Silvercup Studios in Brooklyn. As a local resident, Buscemi had an easy commute.
“One day on the call sheet, Steve was supposed to be on set at 8 a.m., and his pick-up time at his house was 7:55 [a.m.],” Winter jokes.
“It truly is a dream job,” Buscemi says of the part.
‘Boardwalk Empire’ premieres September 19 on HBO.