It just may be the quintessential Las Vegas movie. Sure, it lacks the record-breaking box office receipts of “The Hangover,” the effortless cool of both incarnations of “Ocean’s Eleven” and the titular song from “Viva Las Vegas,” which has become the city’s unofficial anthem.
But those movies are set in Las Vegas.
“Casino,” which turns 25 on Sunday, is ABOUT Las Vegas — from the rise of Mafia-built casinos and their seemingly limitless opportunities for skimming profits to the corporations that imploded those landmarks and replaced them with megaresorts that, in the language of the movie, made the Strip look like Disneyland.
The entirety of the roughly three-hour movie — the barely fictionalized story of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, his longtime friend Anthony Spilotro and the woman, Geri McGee, who came between them — was filmed in and around Las Vegas over the course of a staggering 21 weeks.
While Rosenthal secretly ran the Stardust, Hacienda, Marina and Fremont for the Chicago Outfit, the movie’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein, portrayed by Robert De Niro, was only in charge of the fictional Tangiers. Its exterior was portrayed by the Landmark, while the rest was brought to life by the Riviera during six weeks of grueling late-night shoots, starting around 11 p.m., while the casino floor was at its emptiest.
It’s now regarded as a modern classic, but “Casino” got off to a rocky start.
Upon its release on Nov. 22, 1995, the film was derided in many circles as a “Goodfellas” retread, considering both movies saw director Martin Scorsese, writer Nicholas Pileggi and actors De Niro and Joe Pesci team up to tell the story of real-life organized crime figures.
“Casino” opened in fifth place at the box office that weekend, behind newcomer “Toy Story,” holdovers “GoldenEye” and “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” and even behind another newcomer, the misbegotten Wesley Snipes-Woody Harrelson action spectacle known as “Money Train.”
Despite its pedigree, “Casino” was nominated for just one Oscar: best supporting actress for Sharon Stone. (She lost out to Susan Sarandon for “Dead Man Walking.”)
It wasn’t even the biggest Las Vegas-based attraction at that year’s ceremony. Nicolas Cage took home the Oscar for best actor in “Leaving Las Vegas,” one of its four nominations.
“Casino” at least was better received than 1995’s other major Las Vegas movie: “Showgirls.”
One of the most thoughtful critics of “Casino” was Rosenthal himself, who died in 2008.
“The screen version of ‘Casino’ is a mixed bag,” he wrote on his still functioning website, frankleftyrosenthal.com. “I couldn’t break down the degree of accuracy (non-fiction) versus dramatic license. The characters were well played, many of the scenes and events are relatively on target.”
Rosenthal had nothing but praise for De Niro and Pileggi, the latter of whom he wrote understood the characters better than Scorsese.
“While some of the timelines are askew, and events portrayed in the film were written for ‘The Big Screen,’ ” he wrote, “the film ‘Casino’ gives it’s (sic) audience a fact based snapshot of events and people behind the scenes from the ‘Good Old Days’ in Las Vegas.”
I couldn’t break down the degree of accuracy (non-fiction) versus dramatic license. The characters were well played, many of the scenes and events are relatively on target.Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal
Oscar Goodman had trouble portraying himself
“It was one of the highlights of my life,” Oscar Goodman says of his time on set, portraying himself, in “Casino.” Considering the life the former mayor has lived, that’s high praise, indeed.
During his years as an attorney, Goodman counted Frank Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro among his regular clients. He represented Geri Rosenthal, on occasion, as well. When screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi was researching what would become both the movie and the book, “Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas,” he met up with Goodman at a speaking engagement in California and rode with him back to Las Vegas.
Goodman introduced the writer to Rosenthal, and the interviews that followed — during which the casino executive opened up about his personal life in ways he never did to Goodman — would form the backbone of “Casino” and Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Sam “Ace” Rothstein.
“The thing I was most surprised about — and a lot of people doubt me when I tell them this honest-to-God truth — I had no idea — assuming it’s true, because I don’t have any personal knowledge — that there was any relationship between Tony Spilotro and Geri Rosenthal, particularly an amorous one,” says Goodman, 81. “I would have bet a billion dollars that that was not taking place.”
He never saw a hint of that, Goodman insists, not even when the Rosenthals were in his office discussing the dissolution of their marriage.
