Why Harvey Keitel’s Lansky Looks for Goodness in Bad Men

Director Eytan Rockway is being good to his father in his new gangster biopic, Lansky.

Harvey Keitel as Meyer Lansky in Lansky
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

The biographical crime feature Lansky attempts to pull off a major heist: the historical legacy of the mob mastermind Meyer Lansky. One of the most notorious and infamous of the Jewish gangsters who rose during prohibition, Lansky was a businessman with a head for numbers. He was called “the Mob’s accountant,” and the film wants to set the record straight. Played by Harvey Keitel, we can count on an emotionally accurate portrayal of the man who helped set up the national crime syndicate.

John Magaro, who will be playing young Silvio Dante in the upcoming The Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, plays young Meyer Lansky. Writer-director Eytan Rockaway’s crime drama is loosely based on the real-life story his father, Robert A. Rockaway, and the interviews he conducted before Lanksy died. His book was called But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters, and it included noteworthy figures like Waxey Gordon, Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer, Jack “Greasy Thumb” Guzlik and the Purple Gang out of Detroit.

Rockaway spoke with Den of Geek about those gangs and why Meyer Lansky’s life was the story which most needed to be told. He also explains why Lansky needed Harvey Keitel to tell it.

I appreciate the history behind Lansky, how much of your father’s encounter do you remember?

Ad – content continues below

Eytan Rockaway: Well, I wasn’t born back then, but I did take his research and his transcripts and I interviewed my father at their meeting. The movie is mostly historically accurate, except for that part where my father was a down-on-his-luck reporter. And I did rely on his research and his transcripts, and he wrote a book about gangsters. Meyer Lansky was one of the dozens of big gangsters that he interviewed. I relied a lot actually on his feelings for Meyer Lanky just before he died when he was in his 80s.

The book was But He Was Good to His Mother. Which of the other Jewish mobsters in it  do you think would be most cinematic?

I think Bugsy Siegel, but they covered him in that great movie. I think that the Purple Gang are an interesting group. I think that Murder, Inc. in general is a very, very interesting group because most of the people who started at the Bugs and Meyer gang then transferred to Murder, Inc., and then they brought the Italians.

But I think the people in Murder, Inc. are definitely some of the toughest and some of the most notorious killers. I mean, the FBI said they killed between 500 to 1,000 people. They were vicious killers. They’re not great guys, but I think it would be an interesting story. But there are so many. Dutch Schultz and Lepke Buchalter and all of them had interesting lives. But Meyer Lansky, by far, I think, surpassed not only them, but most gangsters in American history, just because of what he managed to achieve and accomplish.

I’ve read books on Lasky and I was actually surprised at the arc of Lansky’s son, Buddy.

Well, he loved his son Buddy. Lansky put a lot of love and effort in him and he was very close to him. I tried emphasizing that relationship specifically because I thought that it showed, even when he was in his ruthless years as a criminal and doing all these bad things, he still had a soft spot, especially for family and it still was the most important thing to him. And I think, the relationship with his son that had all these issues, health issues, that I emphasized that.

Ad – content continues below

One of the things your father’s book points out is that the Jewish mobsters were only one generation of the children of immigrants. Why didn’t it continue in generations, the way the Italian mobs did?

It’s a cultural thing. I think that a lot of these Jewish gangsters, because they came to America and they were second-class citizens and immigrants and had a tougher time, most of them were ashamed of that life. Because culturally, they just came from a different place and are being persecuted around the world. It’s a good question.

I think many historians and Jewish historians could answer that better. But in general, what is true is that there was always one generation when you had a gangster and he wanted his children to not to be part of that world and become a doctor or become a lawyer, but they never wanted their children to continue in their footsteps.

What was most fascinating about Lansky the man?

I think that he had two different sides of him. Most gangsters, there’s good, there’s bad. Lansky played on that thin gray line. He did a lot of bad things. He did a lot of good things. One thing was that he wasn’t notorious and people think that he was an accountant. He wasn’t. He started one of the most ruthless gangs in Manhattan back in the day with Ben Siegel. He was a gangster and he was a criminal, but he also was an academic.

