History vs Film: Lucky Luciano of Boardwalk Empire
In HBO’s Boardwalk Empire there are a number of colorful characters from real history placed into a strange script that is more fictional than fact. For this reason using the characters from the show to examine what liberties were taken in their portrayal is actually very easy. To put it frankly Boardwalk Empire is the type of show that historians hate; it uses real names but many times the characters aren’t what they were in history. In this first edition of History vs Film I will talk about one of my favorite subjects of study – the infamous Lucky Luciano.
Charles “Lucky Luciano” Lucania – Played by Vincent Piazza
A good German/Italian actor playing a Sicilian Mob legend, what could go wrong eh? Well the first thing that stuck out to me in Boardwalk Empire is that the Lucky in the show acts nothing like the one I have read extensively about from both his own words and those of his fellow members of the Five Families.
Vincent Piazza brings good looks and a dangerous edge to his portrayal of Charley Lucky, but if the old man were still alive today he would loathe the hell out of this show. The reason for this is due to two differing opinions on Luciano’s early business – one set says that he was a whore-monger, a pimp and a heavy dealer in drugs–the other says that all of this is false rumors invented by those who were jealous of Luciano. In Luciano’s own biography he vehemently denies involvement with both vices despite the evidence leaning towards the former being true.
If it’s anything that the old bosses loved in young soldiers for the Mob it’s the propensity to “Earn” and Luciano was a huge earner… if everyone was bootlegging you can argue that Lucky’s extra options for money (drugs and women) may have been the reason why Salvatore Maranzano and Joe Masseria fought to recruit him into their ranks. Boardwalk Empire has the version of Luciano that loves whores and pushes drugs.
Some Questionable Things
Whether or not Luciano was a dope dealing pimp or not, the HBO version is and anyone who watches the show will assume that the real gangster did as well. Vincent Piazza’s Luciano is a fiery hot-head and I am not sure how close to accurate this is as the movements and speech of the real Luciano was always so calm and controlled.
Think about the method in which the real Lucky got the two main bosses of the mafia killed to assume control – he did it with patience, smarts, Jewish gangsters and a well thought out strategy. Piazza’s Lucky doesn’t strike me as being very patient, but with it only being Season 3 I wonder if this is something that is supposed to come with age. Piazza’s Luciano is still a very young man compared to the one that I am describing.
One very accurate part of BWE’s Luciano is his sidekick Meyer Lansky. I don’t like the choice in actor for the “ugly little man” but the fact that these guys are best buds, partners, and more is pretty accurate to what went on in Luciano’s life.
The Accurate and The Not-So Accurate
I really hate that in the show Luciano tells people to “call me Lucky”. The real man’s name was Charles Lucania, changed to Charles Luciano and he went by Charley. He got the name Lucky sometime after big boss Salvatore Maranzano strung him up, beat him within an inch of his life and cut his face. It is arguable as to whether his survival of the attack was what gave him his moniker but it did give him his trademark droopy eye and it was a name that he hated. I am not sure why Boardwalk Empire missed this very well known fact.
Arnold Rothstein–who I can’t wait to write about–taught Lucky everything about being a gentleman’s gangster. Lucky came from the streets, had very little formal education and barely spoke English when he was taken under the wing of Rothstein. Through the Jewish veteran Lucky learned how to bootleg liquor, handle money, and the man polished him into the sharp dressing, fedora wearing image that you often see in his photographs.
This is the one thing that Boardwalk Empire has done a great job of characterizing because like life, on the show Rothstein is definitely Luciano’s mentor.
There is nothing damaging in terms of historical representation with Vincent Piazza’s role as Charles “Lucky” Luciano. The fact that he is a minor character in the grand scheme of things makes him more of a recognizable name than a key player so most people watching will forget the minor faux pas like him introducing himself as “Lucky”.
So what do you think of Piazza’s characterization of the original Godfather?