Growing up in the isolated working-class enclave of Marine Park, Brooklyn, Terence Winter always dreamed of escaping to Manhattan.
"Not to be a snob, but Brooklyn in the '70s wasn't the hippest place," says the 51-year-old creator and executive producer of the Prohibition-era drama "Boardwalk Empire," which returns to HBO for the start of its third season Sunday.
So Winter is more surprised than anyone to find himself back in Brooklyn — and loving it.
"I can't wrap my head around it," Winter confesses at his office at Steiner Studios, the waterfront production complex where much of "Boardwalk Empire" is filmed. To make the homecoming complete, the studio is within the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Winter's father was stationed during World War II.
Truthfully, Winter's good mood isn't that hard to understand. "Boardwalk Empire," which premiered to glowing reviews in 2010 and helped usher in a new era of quality drama at HBO, is up for 12 Emmys on Sept. 23.
The series, set in 1920s Atlantic City, N.J., centers on Nucky Thompson, a crooked politician turned ruthless bootlegger played by Steve Buscemi. Last season ended with a jaw-dropping finale in which (spoiler alert) Nucky completed his metamorphosis into a full-fledged criminal by executing Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), one of his closest deputies and the series' second lead.
For Winter, who cut his teeth as a writer on "The Sopranos" and is drafting a script for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Whitey Bulger biopic, the world of the mobster is not entirely unfamiliar. As a teenager, he worked at a butcher shop owned by Paul Castellano, the Gambino crime family boss who was famously gunned down by John Gotti's henchmen on a Manhattan sidewalk.
"My fingerprints are on every gangster script in Hollywood," he says, traces of the outer boroughs very much evident in his voice.
But the path back to Brooklyn has been circuitous. As a child in Marine Park — a neighborhood even most New Yorkers have never heard of — Winter loved film and television but chose to become a corporate lawyer because, as he puts it, "it was one of the only two jobs I knew that were important."
Winter had survived two miserable years on the job when, approaching 30, he decided to set out for Hollywood to become a TV writer. There were two small problems with his plan: He'd never written a script and knew virtually no one in Los Angeles.
He taught himself the craft by taping shows such as "Home Improvement" and breaking them down scene by scene. "You hear people grew up to be electrical engineers and they take radios apart, put them back together. I did that with TV shows," he says.
An acquaintance back in Brooklyn had an uncle who was a grip on "Doogie Howser, M.D.," so Winter wrote a spec script in which Doogie broke up with his girlfriend, Wanda; little did he know this had already happened on the show. ("A freshman mistake," he recalls with a wince.)
Alas, "Doogie" didn't come calling, but other shows did. Although Winter's early credits — "The Cosby Mysteries," "Flipper," "Sister, Sister" — are almost comically family friendly compared to the bloody spectacle of "Boardwalk Empire," he gradually moved into edgier fare, such as the Eddie Murphy-produced series "The PJs."
That's when he saw the pilot of a new HBO series called "The Sopranos." "Drop everything else. You have got to get me on the show," he told his agent.
After joining the series in its second season, Winter quickly rose to executive producer. He earned writing credits on more than two dozen episodes of "The Sopranos," including two of the most iconic, "Pine Barrens" and "Long Term Parking," for which he won a writing Emmy.
"Terry's got a tremendous, tremendous work ethic. He's a great collaborator and a great partner," says creator David Chase, praising the "humor, menace and liveliness" that Winter brings to the page.
Winter's reputation was an advantage last season on "Boardwalk Empire," when the showrunner took some unprecedented creative risks. Jimmy's murder, shocking enough in its own right, was preceded by an even more staggering revelation: While a student at Princeton, Jimmy had shared an incestuous liaison with his own mother, Gilian.
"I was nervous," admits Michael Lombardo, president of HBO programming. "But I trust Terry enormously."
Indeed, despite his genial and decidedly unpretentious demeanor, Winter seems unusually talented at dreaming up lurid scenarios.
"He's a very emotionally available Irish guy, but he really does understand the darkness of a certain male psyche," Lombardo says.
This ability will serve him well in the upcoming season of "Boardwalk Empire," which picks up in late 1922 and sees Nucky facing off with a psychopathic new rival, Gyp Rosetti, played with mesmerizing volatility by Bobby Cannavale.
"By the end of the season, Nucky is in major, major jeopardy," Winter teases.
Though he watches plenty of television, Winter keeps up with just two shows in real time: "Mad Men," written by fellow "Sopranos" alum Matthew Weiner — whom he calls a "very dear friend" — and, believe it or not, "Project Runway."
Winter says he likes creative people competing against one another; besides, his wife won't watch "Breaking Bad."
"It's too violent for her," he says.
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