Dabney Coleman's real-life cancer affected Boardwalk Empire (also, Dabney Coleman had cancer)
One of the major arcs of Boardwalk Empire's second season involved a conspiracy, led by Dabney Coleman's the Commodore, to overthrow Nucky Thompson. The way the story shook out, of course, was that [first of many spoilers] the Commodore quickly becomes incapacitated with illness, leaving his conspirators to fend for themselves. But during an interview for an upcoming Random Roles with Coleman, our contributor Will Harris learned something that wasn't exactly public knowledge until now: The plotline changed as a direct result of Dabney Coleman's real-life diagnosis with throat cancer, which occasionally affected his ability to speak. According to Coleman, "They said, 'We can’t risk this. We’ve gotta get rid of him. We don’t know what’s gonna happen with this guy. He could drop dead in reality! And then where are we?'"—a fear that Coleman believes (in a self-admitted "educated guess) led to them writing him off the show.
As we'd never heard anything about Coleman being diagnosed with cancer before or how it might have affected the series—and "by the way, I don’t have cancer anymore, thanks for asking," Coleman adds, so that's good—Will contacted Boardwalk's Terence Winter to get his take on what happened after he got the bad news. His response:
First and foremost, there was concern for Dabney, but secondly it was, ‘Okay, how do we work with this on the show, and what is he willing and able to do?’ So we spoke to him, and he told me what his course of treatment was going to be, so we got together with HBO and I said, ‘Look, this really derails our plans for the season in a big way, so we really have to rethink this.’ We still wanted to keep the original story, where everybody conspires against Nucky and the Commodore leads the charge, but we thought that if there’s a way to have the Commodore set up the conspiracy, set up Nucky’s arrest, Eli’s on board, Jimmy’s on board, everybody’s behind them, and then early on the guy who’s leading this charge is now incapacitated…from a story perspective, it actually amps things up in a really great way. Suddenly the general is out of commission, and these guys start turning on each other.
So the challenge was to rewrite the arc of the season to that way, and also to shoot Dabney’s scenes out over the next few weeks, because he was going to be entering treatment immediately, and he didn’t know what effect it would have on his voice or his general ability to work or how tired it was going to be. So we had to very quickly write all the scenes involving the Commodore for the first four episodes without having the episodes written. We really were sort of flying blind, so we just wrote, y’know, the early scenes with the Commodore lifting the tusk over his head, meeting with Jimmy and Jimmy’s reluctance, and, of course, where he had the stroke.
That was a complete clusterfuck. [Laughs.] Because Gretchen Mol was eight months pregnant. That thing was shot in pieces, and, I mean, it’s remarkable how seamless it looks when you see it on TV. You can’t believe the two of them were never in the same…well, they were in the same room, but they were never in the same shot together. So, anyway, we just really wrote quickly, Dabney came in, I think he worked, like, six days straight. It was all Dabney, all the time. We shot all those scenes and then inserted them in later. And then we knew we’d take him out of the middle of the season because he’d be getting treatment, and then, of course, work him back into the show when he was able to work again. But we kept in constant touch with him all through the year.
Furthermore, Winter denies Coleman's belief that his character was supposed to die early into the first season, as well as his belief that his real-life diagnosis had anything to do with the Commodore's fate, saying, "It was always going to be the case that he’d recover from the poisoning and continue on. It was also always the case that he would get killed by Jimmy at the end of Season 2, so… I don’t know if he sort of inferred that we killed him off because he got sick, but that was never the case. And I think he might’ve realized that when we killed Jimmy off a week later." So, Boardwalk Empire fans and Dabney Coleman alike, we've all learned things today!