“When you represent somebody and they’re in trouble all the time — and these two fellas were in trouble all the time — you spend a tremendous amount of time with them, talking about everything,” Goodman says.
Those relationships led to his inclusion in the film.
“There came a time when they were casting the movie, and Marty Scorsese said to Rosenthal and Pileggi, ‘Well, who should play the lawyer?’ And Rosenthal said, ‘How about my lawyer?’ ”
Goodman accepted, even though he admits to being unable to memorize a thing.
Asked his favorite recollection of his time in front of the camera, Goodman says it was when they finally wrapped his big scene, representing Rothstein in front of the state Gaming Commission.
“We finally resorted to cue cards. They didn’t even work,” he says. “(Scorsese) finally said, after three days of shooting the same scene over and over and over and over again, he said, ‘Just do it like you would in real life.’ ”
Another favorite memory: Once he had gotten to know the movie’s principals, Carolyn Goodman suggested he invite some of them for dinner and a home-cooked meal. Goodman still delights in the fact that Steve Wynn, his neighbor at the time, called and asked to join the party and was rebuffed.
“ ‘You’re not coming. It’s my house. It’s my party. You’re not coming.’ I really meant it,” Goodman says, laughing. “It was going to be a good time for me.”
That joy lasted until Elaine Wynn called Carolyn, Goodman says, and declared of her then-husband, “Let him come to dinner. He’s driving me nuts!”
Scorsese, De Niro and Pileggi attended, as did Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. Carolyn made brisket, which most of their guests thought was pot roast. The evening ended — because this was 1994 — with Carolyn Goodman, Elaine Wynn and Sharon Stone, who would earn an Oscar nomination for her role as Ginger Rothstein, washing dishes.
When it comes to his “Casino” performance, Goodman remains in good spirits.
“The night the movie came out, my mother called up and said, ‘Oscar, I saw your movie, and it’s a good thing you’re a lawyer.’ ”
The night the movie came out, my mother called up and said, ‘Oscar, I saw your movie, and it’s a good thing you’re a lawyer.’Oscar Goodman
Piero’s owner earned publicity, $180,000 from movie shoot
Freddie Glusman is a tough man to impress. He’s known everybody who was anybody since he arrived in Las Vegas in 1957. Glusman was married to Diahann Carroll, taught Don Rickles how to water ski on Lake Mead and was great friends with two Jerrys — Lewis and Tarkanian — who defined different eras of Las Vegas.
So when there was interest in using his restaurant, Piero’s, in a movie — even one directed by Martin Scorsese — he wasn’t exactly star-struck.
“Originally, it started out when it was the busiest month,” Glusman, 83, says of the period when he was asked to close for filming. “But the way Scorsese shoots movies, he shoots ’em 10 different times every scene, so it extended it to the worst time of year. I was happy to have it.”
“It” included a rental fee of $30,000 a day for six days, plus the cost of the food that was prepared.
In “Casino,” Piero’s stood in for The Leaning Tower, the Italian joint owned by Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro, which was itself a version of Tower of Pizza, one of Tony Spilotro’s favorites. Piero’s is where Santoro schmoozed with Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows and where he forcibly removed Sharon Stone’s Ginger Rothstein down the back stairs, through the kitchen and into the parking lot.
Glusman had a small role, mostly as atmosphere, as The Leaning Tower’s maître d’.
“You had to put it on double slow motion,” he says, if you wanted to see him. “That was it. Bang. No speaking part. I was just there in a tuxedo for six days.”
Asked about his favorite memories of that time, Glusman doesn’t miss a beat: “I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Sharon Stone.”
Having owned a prominent Italian restaurant in Las Vegas since 1982, it’s no surprise that Glusman had encounters with both men portrayed in “Casino.”
On a particularly busy evening, Spilotro called and asked for a table.
“I didn’t take his reservation,” Glusman recalls. “Said, ‘Sorry. We’re sold out tonight.’ ”
The mobster had frequented one of Glusman’s other establishments, The Oz restaurant and disco next to Circus Circus, sometimes to the detriment of other patrons.
“Tony Spilotro ran customers out, he didn’t bring customers in,” Glusman says, in his familiar rasp that sounds as though he gargles with thumbtacks. “So why would I want him in there?”
