The Real History of Martin Scorsese’s Casino

Martin Scorsese dealt the story of Casino straight and only bluffed on the names.

Robert De Niro in Casino
Photo: Universal Pictures

As much as Martin Scorsese may have skewered gangster history by telling Frank Sheeran’s version of things in The Irishman, he got it exactly right when he did it on his own with Casino. This 1995 gangster classic is based on the nonfiction book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, by Nicholas Pileggi, the author of Wise Guys and Goodfellas’ source material. All Scorsese had to do to stay true to the real-life story was change the names.

Sam “Ace” Rothstein, played by Robert De Niro, was based on the renowned gambler Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal; Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro was based on Anthony John “Ant” Spilotro; Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna is based on Geri McGee, Rosenthal’s wife. Phillip Green (Kevin Pollak) is based on Allen Glick, who owned the Argent Corporation. His company borrowed money from the Teamsters fund to buy casinos.

Even the casino in the movie, The Tangiers, is a fake name for the Stardust. The interiors were filmed inside the Riviera while the exteriors were shot in front of the Westgate, which was the Las Vegas Hilton during the events of the film. In Casino, Rothstein only runs one casino. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Lefty Rosenthal ran four at the same time for the Chicago mob: the Stardust, Hacienda, Fremont, and Marina.

Starting in 1950, Rosenthal ran the biggest illegal bookmaking office in the U.S. for the Chicago Outfit.  He had a reputation as a master odds-maker. Born in Chicago on June 12, 1929, Lefty grew up at the track. His father owned horses and Lefty learned everything about racing, with a special focus on gambling. A thorough study, Rosenthal’s wagering expertise went on to include football and baseball. Every pitch, every swing had a price, and Rosenthal manipulated the odds to get gamblers to bet while keeping them exactly where bookies needed them to be so they still came out ahead.

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What he couldn’t fix in the odds he fixed on the field. Rosenthal bought “contracts” from sports bribers. He billed it under the Cicero Home Improvement company. Rosenthal was convicted for bribing a college basketball player to shave points during a game in North Carolina in 1962. It was a year after he appeared before a Senate subcommittee on gambling and organized crime. He pled the Fifth Amendment 38 times. He wouldn’t even cop to being left-handed, in spite of his nickname.

To beat the heat in the Windy City, Rosenthal moved to Miami and got involved with the Chicago Outfit’s “bookie wars.” He was suspected in a few car and building bombings. He headed west to Las Vegas in 1968. Lefty ran a betting parlor with Tony “The Ant” Spilotro as partner and enforcer. Spilotro had made a name for himself back in Chicago after learning the ropes from loanshark “Mad Sam” DeStefano. The law believes Spilotro killed at least 25 people for his bosses. Las Vegas’ murder rate went up 70 percent after he showed up in the city.

Spilotro really did pop a guy’s eye out in a vice, but it wasn’t Tony Dogs, who shot up a restaurant in Casino. According to Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, Spilotro did it in 1962 in what was called the “M&M murders.” While he was an enforcer for DeStefano, Spilotro earned points in a job he took along with Charles “Chuckie” Nicoletti and Felix “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, pros who could probably carry their own movie. They owned a customized “hit mobile,” a black car with switches that controlled headlights and tail lights, and had a hidden compartment fitted for shotguns, rifles, and pistols.

Over a three-day period, they interrogated gangster Billy McCarthy about the unsanctioned murders of Ron and Phil Scalvo, both Outfit associates. Frank Cullotta testified in the Operation Family Secrets Trial that Spilotro wanted McCarthy to give up the name of the man who assisted with the killings. Spilotro beat McCarthy, stabbed him in the nuts with an icepick, and finally put his head in a vice. Tony crushed his head to under five inches wide, and he still wouldn’t talk. Spilotro kept going until one of McCarthy’s eyes popped out and he named Jimmy Miraglia as his partner. McCarthy begged Tony to kill him. Spilotro poured lighter fluid on him, slit his throat and set him on fire. Miraglia and McCarthy were both left in the trunk of an abandoned car. Tony became a made man in 1963. He was 25.

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McCarthy and Miraglia were part of Cullotta’s burglary crew. Cullotta, renamed Frank Marino in the film and played by Frank Vincent, was an enforcer for the Chicago Outfit. In Las Vegas, he led the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” a group of thieves, safecrackers, and killers, which included Wayne Matecki, “Crazy” Larry Neumann, Ernie Davino, Leo Guardino, and an ex-Las Vegas cop named Joe Blasko. Specializing in controlled demolition break-ins, The “Hole in the Wall Gang” committed high end burglaries. Most of the gang lost their independence when they were pinched on July 4, 1981 for robbing Bertha’s Gifts and Furnishings, a Sahara Blvd. jewelry store with A-list customers like Wayne Newton and Liberace. Cullotta and his gang were charged with burglary, attempted grand larceny, and possession of burglary tools. Cullotta, who later gave state’s evidence against Tony the Ant, was hired as a technical advisor and played a hitman in the film.

