"Boardwalk Empire" creator Terence Winter looked around the table reading for the pilot of his new series. He looked at the faces - actors including Steve Buscemi, Gretchen Mol, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon - as they recited his dialog.
It was a pretty powerful image.
"The feeling I had was an enormous sense of pride mixed with a bit of dread," Winter says via e-mail. "Every one of these actors is absolutely terrific, and I knew I was faced with the task of delivering material every week that matched their level of talent."
When the series, which is set in Probation-era Atlantic City, debuts at 9 tonight on HBO, it wastes little time jumping into several plot lines. It all could get very confusing for the uninitiated. Luckily, we've got you covered, with this handy guide to the major players in the "Boardwalk Empire" universe.
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Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson
Based on Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, "Boardwalk Empire's" Nucky is the sun around which all other characters revolve, even as some of the action unfolds in New York and Chicago. A father figure of sorts to Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Nucky is beloved by almost every faction of Atlantic City, equal parts compassionate leader and ruthlessly corrupt politician.
Playing this man is actor Steve Buscemi, known for his roles in "Fargo," "Reservoir Dogs," and "The Wedding Singer" on the big screen, as well as dramatic turns on "The Sopranos" and a comic detour on "30 Rock." The actor has also turned to directing for television and film, including episodes of "Nurse Jackie." He directed the classic "Sopranos" episode, "Pine Barrens."
"We've all seen Steve Buscemi in many, many, many roles, because his portfolio is so monumental," says Anthony Laciura, who plays Nucky's secretary, Eddie Kessler. "You're going to forget he's done anything else but Enoch "Nucky" Thompson."
Recognizing how crucial the role is to the series, Winter says he, executive producer and pilot director Martin Scorsese and casting director Ellen Lewis began brainstorming candidates, agreeing to focus on the best actor - not necessarily someone who looked like the real Nucky.
Buscemi's name quickly came up.
"We kept throwing around names and a few days later I got a call from Marty, who told me he couldn't stop thinking of Steve Buscemi," Winter says. "I told him I couldn't either, and we knew we found our Nucky."
As we meet Margaret, she is attending a meeting of the Women's Temperance League at which Nucky is speaking. Pregnant with her third child, the Irish immigrant turns to the political boss to see if he'll help her husband, a gambler with a bad temper.
You may know her from: "State of Play," "No Country for Old Men," "Choke"
Jimmy was a student at Princeton before going off to fight in World War I. Back in America after the war, he's looking to make a name for himself within Nucky's organization.
You may know him from: "The Dreamers," "Funny Games," "The Village"
Agent Nelson Van Alden
He works with the Department of Internal Revenue as a senior prohibition agent, and is in Atlantic City as Prohibition begins, investigating someone else. But he soon realizes the real catch here might be Nucky, and begins pursuing the city leader with an unbridled passion.
You may know him from: "Revolutionary Road," "The Runaways"
Sheriff Elias Thompson
Nucky's younger brother and a frequent punching bag for his older sibling. As head of the police, Eli is in a position to look the other way when it comes to some of Nucky's more questionable dealings, and he's often called to action when Nucky needs something taken care of. But Eli also aspires to more than his brother may know.
You may know him from: "Machete," "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans"
Commodore Louis Kaestner
Nucky's predecessor and mentor, Kaestner is a bitter man Nucky still turns to as a sounding board. He will, without reservations, chastise his protege for some of his more progressive ideas, such as supporting voting rights for women.
You may know him from: "The Guardian," "You've Got Mail," "Nine to Five"
Eddie is Nucky's Man Friday, available to Nucky 24 hours per day to wait on him hand and foot. He drives him, shaves him, plays social secretary and more. If you want to see Nucky, you will first see Eddie. He also bears the brunt of Nucky's temper.
You may know him from: Laciura was a member of the Metropolitan Opera.
Young Al finds himself in Atlantic City as a driver for Johnny Torio during a meeting of several crime figures from across the country. But Al aspires to be more than somebody's lackey, and with an impulsive hot streak, he's prepared to do what it takes to get it.
You may know him from: "The Damned United," "Public Enemies," "Gangs of New York"
Jimmy's common-law wife. She got pregnant before Jimmy went off to war; with him home, she is acclimating herself to not only raising their son but also getting to know the man Jimmy has become.
You may know her from: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," "Storytelling"
New York's Rothstein is the biggest gangster in the country, a ruthless figure who fixed the 1919 World Series and doesn't take kindly to being used or abused. He also serves as a mentor of sorts to "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza). He and Nucky might do business together, but at what cost?
You may know him from: "A Serious Man," "The Pillowman"
Arnold Rothstein's pet project of sorts, Luciano is a young gun rising through the ranks but with a lot to learn. Uncultured, he is as hotheaded as Capone, resulting in an impulsive streak that may not always serve him well.
You may know him from: "Rescue Me," "The Sopranos"
(Paz de la Huerta)
Nucky's girlfriend. She was a Ziegfield Follies girl until giving up that life to enjoy the lavish lifestyle being with Nucky offers. Despite Nucky's dalliances with other women, he always comes back to Lucy. But that doesn't mean she doesn't have a jealous streak.
You may know her from: "Fierce People," "The Limits of Control," "Choke"
A rival of Chalky White's, he's a local player in the bootlegging business, so he runs in some of Nucky's below-board circles. An ambitious type, he's one to make deals as long as it will pay off for him.
You may know him from: "Edge of Darkness," "Synecdoche, New York," "Take Me Out"
(Michael Kenneth Williams)
An ex-boxer, Nucky turns to Chalky to run a big bootlegging operation for him. He's also the leader of Atlantic City's African-American community, making him a key figure for Nucky if he wants to maintain the power he has worked hard to cultivate across all segments of the resort.
You may know him from: "The Wire," "The Road"
Jimmy Darmody's mother, she's also a showgirl at the Beaux Arts in the city. She also has a very long relationship with Nucky, one we find out about in fits and starts.
You may know her from: "Life on Mars," "The Notorious Bettie Page," "3:10 to Yuma," "Rounders"