As for Frank Rosenthal, who inspired Robert De Niro’s Sam Rothstein, Glusman declares, “I went to a grand jury because of him.”
The men knew each other through the Stardust, one of the casinos Rosenthal oversaw, in which Glusman ran the dress shop. They lived about five doors apart at the Las Vegas Country Club, and Rosenthal’s kids, Steven and Stephanie, played with Charlie Skinner, Glusman’s stepson.
One day, Rosenthal was getting a haircut at Caesars when he asked about hair transplants.
“The barber told him, ‘Freddie just had a hair transplant. Why don’t you call him? He knows more about it than anyone,’ ” Glusman says.
As a result of that phone call, Glusman received a grand jury summons at 8 one morning and could only testify that the men had discussed their hair.
Time hasn’t dulled Piero’s connection to the movie. To this day, customers still ask to sit in the booth where, near the end of the film, the Rothsteins have a vicious blowout.
“Pesci was in the other night,” Glusman says. The actor tends to visit when he’s in town and recently dined with Raiders owner Mark Davis and The Summit Club executive Tony Renaud. Sharon Stone came in about a year ago.
“To do it again? I’d do it 10 times again,” Glusman says of the “Casino” experience. “I had so much fun, I might not even charge them.”
But the way Scorsese shoots movies, he shoots ’em 10 different times every scene, so it extended it to the worst time of year. I was happy to have it.Freddie Glusman
The Casino House
Couple maintain home, used as De Niro’s, just as it was in the film
Richard and Sharon Weisbart’s home in the historic Paradise Palms neighborhood looks much the same as it did in 1994 — once the “Casino” production designers got hold of it and made it resemble the best thing mobbed-up money could have bought two decades before.
The couple, who had lived there since 1976, relocated to a condo for five months — their house was emptied, except for a few choice pieces, with just two or three days’ notice — to make room for its new inhabitants: Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and his wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone).
The walls that separated the living room, dining room and den were taken down. The wooden floor in that den was pulled out. The chandelier and the refrigerator were changed.
“They pretty much knocked everything out, made it all one giant room, and expanded the view of the golf course from two, like, regular glass doors to, like, 28 feet of glass all across the back central part of the house,” says Richard, 78, a retired lawyer.
The once tasteful home was, in some areas, given a garish makeover. Especially on its walls.
“Our favorite colors were Wedgwood blue and silver, and so the house was quite formal,” says Sharon, 76, a former teacher. “They put in animal print and different things. But when we put our stuff back, it looked all right, except for the wallpaper that was falling down.”
Virtually all of those changes have been maintained — even the loud wallpaper. The production team didn’t bother to line it because it was intended to stay on the walls for five months, not 25 years, so the Weisbarts have treated it multiple times over the decades to keep it in place and looking as nice as it ever did.
They even bought a few pieces — the headboard and bedspread, some etched glass — from the production once it wrapped to complement the home’s lived-in movie set vibe.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” Richard says of the “Casino” shoot. “This whole neighborhood became like the backlot of a studio.”
The couple portrayed nosey neighbors in the scene where police respond to Ginger’s disturbance at the house. Sharon was styled with curlers in her hair. She says Martin Scorsese, a stickler for verisimilitude, asked if she regularly slept that way. When she replied she didn’t think she even owned curlers, Sharon says, the director took them out of her hair and threw them into the middle of the street.
That the Weisbarts’ house was used by a thinly veiled version of Frank Rosenthal seems almost like destiny. They knew the Rosenthals, and their families would carpool to get the children to and from school. Their kids, David and Wendy, were in Rosenthal’s Cadillac Eldorado in 1982, two days before it was bombed in front of Tony Roma’s. Their home was previously owned by Irving “Ash” Resnick, another casino executive who was targeted by a car bomb.
It’s become something of a tourist attraction over the years. The house was a regular stop on the mob tour run by the late Frank Cullotta, who served as a technical adviser on “Casino” and inspired the character of Frank Marino, played by Frank Vincent. The Weisbarts regularly see strangers stopping in front of the home for photos. That interest extends to the famous, as well.