He was great with mathematics, almost to the genius level. He was a great businessman. He structured the underworld with Lucky Luciano. He structured it like a Fortune 500 company. If he wasn’t born in the slums of New York, he would probably run a Fortune 500 company. At one time, he gloated they were bigger than U.S. Steel because he really, with the National Crime Syndicate, created one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world at that time, aside from pioneering gambling. He’s one of the founders of gambling in general, not only in America.

Ad – content continues below

Was your father ever contacted by the FBI?

No, but my father was the first civilian to get access to the secret FBI files. He was a very well-known professor and he covered gangsters and the underworld all his life. He was one of the first ones. He never was contacted by the FBI in that capacity, but he did work a lot with the FBI. The FBI was searching for Lansky until he died. They were looking for his money. They were trying to catch him. But that storyline was the fictionalized element, the reporter dealing with the FBI.

The film captures the Bund attack very accurately from what I read. What did you do to maintain the accuracy?

I really did what he actually did. I mean, he was a patriot. He hated Nazis. And in general, not only was he Jewish, but he was a very, very proud American and he did everything that he could, not only to squash the Nazi presence in America but also help in the war efforts. I touched on it. It was much more involved and there were dealings with the American government back then, because back then in World War II, the Germans were sending spies and the gangs of New York controlled the docks.

And he was still never given citizenship in Israel?

I suspect, and I allude to that in the movie, that because of his cooperation with the American government, maybe that’s why they couldn’t catch him or put him in jail. In Israel, they didn’t allow him to get in. He was the only Jew not to be allowed to enter Israel and that was a political move. And I guess that it hurt him very much. It was a very embarrassing moment in his life. I was trying to be as objective as I could in this movie. I didn’t want to portray him in necessarily a bad way or good way. I presented the moral conflicts that he had and then I want the audience to decide they’d like him, hate him, or both.

Ad – content continues below

How did you maintain period accuracy? The clothes, the cars, in general?

I had an amazing production designer, April Lasky, and set decorator Laurel Belle, and they did an amazing job.

We shot in Alabama for a reason. We needed Miami in the 1980s and we needed New York in the 1930s and Alabama afforded us both, because it borders Florida beaches. We shot in Gulf Shores, which looks like Miami 30 or 40 years ago. And then we shot in Mobile and other places there that have buildings from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s that are untouched. It was a perfect location to shoot it, but it was excruciating.

We had to shoot this entire movie in 20 days and the scope of the movie, it’s like this epic movie. and we had to condense it. Twenty days shooting three different time periods with action sequences, I don’t recommend.

How did Harvey Keitel get involved in the project?

There was an actor, Danny Abeckaser, who plays the young FBI agent. He put me in contact with him. Harvey read the screenplay and liked it, but from the moment that he read the screenplay, three years passed. And we lived in New York in the same area a few blocks away. Once in a while, I used to see him in the street and I’m like, “Harvey, it’s the director of Lansky.” And after a year, he was like, “Oh, here we go again. That guy.” And eventually he’s like, “Who is this crazy director?”

Ad – content continues below

And then eventually, at the end of the shoot, he gave me a book, because three years passed from the moment he signed on. “Hey, Lansky! We’re doing Lansky!” And he gave me a book about [Elia] Kazan. He wrote inside, “To my dear friend, Eytan. The only stalker I was ever happy that caught up to me.” Because he thought it was the stalker director.

Working with him was probably a privilege and one of the greatest experiences in my life. He’s such a great actor and he’s such a great human being. It was just phenomenal. I learned so much from him.

Does he come on to the set with his character fully formed or does he like being directed?

He very much enjoys it. He’s respectful. He’s the type of guy, he walked on set, before we started the shoot, he shook every single person’s hand from the caterer to the grips, every single person before we shot the first scene.

And he’s very, very, very open. The one thing that he won’t allow you to do is, because he’s a method actor, he said, “Don’t ever tell me what to feel. Give me an action.” Every actor likes to work differently, but he’s such a great method actor and has been head of the Actors Studio for two decades. You learn a lot working with somebody like him, but he’s such a good human being and we became good friends. I see him once a week now, because we had such a good time.

In my review, I say, “In the hierarchy of gangster movies, Keitel is Lansky.” Not just from the movies. He grew up in this, he joined the marines at 16. Does it correspond to your father working with Meyer?

