When HBO executives handed The Sopranos executive producer Terence Winter a copy of Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson, he says they asked him if he could find a TV series in it. The book was about the history of corruption in Atlantic City through the 20th century.
"And [they] said, ... 'Oh by the way, Martin Scorsese is attached to this,'" Winter tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So, without even reading the book, I said, 'Yes, there's a TV series in this, and I'm going to find it.'"
As the HBO series about rival gangsters, corrupt politicians and federal agents during the Prohibition era starts its fifth and final season, Winter reminisces about how it began.
He says the idea of working with Scorsese was a dream.
It was "something I couldn't possibly even imagine, and certainly not pass up," Winter says.
So he went home and read the book and identified Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, the county treasurer during the Prohibition years, whom he later fictionalized as the series' main character Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi.
The series starts on the eve of Prohibition in 1920 when Thompson began his plan to keep the city awash in bootleg liquor — and make a fortune doing it. The final series starts in 1931, two years before the end of Prohibition when Thompson hopes to use his liquor connections to go legit.
"The more I ... read about it, there [were] so many things in the '20s that were really a mirror to current society," Winter says. "Essentially, the illegal alcohol business is the drug business. ... The fact that we're still debating women's rights ... we're still debating evolution almost 100 years later. I thought, 'God, what an opportunity to really do a show that holds up a mirror to current society, and it's 90 years in the past."
Winter says he also enjoyed bridging his work on The Sopranos, for which he won four Emmys, to Boardwalk Empire.
"It was ... the flip side of what I had been doing on The Sopranos for eight years or so," he says. "The Sopranos was sort of an exploration of the end of organized crime, or the waning days of organized crime. Prohibition was the beginning of that same thing."
On killing off characters
Part of what makes [Boardwalk Empire] special for me is that we try to be as true to the characters as possible and let the chips fall where they may in terms of actor deals and commitments and that sort of stuff.
We made a deal with ourselves early on, on The Sopranos, that we would never keep a character alive because we like the actor who portrayed them. Because [then] we felt we would never kill anybody. You start to get very close to people and if you start to let personal relationships bleed into the work, it really colors it in a bad way. ...
The hardest part of my job [is] making the phone call [to the actor], putting people out of work. [It's] tough. I've made a lot of those tough phone calls. ... I make the call before the actor reads it in the script or hears it from somebody on the crew. ... I actually called one actor and I said, "Hey, it's Terry Winter," and he said, "Well, I guess I'm dead."
On his exposure to organized crime
I grew up in Brooklyn, as a child in the '60s and a teenager in the '70s and I guess by osmosis you rub elbows with people who are involved in that life, so you can't really avoid it. ... You never know who is standing behind you in line. If you're aware and you know who is doing what and who owns what store and what club, people are around. I was a little more aware of it growing up. I was interested in it. ...
[I worked for] a butcher shop. It was a chain of butcher shops that allegedly was owned by [the head of Gambino crime family] Paul Castellano in the '70s. ... It interested me enough, but not enough to ask any questions. I think I was a smart enough kid to just keep my eyes open and my mouth shut. Occasionally guys would come in and they'd say, "Take a walk."
On studying gangster films with Scorsese in preparation for Boardwalk Empire
That entire month of going to Martin Scorsese's office and watching gangster films with him was the best film course you've ever had times a billion. Getting to sit with him watching Rod Steiger's Al Capone, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, all these classic films, Public Enemy, and to hear his live commentary.
He's very much about truth and real moments and real performances. He understands the juxtaposition of violence and humor — having an incredibly tense scene and then letting the air out of it, let the audience breathe with a light moment.
Some of Martin Scorsese's films that are very violent, Goodfellas for example, Raging Bull, at times, can be very funny. These guys are so absurd in some ways that you almost can't help but laugh at them — I think The Sopranos was like that too.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his most resonant and famous line during his presidential inauguration speech of 1933: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." It was resonant because he was being defiant, and optimistic, in the face of the Great Depression — and it was famous because it was broadcast live, to the entire nation, on the relatively new medium of radio. It was filmed, too, and when we get to this moment in the newest Ken Burns nonfiction epic, about halfway through The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, we can see and hear Roosevelt speak.
That puts a lot of extra weight on Burns and his collaborators in this documentary miniseries, which launches Sunday on PBS. Since Theodore Roosevelt was born just a few years before the start of the Civil War, this new 14-hour joint biography — of Teddy, his niece Eleanor, and Teddy's fifth cousin, Franklin — begins on familiar Burns' territory. There are lingering, slowly tightening shots of old photos and news clippings, with actors hired to give voice to real-life historical figures. You could say Burns, once again, is up to his old tricks – but they're still great tricks.
At the end of Sunday's Part 1, Paul Giamatti, as U.S. Vice President Teddy Roosevelt, remarks on suddenly ascending to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley.
"It is a dreadful thing to come into the presidency this way, but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it," he says. "Here is the task and I've got to do it to the best of my ability, and that is all there is about it."
That sort of audio role-playing gets trickier when we, the audience, are familiar with the historical voices being impersonated. Yet that obstacle is overcome in spectacular fashion, thanks to some Emmy-worthy vocal acting — and some equally Emmy-worthy scriptwriting.
A perfect example of both is in Part 4. It's the summer of 1921, and Franklin Roosevelt, age 39, has just spent a day sailing, swimming and racing with his family – only to retire early because his legs felt weak and funny. It's the very moment when Roosevelt is stricken by infantile paralysis, by polio — and it's captured perfectly in this TV history, because of the talent and passion of all involved. Edward Herrmann, who won an Emmy for his pitch-perfect portrayal of FDR in the made-for-TV movie Eleanor and Franklin way back in 1976, brings the man to life again here — and does so with such authority and accuracy, that his vocal impersonation stands proudly alongside recordings of the real Franklin.
Then there's the writing. Longtime Burns collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward, a biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, wrote this entire 14-hour documentary — and also appears on camera occasionally. He emerges as this TV program's secret weapon, because, when recounting the history of these three famous Roosevelt relatives, he's thoroughly invested and empathetic.
That's never truer than in the sequence where Franklin goes to bed tired, and wakes up unable to use his legs. Ward, like Franklin, is a survivor of polio — and when Ward shows up on camera to describe how Franklin must have felt, it's a searingly raw, honest moment. Coming right after Herrmann's impersonation of Franklin, it's a hauntingly potent one-two punch.
The other major players in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History are Meryl Streep and Peter Coyote. Streep, as Eleanor Roosevelt, brings her gifts for accents and acting and uses them both beautifully. This joint biography doesn't shy away from Franklin's infidelities and betrayals, or his wife Eleanor's very independent life — not even at the end of their long and complicated marriage, when Streep reads one of Eleanor's subtly honest remarks after the death of her husband, in the documentary's final chapter.
Streep is marvelous. So is Peter Coyote, who has narrated many Burns documentaries with the perfect pace and pitch, and does so again here.
Each of these Roosevelts, if studied individually, would be fascinating. But looking at them together like this is a revelation — a sort of storytelling synergy, where the whole ends up being even more valuable than the sum of its parts. The Roosevelts – An Intimate History is biographical binge-watching at its best. In fact, I think it's Burns' best, too.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.