Rosenthal married Geraldine McGee in 1969. They had a son and a daughter. McGee was born in Los Angeles. She turned down an all-expenses paid offer to go to Woodbury Business School in order to chase modeling jobs. She met Lenny Marmor, played as Lester Diamond by James Woods, in high school. He entered her in swimsuit and dance contests. In 1958, the couple had a daughter, Robin Marmor, after they graduated from high school. Marmor convinced McGee to move with her daughter to Las Vegas while he stayed in LA. She worked as a cocktail waitress and Tropicana chorus showgirl.

McGee encouraged Rosenthal to take a casino job after his betting parlor parlayed federal bookmaking charges. Rosenthal began working for the Stardust in 1974, the same year Spilotro was indicted for stealing from the Teamsters Union’s Central States Pension Fund. He beat the charges after the principal witness died by shotgun blast. Chicago Outfit bosses Antonino “Joe Batters” Accardo and Joseph Aiuppa were in charge of the union funds and collecting the Las Vegas skim. Their capo Joseph “The Clown” Lombardo made sure everyone followed the game plan. Spilotro was sent to Vegas to take charge of the mob’s skim at the casino. And the eye in the sky oversaw everything.

Rosenthal had no official gaming license. The Nevada Gaming Commission barred him from having anything to do with gambling in Las Vegas in 1976. He revolutionized the casino’s gambling operation by adding sports betting and hiring female dealers, but no matter how many times he tried, he couldn’t get a gaming license. He was never legally allowed to work inside a casino.

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Each casino needed a clean frontman while Rosenthal was the boss behind the scenes. He had a public face. Rosenthal hosted a local television show featuring celebrity guests like Robert Conrad, Don Rickles and the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra. He also had a unique private management style. When Rosenthal told a frontman he had no choice but to do something, he didn’t mean it as an administrative detail, but as a tip for his continued good health. As the film depicted, casino security caught a man cheating and Rosenthal ordered them to break his hand with a rubber mallet, making the guy a lefty. He really did count the blueberries in the kitchen’s muffins to make sure they were equally distributed with 10 in each. 

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A stickler for details, Rosenthal found out that Spilotro had been skimming money even his mob bosses didn’t know about. Tony Spilotro was blacklisted by the Nevada Gaming Commission In December 1979, barring him from even going into a casino. Rosenthal hired private detectives to track McGee and found she had been secretly seeing Spilotro. Their divorce was finalized in 1981.  

On Oct. 4, 1982, a bomb went off under Rosenthal’s car outside a Tony Roma’s Restaurant. He may have been funded by the Teamsters but he owed his life to the United Auto Workers. Rosenthal was saved by a metal plate put in by the carmakers to stabilize the driver’s seat. He was thrown from the car and suffered minor burns and a few broken ribs. Authorities never figured out who set the bomb. Rosenthal maintained he didn’t know either.

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Weeks later, on Nov. 6, 1982, McGee was found heavily drugged in the lobby of the Beverly Sunset Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in LA. She died three days later. She was 46. Her sister reportedly said she believed McGee was killed by the same people who tried to kill Rosenthal. Rosenthal took his two children to California and then to Florida where he worked as a nightclub manager and ran an online betting site. He died in 2008 at the age of 79.

Scorsese trails off the real story of how Tony and Michael Spilotro, a part-time actor who owned the Hoagie’s restaurant in Chicago, were killed. Thinking he was going to be promoted and his brother was being inducted into the Outfit as a made man, Tony and Michael went to what they thought was the ceremony, but just like Pesci’s character Tommy DeVito learned in Goodfellas, the books were closed. In June 1986, they went into the basement of a house near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. According to testimony from Nick Calabrese, he led a crew which included James LaPietra, John Fecarotta, John DiFronzo, Sam Carlisi, Louie “The Mooch” Eboli, James Marcello, Louis Marino, Joseph Ferriola, and Ernest “Rocky” Infelice, who waited for the Spilotro brothers arrival. When they got there, the Spilotros were jumped by 15 people who beat them until their muscles hemorrhaged, and Michael’s Adam’s apple was fractured. The pathologist testified that they were beaten with fists, knees and feet, not a baseball bat. There was also no forensic evidence they were buried alive.

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The brothers were taken to a cornfield in Enos, Indiana, stripped to their underwear and dumped in a 5-foot-deep grave. The Outfit put a hit on John Fecarotta, a member of the South Side’s 26th Street crew, for messing up the burial. A farmer noticed the newly turned dirt and called the cops to report what he thought was the remains of a deer killed out of season. Fecarotta was later gunned down in a doorway of a bingo hall at 6050 W. Belmont Ave.

Casino hit theaters on Nov. 22, 1995. Sharon Stone was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. Rosenthal always said Casino was accurate except the parts about funneling casino profits to the mob. He was given one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas to run by the only kind of guys that can get you that kind of money, $62,700,000, and in the end, as Pesci’s Nicky Santoro said in the movie, it turned out to be the last time street guys were ever given anything that fucking valuable.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.