'Boardwalk Empire' Drinks In Days Of Prohibition

The new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" is set in 1920 Atlantic City just as prohibition begins to change the landscape for mobsters, politicians and opportunists of all stripes. Writer Terence Winter and actor Steve Buscemi talk to Steve Inskeep about the new program.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In a famous line of the TV series "The Sopranos," the mobster Tony Soprano says he feels he came in at the end of something. The mafia's mythical era was mostly in the past.

Two men deeply involved in "The Sopranos" are now creating a series about the beginning of big-time organized crime. The series opens in 1920, just as Prohibition took effect. The demand for illegal alcohol vastly increased the power of crime gangs able to supply it.

You see that process in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." Creator Terence Winter based his story on a history of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Steve Buscemi stars as the political boss Nucky Thompson, who addresses a meeting of his fellow officials.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Boardwalk Empire")

Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (Actor): (as Nucky Thompson) Friends, fellow members of the city council, as you know, in less than two hours liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentlemen of our nation's Congress.

(Soundbite of booing)

Mr. BUSCEMI: To those beautiful, ignorant bastards...

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: And then it goes on for a while, gentlemen. But of course, that part we can't play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Terence Winter, would you tell me what drew you to this particular point in history and mob history?

Mr. TERENCE WINTER (Writer, "Boardwalk Empire"): Well, I had obviously worked on "The Sopranos" for many years and that was a show that really sort of came in at the end of the mob, or organized crime, as we knew it in this country. And this sort of was the beginning of that. It was sort of the flip side. So the '20s are something I've always been fascinated with.

It was just such an exciting time across the board, so much change going on -the end of World War I, women getting the right to vote, Prohibition being enacted, of course, which is where the series begins. It was just a great time of upheaval. And when I had read about the character Steve plays, Nucky Thompson, this was just such a perfect guy to set a series around.

INSKEEP: Well, now explain that. Because if you want to look at the 1920s and the mob, you could have gone to Chicago, you could have gone to New York. Who was this character that you play, Steve Buscemi?

Mr. BUSCEMI: This character that I play, he was the county treasurer of Atlantic City. But he was more than that. He sort of ran the whole political machine there. Everything had to go through him. He was already making a lot of money, and then when Prohibition hit he just made so much more money because he was able to bring in all of his bootlegger friends - and they were really excited about Prohibition.

INSKEEP: Let me play a clip here from "Boardwalk Empire." This is from the first episode, and crime bosses from Chicago and New York have showed up in Atlantic City. They're meeting with Nucky Thompson and they're talking about trying to obtain alcohol for various reasons at the beginning of Prohibition.

(Soundbite of HBO series, "Boardwalk Empire")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) I have a friend, a judge. His daughter's wedding is in a week. I'd like to be able to accommodate him and his 700 guests.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) You haven't stockpiled?

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) All sold already. Im coming up short.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Well, I have a load coming in tomorrow. Five hundred crates, Canadian Club. Originally I planned to keep it, but seeing how I'd like to start our relationship off on the right foot, how about I let you have it?

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) How much?

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Sixty grand for the entire load. But you use your own men for the pick-up.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) Send me over the details, we'll settle up in cash tomorrow.

INSKEEP: The first thing that strikes me about that clip, gentlemen, is that Nucky Thompson in that transaction - as the viewer knows - almost doubled his money in one night. And the second thing is that he's talking to real life gangsters here.

Mr. WINTER: Yeah, it was a pleasant surprise as a writer to realize that Nucky actually rubbed elbows with all of these guys. Yeah, because he ran a town that was on the Atlantic Ocean and Prohibition was enacted, that became the natural place to import illegal alcohol through. The place was almost a magnet for gangsters of the era, so you know, for my purposes as a writer, it really -it's very organic. I can have Nucky interact with these people as he did in real, and it's all completely true.

INSKEEP: Im fascinated by the way that you play this character, Steve Buscemi - Nucky Thompson - even his posture seems to suggest the contradictions of his character. He's wearing these stiff clothes. He looks like a very upright man. But at the same time he's kind of, kind of sagging. I mean you get a very physical sense of a guy with a lot of different facets to his character.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Well, the suits help.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUSCEMI: The suits make you stand up straight. They really do. And I think Nucky is the type of guy who - I mean he really does enjoy his position and his power. But maybe he didnt quite anticipate that his stress level would also go up. And his attitude was: If this is what the people want, this is what I will provide.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that that was his motivation for getting all kinds of illegal alcohol during Prohibition.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUSCEMI: I mean, of course he had - you know, he had his own interests. But yeah, he really believed that he was providing a service.

Mr. WINTER: I believe that Nucky said that if people wanted to come to Atlantic City for Bible readings, he would have given them that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: But nobody ever asked for that. But they asked for alcohol, so he would provide that.

INSKEEP: Oddly enough.

Mr. WINTER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You know, there's another scene that is connected to that meeting of the mobsters. Outside there's a couple of drivers. And there's a wonderful line, wonderful to me, anyway, in which you find out the motivations of one the principle characters. You can sense his ambition.

Would you describe that scene?

Mr. WINTER: Yeah. Outside the meeting, the two drivers of Johnny Torrio - who's visiting from Chicago - is having a conversation with Jimmy Darmody, who is Nucky's prot�g�, who's just returned from World War I. And Jimmy has just spent the last three years fighting for his country and nearly getting himself killed, and has returned to Atlantic City thinking that he's going to pick up where he left off, and the world has sort of moved on without him.

And you know, he sees these other young guys with flashy suits and cars and diamonds and making all this money, and he realizes that there's an opportunity there. So he and this other driver decide to sort of maybe get into that on their own.

INSKEEP: Jimmy Darmody is talking about one of the gangsters inside and realizes that guy is rich and says: He's not even as old I am. He's not even as old as we are.

Mr. WINTER: Exactly. Yeah, the parallels between the illegal alcohol business and the drug trade today are really astounding. When I started to do the research, I realized really quickly that it's almost the perfect overlap.

You know, you have young guys who are prone to violence, who want to make a lot of money quickly by trafficking in an illegal substance. I mean it's essentially the cocaine business, for example. I mean it was a little more socially acceptable than dealing drugs, for example, but essentially the outcomes are the same.

INSKEEP: Hmm. How long are we going to stay in the 1920s in this series?

Mr. WINTER: Well, the logical endpoint - I mean one logical endpoint, because it starts at the dawn of Prohibition, would that it could end at the end of Prohibition, if we were so lucky. But that would be 1933. Yeah, I would love to be able to explore the entire decade and more, if I'm - if we're lucky enough to be allowed to do that.

It was really just such a rich time and these characters certainly have a lot of interesting facets to explore.

INSKEEP: You're not going to end the series with Nucky Thompson in a diner with his family when a mysterious guy walks up, and then things go to black. You're not going to do that.

Mr. WINTER: Well, I was thinking maybe Nucky as an old man could walk into a diner and kill Tony Soprano.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: That would be a good ending.

INSKEEP: Well, gentlemen, thanks very much.

Mr. WINTER: Thank you.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Thank you, appreciate it.

Mr. WINTER: It was a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Writer Terence Winter and actor Steve Buscemi. The series "Boardwalk Empire" starts Sunday night on HBO.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And Im Linda Wertheimer.

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