'Vinyl' and 'Sopranos' writer Terence Winter on how he's crafted HBO's great dramas

Terence Winter is best known for his work on “The Sopranos” and creating “Boardwalk Empire,” but the 55-year-old writer and TV showrunner wasn’t just handed those gigs.

Like most in Hollywood, he had to start from the bottom, and he built off his early jobs to become one of the most sought-after writers in not only TV but also movies — his adaptation of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” earned him an Oscar nomination.

He created his most recent series “Vinyl,” with Scorsese and Mick Jagger.

Winter talked to Business Insider about his landmark career so far.

'The Cosby Mysteries'

NBC

One of the first writing jobs Winter scored when he got to Hollywood in the mid-1990s was writing episodes for the blink-and-you-missed-it crime series 'The Cosby Mysteries.' That's right, Bill Cosby had a show in which he played a retired New York criminologist who would solve murders in his spare time.

'That time in my career I was just thrilled that people were offering me to do jobs,' Winter said.

According to Winter, Cosby couldn't be any nicer to work with, but the legendary comedian's style wasn't the right fit for the murder-mystery genre.

'One of the conventions of the murder mystery is that the hero at the end sort of runs down very specifically how he caught the murderer,' Winter said. 'So we'd have these very specific speeches written where Bill would explain how he knew who the murderer was, but instead he would go off on these comedic riffs that often had nothing to do with how he caught the murderer. So we would get the footage back and go, 'Um, what?' We would have to loop dialogue somewhere else in the episode so the ending would make sense. It was kind of a challenge.'

'Xena: Warrior Princess'

Universal TV

Soon after 'The Cosby Mysteries,' Winter grabbed another job, writing for a new show called 'Xena: Warrior Princess.'

The show that would become a global hit wasn't necessarily what Winter wanted to write about, but the experience of seeing a show come together from the ground up was immeasurable.

'I was there when they were in the very early stages of developing the show and trying to figure out who the characters were. It was fascinating to observe that,' Winter said. 'The challenge for me was that is a very specific world, but that's where work ethic comes in. You're not connected to this material but you're hired to do a job, now figure it out.'

His next job would finally get him into his dream material.

'The Sopranos'

The HBO masterpiece put Winter on the map as he came on as one of the writers for its second season in 2000. He would go on to be an executive producer on the show in years to come.

But that wouldn't have been possible if the show's creator, David Chase, had just gone by Winter's credits.

'He didn't care what your credits were. He could have gone, 'Oh, you were on 'Xena'?' But he didn't care,' Winter said. 'He was interested in me as a person, the stories I had, what made me tick. It's something to this day I do when I hire people. I'm not interested in someone's credits. Let me see who you are and tell me a story of your life.'

'Boardwalk Empire'

Macall B. Polay / HBO

Winter raised his profile even more when he created a hit HBO show, 'Boardwalk Empire,' in 2010. The experience gave him the opportunity to become close with one of his idols, Martin Scorsese, who was attached to the project as an executive producer.

'I'm not exaggerating when I say 'Taxi Driver' was the movie that stopped me in my tracks,' Winter said. 'That was the first time it got me thinking about movies.'

Winter didn't just take on 'Boardwalk Empire.' At the same time he was getting it off the ground, he wrote the script for Scorsese's movie 'The Wolf of Wall Street.'

When thinking about 'Boardwalk Empire,' Winter can't help but think about the one character he wished could have had a better farewell.

'I was really sad that we weren't able to give the Arnold Rothstein character a better sendoff. I felt that character deserved it,' Winter said. 'But it couldn't be helped.'

Because of the time jump that happens in the final season, the real-life Rothstein had already been killed by the time the show started back up.

'We talked about doing flashbacks, we wrestled with that for the last eight episodes, but it always didn't feel organic to the show,' Winter said.

'Vinyl'

Winter is now cocreator and showrunner of the highly anticipated HBO series 'Vinyl,' which looks at the music industry in 1973 through the eyes of a struggling label executive (played by Bobby Cannavale).

But the project, also created by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, has been in development since the late 1990s and has gone through a lot of different versions. When Winter came on in 2007, it was to be made into a movie that spanned 40 years. But after the market crash in 2008 killed its chances of financing, Winter had an idea for how to make it.

'I pitched the idea to Marty and Mick to make it into a TV show,' he said. 'And that meant we had to go back to the drawing board because we would have to place the story in one era, and for us 1973 was the most interesting time period.'

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