Ad – content continues below

When Harvey takes on a character, he makes it his own and precedes it. But the way that I wrote the screenplay was along the lines of the way my father perceived Lansky. But again, my father, I don’t think was as objective as I am because he met Lansky when he was 82 years old, this aging gangster, and Lansky reminded him of my grandfather. So, he wasn’t completely objective. But I think that the way that my father meant, and what he perceived from him when he was older, is pretty accurate.

Now the young Lansky, that’s a whole different story. He was a different human being when he was in his 20s, 30s, and 40s. But I think everyone, when they get older, they start acting differently, looking at life differently. And I think that I was true to the way my father perceived him at an old age.

I remember my father told me a funny story. When Meyer Lansky set up a meeting with him, he was at my grandmother’s house and she got a call and he’s sitting, eating breakfast. My grandmother is older and she gets a call and she picks up the phone and she goes, “Hi, who is it?” And he said, “I’d like to speak with Robert Rockaway.” And she asked him, “Who is this?” And he says, “Meyer Lansky.” And she got scared, so she takes the phone and puts her hand on it and she goes to my father, “It’s Meyer Lansky.”

He was like, “Why are you whispering?” Back then, Meyer Lansky was such a scary individual for most people and she was terrified. And for my father, he was an 82-year-old, 81-year-old guy that he was wanting to interview.

What movies were you watching? Because I saw a nod to Miller’s Crossing and a few other movies.

I’m amazed that you got that. Miller’s Crossing was definitely one of the greatest inspirations for this movie, including that forest scene. The problem was, I had to shoot it in 20 days. Me and the DP had this whole visual feast of things that we wanted to do. But when you go on set, you have 15 or 20 setups, the assistant director says to you, “Listen, you have two or three.” So every morning, you wake up to throw your shot list in the garbage and you improvise. And luckily, I come from the independent world and when you have your back to the wall, we did it.

Ad – content continues below

But I did try Miller’s Crossing, some other classics, but I did try also giving it a modern feel to it. So everything in the 1980s, I tried shooting classically to represent his slow-paced life and everything in the 1930s and forties, I tried as much as I could to give it kind of like this modern feel, handheld cameras when I could and stuff. And then the same thing with the coloring and also the music. If you notice, the  electronic synthesizer score mixed with classical to give it that modern 1980s feel throughout.

Where do you see the gangster genre going?

I can tell you I love the genre. People like gangster movies, these mythical characters, these dangerous, adventurous lives. And they did a lot of good and bad. They had their own rules of conduct, and I think that’s what most people like about them.

I think there’s a great market and I really hope they put some money behind it and do some other big movies with historical figures that have depth in it. And it’s not about just killing people and shooting people, but there is depth. That’s what I tried doing with this movie. Show a man when he was young and a man when he was older. The aging Meyer Lansky is about a man dealing with his morality and the perception of his life, and the reporter learning what’s important.

Your last film, The Abandoned, was horror. Do you think we love gangster and horror movies because it gives us an excuse to root for the monsters, even in the old movies where we knew they had to die?

I think that’s a pretty good, accurate statement, to be honest. I think that it throws us into a world that we’re not used to. It’s almost like a rollercoaster. You’re on something scary and then it lands safe. And I think, especially horror these days, a lot of it is so elevated and there are so many things that you can get from it. Because life is not about black and white, good and bad. There’s a thin gray line between the two and I think gangster movies and horror movies can help kind of emphasize that.

Ad – content continues below

A lot of people painted The Irishman as the swan song for gangster movies. Scorsese spoke about toxic masculinity and atonement. Do you think that that changes how gangsters will be portrayed moving forward?

I don’t think so. I think every filmmaker has his own take on gangster movies, his own messages. And also, it comes down to the person that you’re making the movie about. For me, Meyer Lansky wasn’t about that thing. It was completely different.

I think Scorsese has his storyline and he’s the greatest, I think, when it comes to the crime genre, but he has his story and he has his own evolution as an artist. I don’t know if I’ll do another gangster movie, but I’m sure that other filmmakers that come on board will bring a new take into it and their own different perceptions and stories and thoughts on it.

You have two completely different types of violence in this film, mob violence and domestic violence. Can you tell me about the difference in preparing to capture those?

