By Jeff Burbank
There may never have been a better time to live in Las Vegas than in the early to mid-1990s. The population was exploding, the recently opened megaresorts on the Strip were generating a ton of national attention, Frank Sinatra and Vegas-style “lounge” music were back in fashion, homes and rents were still cheap.
The surging popularity of Las Vegas was not lost on Hollywood. Las Vegas was the backdrop for a slew of on-location movies, starting with Caesars Palace in Rain Man (the top box-office draw in the United States in 1988), then in 1992 the hit film Honey I Blew Up the Kid (a special effects-created giant toddler walking at night on Fremont Street), and that year’s top-grossing Honeymoon in Vegas with its “Flying Elvi” parachuting onto the Strip. Leaving Las Vegas, released in 1995, won Nicolas Cage an Oscar for best actor.
In this period there was strong demand for movie extras in town (for TV shows and commercials, too), with speaking parts usually cast in Los Angeles. In September 1994, I heard about director Martin Scorsese’s Casino coming to Las Vegas with his Raging Bull and Goodfellas stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Local casting director Marilee Lear was the point person. Many extras would be needed over about six weeks of filming but, unusually, there were also scores of speaking parts to be had. Lear said Scorsese wanted to cast as many Las Vegas residents as possible to make the movie more authentic.
If there was ever a chance of getting into a great movie, this was it. I signed up at Marilee’s office and she suggested I try out for a choice part that a number of people were vying for – a news reporter who interviews De Niro’s character, Sam “Ace” Rothstein. She told me the audition would be in front of “Mr. Scorsese and Mr. De Niro” – on the following day. Since I had no time to get the standard 8-by-10 glossy photo produced, I brought along an image of my face taken from a scanner I had at home and printed it on copy paper. Marilee gave me a few pages from the script with the reporter’s lines and told me to wear a sports jacket to the audition. I studied the dialogue that night until I figured I could deliver the lines without holding the script.
The next day, I drove to a warehouse on Industrial Road a few blocks west of Vegas World. I was directed to a side room. It was small and cramped with bright lights, two cameras and wide TV monitors. Scorsese was in the back to the left sitting in a tall chair. De Niro was up front, ensconced in a chair to my right. He looked a little strange, wearing shorts, sandals and sporting a ponytail. I was directed to sit in a chair facing De Niro.
Whereas Scorsese was welcoming and cordial, De Niro was not. I’d learn later that De Niro didn’t think I was right for the part. I guess he wanted to make that clear to the director. I saw Scorsese look at my file and, warily, at the copy of my less-than-professional scan-shot. I was asked to deliver my first line from a page of the script and I recited it from memory. Scorsese politely said, “Oh,” to acknowledge I’d studied the lines. De Niro, acting frustrated, kind of winged his line. I said my next line and he suddenly stopped, frowned and said, “Well, why don’t you say more than that?” Scorsese laughed as if apologizing for him. I was confused because I assumed I was not to veer from the script. De Niro apparently wanted an ad-libbed scene. There would be ad-libbed scenes throughout Casino once filming started. But it was news to me at the audition.
De Niro sighed and continued to look at me with disapproval. Scorsese understood the vibe and told me thank you. I got up and put my hand out to De Niro, who smiled graciously and shook it, as did Scorsese. I told them how much I liked Raging Bull. I turned away somewhat dejectedly and stepped outside the doorway when a woman hurriedly approached me from behind to thank me. It was the movie’s L.A. casting director, Ellen Lewis. She had been out of sight, behind one of the cameras.
At that point I assumed my shot at minor stardom was history. I still qualified as an extra and they had me enter an adjoining building to try on clothing. There were long racks of real vintage 1970s men’s and women’s clothing, loud shirts, polyester pants, dresses, etc., on hangers. It looked like the Salvation Army. A costumer helped me choose a suit jacket, pants, 1970s wide tie and a shirt, all of which I tried on in a curtained room. They had me take the clothes home, on loan, to put on when I was called to be in a scene.