“Heidi Klum was our first celebrity,” Sharon says, namechecking a variety of stars who’ve visited or used the house for commercial projects. Adam Lambert filmed his “Another Lonely Night” music video there. Iggy Azalea and T.I. did the same for their “Change Your Life” collaboration. Nicolas Cage showed up one day looking to buy the house, which wasn’t for sale and, Richard says, never will be.
“I guess we could’ve demanded that they return it to the old way,” he says of the production team, something that was within their rights according to the contract. “But we were very happy with what they did and still are.”
They put in animal print and different things. But when we put our stuff back, it looked all right, except for the wallpaper that was falling down.Sharon Weisbart
Henderson man spent eight hours with his head in a vise for iconic scene
Carl Ciarfalio was hired for a small role in “Casino” thanks to his proficiency with weapons, tough-guy roles and a certain four-letter word. “ ‘Mr. Scorsese would like to know how many ways you can tell somebody to (expletive) off,’ ” Ciarfalio recalls of his direction during the filmed audition.
The veteran stuntman and actor figures he was able to rattle off between 45 seconds and a minute’s worth, and the director later liked what he saw and heard on the recording.
“One of the stuntmen who was asked to go on the audition refused because he wasn’t comfortable with the words,” Ciarfalio says. “I can respect it, but for me as an actor, it just seemed to work for me. And the more I was around Scorsese and (Joe) Pesci, the more the F-bombs flew. It was F-bomb University on the set.”
I can respect it, but for me as an actor, it just seemed to work for me. And the more I was around Scorsese and (Joe) Pesci, the more the F-bombs flew. It was F-bomb University on the set.Carl Ciarfalio
Ciarfalio, 67, portrayed Tony Dogs, a newcomer who tried to muscle his way into Las Vegas by shooting up a bar owned by Chicago Outfit boss Remo Gaggi (Pasquale Cajano). After he had been tortured for a couple of days to give up a name, a battered and bruised Dogs is led to a table, where his head is placed in a vise so Pesci’s Nicky Santoro can finally squeeze the information out of him.
Ciarfalio spent seven or eight hours on that table, and that was after sitting through three hours of makeup.
“We started in the evening, and we worked all the way through the night until morning,” he says. “Once I got on the table, I stayed on the table. There was no getting up to eat, getting up to pee, getting up to do anything besides laying there and getting killed.”
The scene sparked outrage at the time for its over-the-top violence — and that was after it was edited to remove the shot of Dogs’ eye popping out of the socket, which would have earned “Casino” an NC-17 rating.
Ciarfalio wore a prosthetic piece on the left side of his face, connected to two hoses. One was full of air that would push a fake eyeball out, the other was filled with blood. In case that setup didn’t work, a mold of his head was made to stand in for the effect. It was never needed.
“But they gave it to me, and I’ve been carrying that sucker around for a quarter of a century,” Ciarfalio says. “I had it out for a little while, and my dog went nuts. Couldn’t quite figure it out. (Now) it stays in a box with a towel over it.”
Ciarfalio relocated to Henderson three years ago and has transitioned into a career as a stunt coordinator, second-unit director and occasional producer.
For “Against All Odds,” he fell 65 feet flat into a body of water doubling for a corpse. James Bond pulled him to his death in an electric eel tank in “License to Kill.”
“On ‘Glory,’ I probably got killed a dozen times,” Ciarfalio says. “On ‘Commando,’ maybe 20 times.”
His two days of filming as Tony Dogs, though, remain special.
“Things like ‘Casino,’ ” he says, “you don’t get to do that very often.”
Contact Christopher Lawrence at email@example.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.
See for yourself
“Casino” isn’t available on any of the major subscription-based streaming services, at least not as of this writing. If you want to watch it, you will need either to rent or buy a digital or physical copy like the 4K UltraHD version Universal released last fall.
A temporary exhibit featuring artifacts and memorabilia celebrating the film’s 25th anniversary is on display at The Mob Museum, 300 Stewart Ave. On Thursday, Oscar Goodman and writer Nicholas Pileggi participated in a sold-out event there looking back at the film.
For more about the era of organized crime in Las Vegas documented in the movie, check out “Mobbed Up: The Fight for Las Vegas,” an 11-part true-crime podcast series produced by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in partnership with The Mob Museum.