When I first heard Robert DeNiro had agreed to play a character based on Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal in the Martin Scorsese movie "Casino," I couldn't stop grinning.
It was just about perfect. I imagined Rosenthal, a man possessed of a positively gigantic ego, almost allowing himself to be impressed. DeNiro, Brando, Olivier, with the ghost of Cary Grant mixed in for good measure: That would have been ideal by Rosenthal's measure of himself and his place in gambling's Pantheon.
When I first learned from street sources Tuesday that Rosenthal had died of natural causes Monday in Florida at age 79, I didn't smile but only shrugged. A few months ago he'd promised me an interview, but I wouldn't agree to a small condition -- that he not be asked questions about his days as a Stardust casino executive, friend of Tony Spilotro, car-bombing survivor and Black Book member.
In other words, almost all the stuff that made his crazy life worth writing about was off-limits. Details of his death were sketchy, but a variety of sources said Rosenthal died of an apparent heart attack and was found at home by his daughter, Stephanie. Independent sources confirmed Rosenthal had placed his last wager and set his final line.
Here's a sample of reactions from locals who knew Rosenthal at the height of his power.
"It's been said you should never speak ill of the dead," one former federal organized crime prosecutor said. "There are exceptions to the rule. Frank Rosenthal is one of those exceptions. He was an awful human being."
Upon hearing the rumors of Rosenthal's demise, a longtime Spilotro friend said, "I hope it's true."
To settle such disputes, I like to turn to the irrepressible gambler Lem Banker, who knew Rosenthal well and respected his handicapping knowledge -- as well as his game-fixing skill.
"He was an egomaniac," Banker said. "But he was a smart sonofabitch."
Right on both accounts. Rosenthal arrived in Las Vegas from Chicago via Florida in the early 1970s and handicapped out of the Rose Bowl sports book, where the action was surpassed only by the Runyonesque characters. Marty Kane and Joey Boston worked for Rosenthal and became two of the most successful sports bettors.
How could they fail? They were allowed to fill out their betting slips after the games were concluded. Marty and Joey preceded Rosenthal in Black Book inclusion and death.
Banker respects Rosenthal's gambling acumen, but admits the guy would cheat a blind pencil salesman if given the chance. Activities such as past-posting illegal bookmakers and skimming casino profits were in Rosenthal's blood.
What's less appreciated is Rosenthal's tenacity. Call it a survival instinct or an expression of his egotism, but he fought like a cornered wildcat to keep a foothold in Las Vegas. He used attorney Oscar Goodman to sue everyone from Metro to state gaming authorities.
"He was a put-his-face-in-your-face type of guy," Mayor Goodman said. "He had no quit in him, and as a result didn't make any friends in law enforcement."
He won temporary reprieves, including a brief reversal of his 1988 Black Book inclusion, but in a changing Las Vegas, Rosenthal couldn't fade the heat.
Even his use of a weekly TV adulation fest called "The Frank Rosenthal Show" did little to keep him in the legal action. The man who helped write the "Outlaw Line" would remain an outlaw.
I think he stayed angry the rest of his life as he whiled away the years in consummate comfort in Boca Raton and Miami Beach, where he took up residence in a condominium in the Fontainebleau's Tresor Tower. (A Fontainebleau employee on Tuesday confirmed Roenthal's death.) He kept busy with his Web site, his handicapping, and a radio show.
Scorsese's "Casino" gave Rosenthal more than the best of it to the dismay of those who knew the truth about the Stardust's Frank-and-Tony show.
"The portrayal of him by Robert DeNiro was, as far as depicting his exterior, impeccable," Goodman said. "But as far as what made him tick, only Rosenthal knew that."
After "Casino," you'd think Lefty's ego would have finally been sated. Hardly.
Even 10 years after his inclusion on the "List of Excluded Persons," Rosenthal audaciously told me, "You couldn't put out a newspaper without Frank Rosenthal."
What he lacked in stature in the new Las Vegas, Rosenthal more than made up for in unabashed self-confidence.
He would ask, "Who 'invented' the modern sports book?"
Frank Rosenthal, of course.
Who brought vision and innovation to the casino industry?
Mr. Frank Rosenthal!
All true. But who fixed ballgames and cheated bookmakers from coast to coast? The right-handed guy nicknamed Lefty.
Who could justify a life underwritten by the Chicago Outfit and argue with a straight face that he wasn't associated with gangsters?
Only Frank Rosenthal.
You remember him.
He was in all the papers.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at email@example.com or call (702) 383-0295.