I got a call a few days later. I didn’t get the reporter part, but I was asked to be on the set of a different scene. It would be shot inside the Clark County School District building on East Flamingo Road and likely take all day. Coincidentally, the building was only a few blocks from where I was living at the time off East Twain Avenue.
We had to show up at 5 a.m. I called in sick to my day job (as a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal) and arrived early – in my 1970s suit and tie – at the building’s large east parking lot. The lot was covered with bulky trailers, trucks, tents and bright overhead lights. There was a small tent for the extras and a nicer, larger one with food for those with speaking parts. I reported to a woman with a clipboard who asked me and several other men to stand together. She told us we were going to serve as members of the Nevada Gaming Commission, and she gave us copies of several pages of the script. At first I was told I would not have a line to speak. They took us to a separate tent where a hairdresser gave me a trim.
Then they directed us into the Clark County School Board’s meeting room, the same one where I had covered the State Gaming Control Board and Nevada Gaming Commission as a newspaper reporter. As a “commissioner,” I’d be seated next to the actor playing the commission’s chairman. It would be one of the major scenes in the movie, where the commission would consider a bid by De Niro’s Rothstein to obtain a gaming license to keep his job as boss of the fictional Tangiers casino. The scene was based on an actual Gaming Commission meeting from 1978 in which Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal (the basis for De Niro’s Rothstein) bitterly chastised Chairman Harry Reid and other commission members when they refused to permit him to continue working at the Stardust. The denial meant more to Rosenthal than losing his management job – he could no longer skim money in secret from the Stardust and Fremont casinos for the Chicago, Kansas City and Milwaukee crime families.
Someone told me that since the movie’s commissioners had to vote, I would have a line after all – that is, one word: “Aye,” as in voting in favor of the motion against De Niro. “Now you’ll join SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and get residuals!” one guy said. A crew member told me mockingly, “Moving on up – to the East Side!” Another guy who worked in catering said he’d been trying to get a speaking part in movies in Las Vegas for years. “How did you get it?” he asked me. “Your looks?” Feeling a bit fed up, I told him “Yes.” I also figured out what I would say to people who looked perplexed when I told them about my one-word line: “But what I really want to do is direct.”
I learned that having a speaking part, no matter how tiny, meant by SAG union rules you had to have your own dressing room trailer to relax in. I was curious about that. A few members of the crew showed me the one for me, parked in the school district lot, while I was still a bit in awe of the situation. Unlike the nice trailers for De Niro, Stone and the other big actors, mine was a dingy, aged one, like a semi-truck container. As what seemed like the entire crew looked on, I walked up the steps and the top one, which was broken, buckled, sending me tripping onto my knee and causing the crew to laugh at my expense. I should have guessed – lots of cockiness on film sets.
I went inside the trailer. It had an old couch, a bathroom and a rear small bedroom, but the place smelled very musty, and I quickly left. I sat on the first step and had a brief conversation with my neighbor, a pleasant actor from New York who was playing a gaming board agent.
The meeting room was almost ready for the shooting to begin. There were 1970s-clothed extras in the audience, ones posing as TV journalists with full camera crew, others as lawyers and commission staff. Then the main actors filed in. I was standing to the side of the board seats and De Niro walked by in a smart suit, his hair cut, staring forward as if in character. After I took my seat as a commissioner, Dick Smothers of the Smothers Brothers sat down next to me for his part as the commission’s chairman, Harrison Roberts, Reid’s fictionalized role. Sharon Stone, as De Niro’s wife Ginger, arrived and so did Don Rickles, playing a Tangiers casino executive. They took seats in the front row with the audience. De Niro was at a table with Rosenthal’s real-life lawyer, Oscar Goodman, playing himself.
