“Boardwalk Empire,” the new HBO series, included in its Sept. 19 premiere a scene of five mob bosses gloating about the money to be made in illegal alcohol. The time is the onset of Prohibition in early 1920, the setting a lavish private dinner party at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlantic City.
Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi (known most recently for his role in HBO’s “The Sopranos”), is an only slightly fictionalized version of the crooked politician who once ran that city, and the gangsters are a multiethnic bunch—Irish-, Italian- and Jewish-American. The Jewish member of the group is Arnold Rothstein (played by Michael Stuhlbarg of “A Serious Man”) who, we learn, “runs New York” and cuts an elegant, almost reserved, figure among the cruder bosses Johnny Torrio, Big Jim Colosimo and Lucky Luciano.
The scene is a telling one about Rothstein, who plans to use Nucky as a supplier of his contraband booze but waves away a waiter serving wine, as he sips from a china coffee cup and calmly explains he is a teetotaler: “I like to stay sharp at the tables.”
Rothstein’s eschewing of liquor has nothing to do with Jewish prohibitions against drunkenness and “everything to do with his wanting to have a clear head and to take advantage of others whose heads are not so clear,” Stuhlbarg, 42, said in a phone interview from his Manhattan home. “He’s giving the others the knowledge that he will always be on point, and he will not let alcohol fog his vision in terms of what he’s come to accomplish.”
Stuhlbarg was hand picked by the show’s executive producer, Martin Scorsese, to play the Jewish kingpin—aka The Brain, Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Man Uptown and The Bankroll.
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