When mobster Tony Spilotro was active in Las Vegas decades ago, doors opened for him in Hollywood.
As the Chicago Outfit’s representative in Southern Nevada, Spilotro’s reach extended into the movie-making industry through the unions, according to screenwriter Nicholas Celozzi.
“He had a lot of influence because of his association with the Outfit,” Celozzi said in a telephone interview. “When he spoke, he spoke for others.”
Celozzi’s relationship with Spilotro is the focus of The Legitimate Wiseguy, a movie going into production this spring, with an undetermined release date. Directed by George Gallo, it stars Paul Ben-Victor as Spilotro and features Harvey Keitel, Emile Hirsch and Ruby Rose. Celozzi co-wrote the screenplay with Jim McGrath.
The movie will center on Spilotro’s efforts to line up Hollywood contacts for Celozzi, an aspiring actor from Chicago with a family history in organized crime. His grandmother’s brother was Sam Giancana, a former Outfit boss.
At Marquette University in Milwaukee, Celozzi performed in plays and wanted to continue acting after graduation. His father, a Chicago Chevrolet dealer, knew Tony Spilotro and his brother Michael.
This initial contact with the Spilotros led Celozzi, known as Nicki, to the West Coastaround 1981.
Price to pay
Tony Spilotro offered to help Celozzi in Hollywood, but that favor came with a price. “Oh, by the way,” Spilotro told Celozzi, “there is somebody coming to Los Angeles. He is probably staying with you.”
Unbeknownst to Celozzi, the person Spilotro sent that way turned out to be an underworld operative. Celozzi won’t say who the person was or elaborate on certain incidents, but the young actor was being pulled into a shadowy world that could have resulted in serious consequences.
“I shouldn’t have been in certain places,” Celozzi said.
At one point, Spilotro urged Celozzi to cross major criminal boundaries. This was an era of headline-making Mob killings and car bombings in Las Vegas and elsewhere. People on the periphery of this world, including Celozzi, found themselves having to make dangerous choices.
“My world was collapsing,” he said.
The film’s title reflects Celozzi’s connection to some of the criminal suspects under surveillance during this era. Authorities who spotted him with people such as Spilotro noted that Celozzi was “legitimate,” unlike the real wiseguys.
Years later, in writing the screenplay, Celozzi, 58, was able to put his complex relationship with Spilotro into perspective. He valued Spilotro’s help in advancing his Hollywood career, but he did not want to be lured into a criminal life. Looking back on it, the personal bond with Spilotro is what stands out.
“It was like a father-son relationship,” Celozzi said. “He filled that gap for me.”
Gallo, the director, said the Celozzi character in the movie is “a young guy who was naive and grew up rather quickly.”
“He had a whole bunch of life lessons thrown at him,” the director said in a telephone interview.
One challenge for the director is to create a Spilotro character who isn’t a carbon copy of Joe Pesci’s portrayal in the classic 1995 movie Casino.
That popular film, co-written by author Nicholas Pileggi and director Martin Scorsese, in part explores the romantic relationship between Spilotro and Geri Rosenthal, the wife of Outfit associate Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal.
An oddsmaker from Chicago, Rosenthal oversaw the Stardust and three other hotel-casinos in Las Vegas for Midwestern crime families.
The movie is based on Pileggi’s nonfiction book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. In the book, Pileggi used the characters’ real names, but he and Scorsese changed the names in the movie for legal reasons. Robert De Niro plays a character based on Rosenthal, with Sharon Stone as his wife.
The Spilotro-inspired character that Pesci portrays is a hot-tempered, violent killer, popping out one person’s eyeball and jabbing another in the neck with an ink pen.
Gallo said The Legitimate Wiseguy will show the way people like Spilotro conducted themselves when they weren’t making headlines. In Spilotro’s case, his relationship with Celozzi was a respite from that kind of life, the director said.
“Nicki was a pure soul who loved movies and TV,” Gallo said. “For Spilotro, it was a breath of fresh air.”
The director said many Mob movies attempt to show the audience “the most vicious gangsters in the world.” This movie will be more of a personal story that says, “Let me tell you about my friend,” Gallo said.
About six months before his life ended, Spilotro sensed he was in trouble, Celozzi said.
“He knew he was jammed up,” the screenwriter said. “He was well aware something was going on.”`
Spilotro’s legal problems were keeping him in the news, which Mob bosses reportedly considered to be unacceptable.
The end came in 1986, when Spilotro and his brother Michael were beaten to death in a Mob hit at a home near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. They were buried in an Indiana cornfield.
Tony Spilotro’s death meant people connected with him weren’t welcome anymore in places like Los Angeles. With Spilotro gone, Celozzi found himself on the outs in Hollywood.
“They opened doors because of Tony,” he said of West Coast filmmakers, “and they slammed them because of Tony.”
Now Celozzi is back in the fold, telling the story of a young person hoping to break into acting but almost losing his way with an out-of-control lifestyle involving one of the nation’s most notorious gangsters.
Gallo said the movie is something of a Faustian tale about “a guy that makes a deal and thinks he will come out clean.”
“It never works out,” Gallo said.
Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.