An organized and take-charge assistant director ran the entire show, for hours on end, telling people where to be and what to do before each take. During wait times, Rickles and De Niro joked around out of character. De Niro asked Rickles where he lived in Beverly Hills. Rickles set his sights on comically berating one of my fellow commissioners (thankfully, not me). I tried to talk to Smothers as much as possible between takes about his and his brother Tommy’s controversial TV show from the 1960s, his winery in California, his memories of working in Hollywood. He was friendly and explained that he had just moved to Las Vegas. He answered all my questions. At one point, Scorsese walked over and they had a long conversation about filmmaking. It was all incredible.
The commission meeting scene required many retakes. It started with Goodman shouting accusingly at the commission, De Niro complaining to Smothers about assurances that he would get a fair hearing, Smothers telling the crowd the commission was already prepared to vote to remove De Niro from the Tangiers, then my immortal “Aye” into the microphone with the other members of the chorus. Once during a retake, Scorsese, seated behind a camera and a wide-screen monitor, actually gave me some direction – “Not so close to the microphone!”
Next in the scene, as Smothers tried to leave, De Niro verbally castigated him, getting the chairman to agree that he was present in a room at the Tangiers where De Niro was told to expect a fair hearing. The rest of it was extras as reporters with old-fashioned mini-cams and camera lights following De Niro rebuking Smothers and the other commissioners leaving the room. Not me, however. Since one part of the scene had a TV reporter pointing a microphone over my seat at Smothers during an exchange with De Niro, I had to leave and wait outside for about 30 minutes until that part was finished.
The scene’s multiple takes were mostly due to De Niro (who is, I should add, an acting giant and a favorite of mine). Since he was given the right to improvise beyond the script, none of the takes was the same. Sometimes he would almost completely blank out on the lines and everyone would have to turn back and start over. Other times his improvisation attempt didn’t work. There must have been 15 takes of one brief sequence where he yelled at Smothers. Scorsese had a lot to choose from.
Between two of the takes, I looked over at Stone and she looked at me and smiled hello. At one point she walked over and smiled again and sat down in a chair directly below me, her head and swirling hairdo only a few feet way. She stayed there for a while and talked to various people coming up to her. I would have liked to have struck up a conversation with her but that would have been tricky. For one thing, earlier in the day an extra was fired on the spot after trying to get De Niro’s autograph.
Filming and setting up the complicated scene lasted more than 20 hours. The crew was excited and kept saying as the scene progressed, “We’re in overtime,” then, “We’re in golden time,” then double and triple “golden” overtime. I ended up earning $1,900 for the day’s work.
The final part of the scene – again, with many retakes – took De Niro and the extras out of the meeting room and into the hallway, where De Niro continued to shout angrily at the lighted TV cameras as Rosenthal had done. We watched the scene from another room with Scorsese on his wide screen. Stone sat in a chair next to – people said – her sister. Everyone kept their distance from the actress. By then it was dark outside so a backlight and a large reflector were installed by a door to simulate daylight.
As things wrapped up, for some reason I struck up a conversation with a young man who happened to be Stone’s boyfriend at the time. I discussed an idea I had for a movie about Las Vegas and he liked it, saying he’d like to direct. I took down his name and number. However, nothing came of it. He and Stone parted ways soon after Casino wrapped. A friend of mine who’d been an actor told me, “Forget it. He’s lost his clout.”
After what felt like not much time at all, Casino debuted in November 1995. I went to a screening at the Gold Coast casino and met Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the book Casino and co-wrote the film’s script with Scorsese. “Las Vegas has a really great history,” he said.
I felt a little tense when the movie got to the commission hearing scene. But from the sea of blown takes the director took the choice ones and boiled them down to a few minutes that really worked. I saw myself in the establishing shot, acting like I was conferring with Smothers and going through the commission agenda. Then, moments later, my one-word line, and just like that, my bit was over. For some reason, I was among those who were uncredited at the end, perhaps because my “part” was not in the original script. But it didn’t matter much to me. The memories are still vivid, more than 20 years later. That, and I joined SAG and received small residual checks ($35 to $75 here and there) from NBC Universal for years. All in a day’s work.
Jeff Burbank is a content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at email@example.com.