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The book that inspired 'Boardwalk Empire'

September 19, 2010 | 10:57 am

Boardwalkempire On Sunday night, HBO premieres its new series, "Boardwalk Empire," about prohibition-era Atlantic City. It stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson and counts director Martin Scorcese among its producers.

The series is loosely based on a book -- one called, in fact, "Boardwalk Empire" -- by Nelson Johnson.

Johnson was an unpublished author who sent his manuscript cold to Plexus Publishing; the small New Jersey-based company published the book in 2002. It is now being rereleased in conjunction with the series, with photo inserts, a new forward and a new afterword.

Johnson was an attorney for Atlantic City's planning board in the 1980s when he became interested in the story. He spent 20 years working on the book, getting close to some of the old-timers who'd been around in the 1920s and '30s. "History is not what happened," Johnson told the Press of Atlantic City in August. "History is the best story you can get with what’s available."

That history -- or the closest Johnson could get to it -- circles around Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (no relation), the organizer behind organized crime in Atlantic City. 

Series writer Terence Winter deliberately changed the name of the central character from Johnson to Thompson to give the fiction room to deviate from the history in Johnson's book. "I was a very big fan of the show 'Deadwood,'" he told the Atlantic City Weekly. "It was a great show. and I loved what David Milch (the show’s creator) did with it. And I realized that all these characters were based on actual historical figures, so that was interesting, and I Googled them. And that wrecked it for me. Now, whenever Al Swearengen got into trouble on the show, I knew that he had survived into the early 20th century. There was no sense of jeopardy. With Nucky Johnson, people know how he ended up, but Nucky Thompson can do anything."

Meanwhile, Nelson Johnson has been keeping quiet about the actual history -- not to protect the twists of the show, but to comply with a judicial order. The author and lawyer became a Superior Court judge in 2005 and has been ordered by the New Jersey judiciary to cease his promotional activities around the book and series, the Press of Atlantic City reports.

Johnson's next book, "The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City," is due out from Plexus Publishing in November. "Boardwalk Empire" premieres on HBO Sunday at 9 p.m.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Steve Buscemi, Paz de la Huerta. Credit: Abbot Genser/ HBO