Terence Winter, creator and executive producer of HBO’s new Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire and Emmy-winning writer and producer of HBO’s The Sopranos, has found success writing about brutal violence, crime and sex... which makes his own favorite TV show, Project Runway, a bit of a surprise. “It’s my appointment television,” he says. “I’m just really into it.”
A new career in fashion is not likely for Winter, but in fact, it wouldn’t be entirely unexpected from a man who dabbled in several different careers before eventually finding his sweet spot in the television business.
One of five children growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Winter attended an automotive vocational high school where he was trained as a mechanic. After graduation, he chose a different path, becoming part-owner of a deli. At 19, when that business went south, he realized he needed a steadier career and began to consider college for the first time.
Winter stumbled upon the NYU campus and gained some footing by applying as a medieval history major, although he ultimately graduated with a political science major and journalism minor. Having a strong desire for a more lucrative career, Winter went to St. John’s University Law School and, armed with a degree, wound up at a corporate law firm in Manhattan.
“I was miserable,” he recalls. “I would literally sneak out of the job during the day to go to movies.” After two years and some soul-searching, he finally focused in on his dream.
“The deep dark secret is that I wanted to be a writer,” Winter says. Despite friends suggesting he’d lost his mind, he quit his job, sold everything he had and moved to Los Angeles in May 1991.
Winter began writing spec scripts while working as a paralegal to pay the bills. “I literally lived, ate and breathed writing,” he recalls.
After making some connections in the business, he landed at the Warner Bros. Sitcom Writers Workshop, which placed him in his first writing job, on Fox’s The Great Defender, in 1994. The series only lasted one season, but it launched Winter’s career as a TV writer, working on shows such as Flipper, Xena: Warrior Princess and Sister, Sister. “I tried not to get pigeon-holed in a particular genre. I wanted to bounce back and forth between dramas and half-hours and remind people that I could write anything,” he says.
In 1999, Winter met Sopranos creator David Chase through Defender creator Frank Renzulli; Winter joined the hit show in its second season and went on to win four Emmys for his work.
Chase admired Winter’s ability and drive. “As a writer he is so specific, and that’s the acid test,” Chase says. “God is in the details, and his work is so finely drawn. Plus, he’s got the most amazing work ethic I’ve ever seen.”
When The Sopranos ended in 2007, HBO execs came to Winter with the book Boardwalk Empire, which the network had optioned, to see if he could adapt it for TV. Winter immediately immersed himself in the project after hearing Martin Scorsese would be producing. Winter’s first script was so compelling that Scorsese asked to direct the pilot.
Winter was thrilled to re-up with HBO. “It’s the best place I’ve ever worked,” he says. “They just have balls. They literally let you work without handcuffs on.”
Boardwalk debuted on Sept. 19 to 4.8 million viewers, the largest premiere audience for any HBO program in six years, since Deadwood debuted in 2004 with Sopranos as lead-in. Two days later, the network renewed Boardwalk for a second season. The Sept. 26 episode following the premiere had 3.3 million viewers and the show has since leveled off to around 3 million. It is averaging 12 million viewers gross audience—linear, on-demand and DVR—per episode.
With its early success, there’s buzz that Boardwalk could unseat Mad Men as best drama at the Emmys next year. This has spurred friendly banter between Winter and Mad Men showrunner Matt Weiner, his friend and former Sopranos colleague. “It’s good-natured ball-breaking,” Winter says. “When [Weiner] won the Emmy I had said to him, ‘Congratulations, totally welldeserved— this is the last one of these emails you’re going to get.’ ”
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