Well, mob violence, at least in this movie, was mostly justified. So it was kind of fun. Domestic violence is a hard scene, it wasn’t fun and it’s not called for in any shape or form. Luckily, AnnaSophia Robb was just such an amazing actress, and John as well. They were just both amazing. And I just gave them the freedom to explore it in their own way.

When you shoot something like that, just like shooting other intimate scenes, you just let the actors, and especially if they’re great actors, do their thing and you give them the space. But for me, it was definitely harder.

Ad – content continues below

Shooting the Nazi Bund scene, for instance. I am an Israeli Jew and suddenly I’m in the middle of Alabama with a hundred extras and this swastika sign. I remember walking into the room and then seeing that sign, it first gave me a kind of like that feeling. But when we started shooting, I made it my own. Suddenly it diminished. I remember a lot of these extras were just people that we picked up. When they had to do Heil Hitler and all of that, they were very ashamed. And I’m like the Israeli Jewish director on the stage: “You have to say Heil Hitler better.”

Those scenes were fun because it had a purpose for me and it was justified. Doing the domestic violence scene in the relationship with his wife, that was much harder, but that’s where the great acting comes in and you let the great actors do their thing.

How did you consciously approach the film to make it different from other gangster movies?

To be honest with you, I tried keeping it a bit lighthearted. The murder scene of Maranzano, I just wanted to show how Ben Siegel enjoyed killing people, which he did. When I was directing David Cade, I was telling him, “Look in his eye, I want it to show that he’s enjoying not only killing, but he also was enjoying killing a traitor.” But I tried, when I could, kind of leaving it lighthearted at one point.

I really enjoyed Magaro and Cade’s  scenes together. They seemed to have a lot of fun. Was it a sociable set?

It was a sociable set, at least for them. When they weren’t shooting, they got to hang out and have fun. I was working 17, 18-hour days just getting the days done. The set, especially in the 1930s and ’40s, all of those scenes, it was a fun set. It was definitely much different when we were shooting in Miami with Sam and Harvey. It was much more serious. But when you have a younger cast and they’re having fun and everybody’s dressing up as gangsters and stuff and John and David had this connection because they were hanging out in the hotel so much and just drinking and having fun while I was working, I think that came on screen and you could see that they had a really great connection and chemistry in general.

Ad – content continues below

Magaro is going to be playing Silvio Dante in The Sopranos prequel movie.

He’s a great actor. He is phenomenal. I mean, you see him and he looks one way and then he goes on set and you see that click. And you’re like, “Who the hell is that?”

A lot of the film runs like a documentary. Obviously, some of that is because of the budget, but did you have an eye towards true crime shows?

Yeah, when we finished shooting the movie, I had to cut 15 to 20 pages of the screenplay just because we didn’t have time to shoot, but they had so much information. I know that people are going to look at this movie and say, “You can make five movies about Meyer Lansky. It can be a miniseries.” There’s so much to cover. So, what I tried doing is finding the key moments in his life that I thought were important to at least understand and get a picture of who that man was.

Because I had to cut out so many scenes, we had to be creative in the editing room and I added a bunch of voiceovers to fill in the blanks. I wanted people to get a clear picture of how things happened. What was the history? What were the key moments? Scenes that I couldn’t shoot, I did with voiceover. So yeah, I tried playing with both. I think we achieved it and I think people will get a good picture of not only the organization, not only his rise to power, but also who he was at an old age and a young age and everything around it.

At one point in the movie, Lansky says, “I’m an angel with a dirty face.” And that’s almost the title of one of my favorite movies. What are some of your favorite gangster movies?

Ad – content continues below

Well, I mean, Miller’s Crossing. The Godfather. There are just so many, but I think the one that really stayed with me the most was, for some reason, Miller’s Crossing. I don’t know. There was something about that movie that just stuck with me. And by the way, that line, “Angel with a dirty face,” that was Harvey’s idea. And he said, when he was in New York, gangsters used to say that to him, when he met a few of them.

And he said, “Meyer Lansky probably would have watched that movie and probably would have said that because I had other gangsters that I met in New York back in the day that said that line to me, because back then it was a famous movie.” So that’s Mr. Keitel and his improvisation at its best.

Lansky hits select theaters and will be available on demand on June 25.