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Twenty Years Later, 'Casino' Movie Compared With What Really Went Down

The movie "Casino" painted a picture of a Las Vegas that is long gone, but it was based on real people who shaped our city in ways we still see.
Casino film stills courtesy Universal Studios

The movie "Casino" painted a picture of a Las Vegas that is long gone, but it was based on real people who shaped our city in ways we still see.

Before roller coasters and ferris wheels, the Las Vegas strip wasn't known for being a family friendly place. 

Although mob control of casinos began to wane by the end of the 1970s, there were a few that remained in the grasp of organized crime. Actors Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone brought that to life when they starred in the movie "Casino" in 1995.  

Set in the late 1970s, the characters were meant to embody Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, Tony Spilotro and Geri McGee. Mob associate Rosenthal operated the Fremont, Stardust and Hacienda Casinos, while childhood friend and made man Spilotro oversaw skimming operations sent back to the Midwest. Rosenthal's wife McGee was a hustler with her own story who was speculated to have had an affair with Spilotro. 

While the movie "Casino" is fiction, it covers the main plots of the Rosenthal/Spilotro story. 

The real characters have since died, but the people who interacted with them, represented them and watched them are still here. 

"We all knew Vegas at that time, it was a comp town," said Deborah Richar, former FBI agent. "If you knew somebody in the casino and they had the gift of the pen, people were comped for shows and dinners you know." 

Richard was charged to gather intel on Rosenthal and Spilotro, and as the first female FBI agent during that time, she said she could largely remain unseen. 

"Back then, they were just finding out about the skimming and what was going on inside the casinos," Richard said. 

And information on who was doing what wasn't easy to come by. 

"There was a distrust with everyone," said Jeff Silver, who was on the Gaming Control Board at the time. "Not just with the Metropolitan Police department, but also members of the gaming agencies and their investigators. There was no sharing of information." 

Around the time law enforcement started to crack down, so did the Gaming Control Board. During what became an infamous hearing between the gaming commission and Rosenthal, Rosenthal was denied a gaming license, a regulatory burden he had been skirting by holding different titles. 

After that monumental day, things started to go downhill for the whole operation. Spilotro, who became known as an enforcer and for his temper, was banned from nearly every casino in Las Vegas. But not everyone knew him as the bad guy. 

"As far as I'm concerned, he was probably one of the best clients I ever had," said Oscar Goodman, former attorney for both Spilotro and Rosenthal. "The portrayal [the movie] made of him was not as accurate as they think it was." 

Still, Goodman, who played himself in the movie, said he wasn't kept in the loop with everything. 

"I really had to watch the movie to find out what was going on in that era because as a lawyer you only know pieces of it," Goodman said. "Had I known, I would have charged double." 

Shortly after the hearing, there was an assassination attempt on Rosenthal by a car bomb. Rosenthal survived to be a creative director for the movie "Casino" almost 20 years later. 

Spilotro, however, was found dead in an Indiana cornfield along with his brother in 1986. 

The Mob Museum is hosting a courtroom conversation at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, with a panel discussion between Oscar Goodman, attorney for Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro; Jeff Silver, former State Gaming Control Board attorney during Spilotro/Rosenthal era; Marc Kaspar, retired FBI agent who pursued Spilotro; Deborah Richard, undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the Spilotro camp; Gwen Castaldi, television reporter during the Spilotro/Rosenthal era. 

From Desert Companion: You lookin' at us?


Oscar Goodman, former attorney for Frank "Left" Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro;  Deborah Richard, first female FBI agent in Las Vegas;  Jeff Silver, State Gaming Control Board during Rosenthal/Tony Spilotro era 


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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.