NEW YORK -- Steve Buscemi does not bear much physical resemblance to Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, the tall, broad-shouldered political boss whose 30-year rule of Atlantic City inspired HBO's new Prohibition-era drama "Boardwalk Empire."
But that ended up working in his favor when executive producers Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter were looking to cast the role of Nucky Thompson, the series' fictionalized version of the powerful town treasurer. "We decided not to pigeonhole ourselves to think that way, of a strapping guy with a big booming voice," Winter said. "[Buscemi's] just got so many colors to him, an unbelievable range from comedy to drama. I don't think people have seen him do anything like this."
HBO is counting on viewers finding "Boardwalk Empire" equally as unexpected when it premieres Sunday. The ambitious period drama re-creates in precise detail the New Jersey resort of the 1920s to tell the story of a corrupt politician who deftly exploits Prohibition for personal gain.
Even for the premium cable network, which is known for its lavish miniseries, the series is a big bet. HBO built a 300-foot-long replica of the 1920s-era boardwalk on a former parking lot in Brooklyn to serve as the main set. The Scorsese-directed pilot cost close to $20 million to make and the entire series has the feel of a major feature film, with more than 200 speaking roles and several thousand extras.
More than one television critic has dubbed it HBO's next "Sopranos." The network's $10-million marketing push for the show has only served to reinforce that perception.
"The expectations obviously make me a little nervous," said Michael Lombardo, president of HBO's programming group. "I do believe the show will absolutely deliver on those expectations, but at the same time, would I have liked to have this show surprise everybody? Yes."
In the series, Thompson reigns over Atlantic City with a combination of benevolence and icy resolve, exerting influence over senators and gangsters alike. Like the real Nucky, Buscemi's character helps organize the mafia into a far-reaching crime syndicate by brokering deals with figures such as Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky. He navigates tense racial politics and contends with the burgeoning suffrage movement.
"It was a time of huge change and youth was the big thing," said Kelly Macdonald ("No Country for Old Men"), who plays a poor woman in an abusive relationship who seeks Thompson's help. "It was kind of almost like the '60s in a way."
"If history was conspiring to create the backdrop for a TV series, this would be it," added Winter, a former "Sopranos" writer drafted by HBO to shepherd the series.
The network is hoping the drama's epic sweep will cement HBO's return as a television kingmaker after an uneven stretch that followed the end of "The Sopranos" in 2007.
Humbled by misfires such as the surfer drama "John From Cincinnati," HBO embarked on an intense period of development that is now bearing fruit. Next year, it will roll out the miniseries "Mildred Pierce," starring Kate Winslet and directed by Todd Haynes; "Game of Thrones," a series based on the elaborate fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin; "Luck," a drama about horse-racing featuring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte; and the Laura Dern comedy "Enlightened."
They will join a schedule that includes popular dramas such as "Big Love" and "True Blood," as well as the new quirky comedies "Eastbound & Down" and "Bored to Death." "We had been a great place at saying 'no' in terms of what we didn't think would work," Lombardo said. "We changed our approach and opened our arms a little bit wider." "Boardwalk Empire," however, "was a no-brainer," he added.
The drama was born out of the meticulously researched "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City," a book by Nelson Johnson, who became interested in exploring the town's political origins when he served as an attorney for the Atlantic City Planning Board. He was amazed to learn the scope of the power wielded by Nucky Johnson (no relation), who was so flush with kickbacks that he occupied an entire floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel as his living quarters.
The book captured the attention of producers Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson, who brought the project to Scorsese and HBO.
Scorsese said he could not resist a project that traced the beginnings of organized crime. "For me, it's the charting of the nature of this world, the underworld … and also the nature of America's love affair with the gangster as a sort of tragic hero," he told reporters at the Television Critics Assn.'s semiannual press tour in August.
There was no shortage of actors interested in signing on, particularly with Scorsese attached to the project. "I almost didn't want to read it because I kind of knew I would fall in love with it," Buscemi said. "Not knowing I had the part, I thought, 'Do I really want to know something if it's not mine?'"
"He's not at all the traditional casting choice for the role of the heavy, the role of the hero or antihero, in a piece like this," admitted Lombardo, who said the casting of Buscemi — a longtime character actor best know for his parts in "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski" — reminds him of the selection of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. "When he was cast originally, everyone said, 'My gosh!' He had never played a lead before. And yet I don't think by the end of the first season anybody could imagine another Tony Soprano. And I think Buscemi is a similarly inspired casting choice."
Though Thompson is based on the real Atlantic City powerbroker, Winter said he decided to fictionalize the character to sidestep the risk of viewers spoiling the plot by researching the fate of the actual Nucky, who was imprisoned in 1941 for tax evasion. "When I was watching 'Deadwood,' I Googled every one of the characters and suddenly I was ahead of the story," he said. "I said, 'If this is based on the real Nucky, people are going to know too much about him.'"
The series is populated by plenty of real figures, however, including a young Al Capone, introduced when he was a mere driver. "It's like a history class," said Michael Kenneth Williams ( "The Wire"), who plays Chalky White, the leader of the city's African American community. "These really cool, iconic, infamous gangsters, you get to see where they got their start."
Though there has been no shortage of mafia tales, the production's sumptuous details set it apart from other depictions. "Boardwalk Empire's" production designer, Bob Shaw, worked on the pilot of "Mad Men" and brought his same focus on details to this project. "We stayed as true to the period as we could possibly manage," Shaw said. "There's more conjecture involved in 'Boardwalk.' It's hard to know for certain which person of which economic level would have access to a vacuum cleaner or the toaster, for example."
The series' authenticity was vetted by historical consultant Edward McGinty, an Atlantic City native whose grandfather and father worked at the Ritz. He made sure that rust marred all the exposed metal on the boardwalk set and that the sound of seagulls cawing was audible whenever the characters were outside. "It's like music or any emotional element of the production," McGinty said. "It's visceral and I think it makes it easier to invest in the characters and the story."
McGinty noted that while Nucky Johnson played a critical role in making Atlantic City what it is, he has largely been forgotten. "His name isn't on anything and nobody knows who he is," he said. "I feel like Steve Buscemi's character is his legacy. He just embodied him and made it his own. I don't think there's going to be any question about it."