Gangster lore remains untouchable in Hollywood. The network that brought you zombies, meth makers and Mad Men is now taking on mobsters.
Narrated by Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta, The Making of the Mob: New York is an eight-part docu-drama that details a half-century of mafia history using dramatic reenactments, archival footage and interviews with former city mayors, historians and actors who’ve played mobsters. They’ve recruited the likes of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Chazz Palminteri, Joe Mantegna, singer Frankie Valli, historian David Pietrusza and Sopranos stars Drea de Matteo and Vincent Pastore.
Opening in 1905 and spanning 50 years, the production follows wise guys on the rise Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, among other notorious gangsters, from their years as teen troublemakers through their reign as the criminal masterminds who founded organized crime empires.
The first episode premieres Monday, June 15th at 10 p.m. ET/PT, following the 25 anniversary presentation of Goodfellas (airing at 7 p.m. ET/PT). Each week, an episode is paired with an airing of a classic mobster film, including The Godfather I & II, Casino, Carlito’s Way, American Gangster, Donnie Brasco and Scarface.
To get properly “mobbed up,” Bio chatted with Meyer Lansky’s grandson and namesake, Meyer Lansky II, who’s interviewed in the series, for a mob descendant’s perspective on the made men featured in The Making of the Mob.
Hollywood, and audiences, love gangsters. Why do you think they have such an enduring appeal?
It doesn’t follow a traditional path, they took on a different way of doing things in life. Because most people don’t live like my grandfather did…it takes daring, it takes knowledge, it’s not typical, it’s edgy.
Does The Making of the Mob bring any new revelations to the genre?
Well, over the years, it’s always been the shoot ‘em up, bang-bang type stuff, the hit man kind of attitude on-screen. Now this [series] brings it up to the highest intellectual level with Lucky Luciano and my grandfather Meyer Lansky [known as the “Mob’s Accountant”]. There’s a hierarchy like in any company. They were the founders of the American Mob — Luciano, my grandfather, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Frank Costello — and they turned it into a big business, basically.
They’ve captured the essence, the time period, the clothing, everything from the era, and it comes across very well. Ian Bell appears as Meyer Lansky in this and it’s an excellent portrayal by him. And Rich Graff as Lucky Luciano — he also comes across great on-screen.
The docu-drama promises to reveal some “untold stories”; one tidbit I found fascinating from the footage was that legendary mob boss Frank Costello actually went to a psychiatrist, just like Tony Soprano.
At that level, they were very intellectual people, they were very savvy. Costello was like a diplomat, but Frank kind of lost touch. He wanted to fit in as a Vanderbilt, be respected as a legitimate businessman, but he really couldn’t. He never really got the respect. He was always called a gangster and he had a lot of problems shaking that off — that’s why he went to the psychiatrist. Shows you how, at a certain point, you forget where you came from.
Lucky, Bugsy and Meyer certainly had a great vision but when they were building this organized crime empire, who did they look up to? Who did they idolize?
Arnold Rothstein. “The Big Bank Roll.” He mentored my grandfather, Luciano and Ben. He was The Great Gatsby’s mentor basically; he was portrayed in the book. He looked like a normal individual who’d blend into the woodwork, but he brought them from the gangster-type street crimes to a sophisticated level: horse racing and such…you’d see them with politicians. They admired him very much.
Is there a mob myth or stereotype that you think should be dispelled?
Yes, the killer aspect is the thing…society has a hold of that infatuation. There are a lot of people [in the mafia] that are very competent, who run businesses both ways, legal and not so legal, but it’s not just guys out there with machine guns. It’s talks, it’s negotiating…they’re reasonable people, they’re not all hotheads. So that’s kind of a myth, not totally, but it’s out there more than it should be, I think.
What was the best advice your grandfather ever gave you?
Be honest. He said, for example, if you’re going to be in a service industry, there’s nothing wrong with that, just be honest. Do a good service for people, don’t ever cheat people. That was him. He was known for not cheating in a business that you could easily cheat in. That’s what made his reputation in the gaming industry.
Which mob movie is your all-time favorite?
I’d have to say my newer favorite one is Goodfellas because I used to work with Henry Hill [the main character, portrayed by Ray Liotta] in Las Vegas. June 11th was Henry’s birthday and he passed away two years ago the day after [his birthday], so it’s kind of ironic that I’m here in New York right now [since] Ray Liotta is the narrator [for this series]. We were very good friends — he was a great guy. I enjoyed Henry; he was something.
Meyer Lansky has been portrayed in film and TV several times over the years, and by some big names, including Robert De Niro (Once Upon a Time in America), Ben Kingsley (Bugsy), Dustin Hoffman (Lost City), Patrick Dempsey (Mobsters), Richard Dreyfuss (Lansky – TV movie) and Lee Strasberg (The Godfather II). Which portrayal is your favorite?
Definitely Lee Strasberg (whose portrayal of the Meyer Lansky-inspired character Hyman Roth in The Godfather II earned him an Oscar nomination), that was the best ever. My grandfather was alive when that movie came out. He actually called Lee Strasberg and thanked him and said he did a great job. So that was something.
Do you have any cool collectibles of your grandfather’s from his heyday?
We have 352 letters that he wrote over a span of 30 years, from the ‘40s through the early ‘70s. [They cover] everything from my school work to my dad to when he was in Italy seeing Lucky Luciano, Israel, Cuba…we’re deciding what we’re going to do with them now.
Did anything discovered in the letters surprise you?
My grandfather explains some of those situations in his own words, it’s what really happened, so it would be kind of jaw-dropping [what’s revealed] in some of the letters, that it’s so far from the truth — the knowledge that’s out there now — because only family has really seen these letters. But they’ll be presented to everybody shortly, one day, so you’ll see the truth.
Let’s talk about your namesake. What’s it like walking around with a famous name? Meyer Lansky walks into a bar: what happens?
Once in a while, I’ll get a free drink [laughs]. I live on the west coast, Lake Tahoe, actually, and I have been in the casino industry for over 30 years… Yeah, there are funny looks, and you know, just about everything you can imagine. It’s been quite a journey in that respect.
Would you say that name has helped you or hurt you in life?
I guess it’s created interest. It’s never really hurt me. It’s just been amusement, a novelty, a point of interest.
How come Meyer Lansky didn’t have a nickname like “Lucky” and “Bugsy”?
[laughs] Not his style, I guess, he was a conservative type of person, so I don’t think he would have liked a nickname. But that is kind of funny, everybody else did have one, you’re right.
The Making of the Mob: New York premieres Monday, June 15th at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.