Man Behind 'Casino' Dies

Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, who died this week, was a critical player in bringing the business of sports betting to Las Vegas. His life was the basis for the character played by Robert DeNiro in the movie Casino. Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote Casino, says at his peak Rosenthal set the odds in Las Vegas.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The man who brought sports betting to Las Vegas has died. Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal inspired the character played by Robert De Niro in the movie "Casino." In his heyday, he ran four Vegas casinos, but he was eventually barred from Nevada casinos because of alleged Mafia ties. In 1982, Rosenthal survived a car bombing, an event re-enacted in "Casino."

(Soundbite of movie "Casino")

Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Sam Rothstein) They put the dynamite under the passenger's side. But what they didn't know, what nobody outside the factory knew, was that that model car was made with a metal plate under the driver's seat. It's the only thing that saved my life.

(Soundbite of bomb explosion)

BLOCK: Nicholas Pileggi wrote the book "Casino" and the screenplay. He explains how Frank Rosenthal got his start.

Mr. NICHOLAS PILEGGI (Author, "Casino"): He rose because he was really a mathematical genius. He wasn't schooled. He was a street guy and very sharp, and was in a sense, too smart for school. You know those kind of guys? But he could add numbers and subtract them - we're talking about six digits - in his head and with no problem. So he was fascinated by odds as a young kid and would hang out with bookmakers and go to Chicago Cubs games and play proposition bets, which is I'll bet you five dollars that the next guy up strikes out, those kinds of instant bets. He would handicap the game. He'd say it's Chicago by four.

And he was so good that the organized crime gangs in Chicago found out about him instantly, and immediately they put their hooks into him. And he began handicapping for them. And when a couple of casinos opened up, they needed a mathematical geniusy guy who would go there who they trusted, and that was Frank Rosenthal. And he went down there and ran four casinos at the same time, which, let me tell you, is a terrific job.

BLOCK: How did he get his nickname, Lefty?

Mr. PILEGGI: They claimed that when he was called before a Senate hearing, he took the stand and took the Fifth so many times that he left - he just kept his left hand up, swearing, I take the Fifth Amendment. And then he just kept up so long that people decided to call him Lefty.

BLOCK: And it stuck.

Mr. PILEGGI: And it stuck. I don't think that's it. I think it was because he was left-handed.

BLOCK: Over the years, he always denied his associations, his alleged associations, with organized crime, right?

Mr. PILEGGI: Yeah, he did. I mean, he never denied that he knew people, but he was not a member of that world. He was the kind of guy they used for their own purposes, and he, in a sense, used them for his purposes. They made a lot of money with him because he would handicap bets for them. They were looking to bet $100,000 or bookmakers were looking to see what was going to happen this weekend, but Lefty could caution them to be careful, to lose the - you know, and they could save money and make money with Lefty. So he was a valuable resource. When he was at his height, he literally set the odds in Las Vegas. What he bet, the city bet.

BLOCK: In the movie, in "Casino," Lefty Rosenthal's character, played by Robert De Niro, is brutal. He is ruthless. That was part of him, too.

Mr. PILEGGI: Yep, oh yeah. No, no, it's a brutal and ruthless business. I mean, he broke that guy's hand, if that's what you're thinking about. But he was not, you know, he - that was a guy who was cheating in his casinos. That guy had been warned to stay away and to knock it off and to stop, or he'd be sorry. And the guy went back a couple of times. And the third time, they broke his hand. But that's quite typical of what was going on in Las Vegas in those days.

BLOCK: You know, in one of the Las Vegas newspapers today, when they're reporting on his death, a former federal organized crime prosecutor anonymously says there's an exception to the rule that you shouldn't speak ill of the dead. And he says Frank Rosenthal is one of those exceptions. He was an awful human being.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PILEGGI: Well, I didn't find him that at all. I found him smart as a whip, fully engaged, very likable. Because what happens when you do movies, everybody in the movie and all of the people who are talking to are your best friends until you start your next movie. You don't have a residual accumulation of friends from movies past, except in the case of "Casino," which was now in 1995, and I remained friendly with him, and he with me. And we stayed in touch, and we talked, and I found him to be extraordinary. I mean, if he couldn't tell me something, he just wouldn't tell me. And there's a lot of that. But when he told me something, it was truthful. And I found him to be very charming, very smart and, as he would say, a standup guy.

BLOCK: Well, Nicholas Pileggi, thanks for talking to us about Frank Larry "Lefty" Rosenthal.

Mr. PILEGGI: Well, thank you.

BLOCK: Nicholas Pileggi wrote the book "Casino" and the screenplay for the movie about the life of Frank Rosenthal. Rosenthal died Monday of an apparent heart attack in his Miami Beach apartment. He was 79.

(Soundbite of song "With Plenty of Money and You")

Mr. TONY BENNET: (Singing) It's the root of all evil Of strife and upheaval. But I'm certain honey, That life would be sunny With plenty of money and you.

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