How Much of Casino is a True Story? – A Top 10 of Fact or Fiction

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The Martin Scorsese masterpiece Casino was first released in November, 1995. Nearly 30 years later, the movie looks, sounds, and plays as good as ever.

Casino tells the story of casino boss Sam “Ace” Rothstein and the mob’s involvement in early 1970s Las Vegas.

It’s brutal, brilliant, and jaw-droppingly beautiful. It may not be the best movie about the mob, in a crowded field of Goodfellas and Godfathers, but Las Vegas has never looked better.

Some critics were unkind about Casino, on its release. On the back of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, there was too much stylistic similarity. Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Nicky Santoro (Casino) and Tommy DeVito (Goodfellas) was also too familiar.

In hindsight, both Goodfellas and Casino are masterpieces. Critics don’t know a good thing when it whacks them, with a baseball bat, twice. Scorsese was a victim of his own brilliance.

casino movie
Image: Casino

How Much of Casino is Based on a True Story?

The movie is based on the non-fiction crime book – Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, by Nicholas Pileggi (who also wrote Goodfellas).

It tells the story of professional gambler and casino boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal; his association with the mafia and his time in Las Vegas.

These were heady days for Sin City. The Vegas glamor, still in full Sinatra-driven’ swing.

The big corporations were yet to move in. Family Las Vegas was two decades away, and real money online casinos didn’t exist yet.

It’s a true story. But how much is fact and how much is fiction?

Here at Techopedia, we’ve counted the blueberries, tightened the vise, and have an offer, we hope you can’t refuse: the top 10 facts and fictions in Scorsese’s Casino.

1. The People Are Real – FACT

geri mcgee and frank lefty rosenthal
Image: ATI

There are three main characters in the movie Casino: Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), his wife Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), and his friend and mobster Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci).

Are they real people? Short answer: yes.

The movie’s central character, Sam Rothstein, is a portrayal of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a Las Vegas icon who managed four different casinos, owned by the Chicago Outfit: the Stardust, Fremont, Marina, and Hacienda.

In the movie, Rothstein manages only the fictional Tangiers Casino.

Sharon Stone’s character Ginger McKenna is showgirl and model Geraldine “Geri” McGee.

McGee started working as a cocktail waitress at the Tropicana. She worked hard, bought a home, and climbed the Las Vegas social ladder; eventually landing on Rosenthal’s radar.

The two were married for 13 years, and had two children, but domestic life was not for McGee, who continued to party hard.

It got ugly. They broke up. She died alone, following an accidental overdose of cocaine, Valium, and whisky. The movie tells it how it was.

Finally, Joe Pesci’s psychotic mob soldier Nicky Santoro. Pesci’s portrayal of Tony “The Ant” Spilotro was so realistic that – according to Casino author Nicholas Pileggi – some of the pit bosses, who knew Spilotro, almost fainted, when they saw him walk into the casino in character.

2. Rosenthal Counted the Blueberries – FACT

In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, we see Rothstein berate the catering manager, because his muffin is lacking the requisite number of blueberries.

Rosenthal was a details man. It’s why he was such a successful sports gambler.

He said: “If you demand 16 ounces to the pound you are challenged. You are criticized as being a perfectionist.”

When asked if this was what was behind the muffin take, Rosenthal confirmed it: “Yes, it’s true – that was in the movie.”

3. Santoro was in the Hole in the Wall Gang – FICTION

tony spilotro
Image: IMDB

Tony Spilotro was sent to Las Vegas by the Chicago Outfit to oversee and protect Rosenthal and the casinos.

Frank Cullotta, played in Casino by Frank Vincent, ran the Hole in the Wall gang. They were childhood friends.

Spilotro never got involved in the dirty work. He simply gave Cullotta and his crew the go-ahead.

He said: “Well, you got the “okay.” Just make sure I get a percentage. I don’t want to meet your crew. I don’t want to know who they are. I’ll tell you what I want them to do. I’ll never give them any orders directly; they’ll be coming through you. And anytime you got any monies to give me, you give me directly.”

4. Geri McGee was Obsessed with a Former Lover – BOTH

In the movie, Ginger stays in contact with her former lover Lester Diamond, played by James Woods.

What’s missing from Casino is the fact that Geri McGee and Lenny Marmor (real name) had a daughter together; born in 1957.

This adds a lot of nuance to the situation and may go a long way towards explaining to the continued relationship between the pair. Not so much infatuation as: ‘who’s doing the school run next week’.

5. That Eyeball-Popping Scene – BOTH

Arguably the most stomach-churning scene in the movie is the torture of Tony Dogs, who shoots up a bar owned by an Outfit boss.

Pesci’s Nicky Santori tortures Dogs by putting his head in a vise and squeezing, until his eyeball pops out.

This did happen, but not in Las Vegas.

In 1962, in Rosemont, Chicago, stick up men Billy McCarthy and Jimmy Miraglia got into an argument with bar owners Ronnie and Phil Scalvo. It ended in violence.

McCarthy and Miraglia swore vengeance and got it, when they shot and killed the Scalvo brothers.

Problem was: the Scalvo brothers were made men. The mob demanded revenge, and Tony Spilotro, aged just 24, earned his murderous reputation.

He tortured McCarthy for three days, until he gave up Miraglia; using an ice pick before putting his head in a vise.

Don’t mess with the mob.

6. The FBI Landed a Plane on the Golf Course – BOTH

Vegas plane
Image: SI

In the movie, the FBI has to make an emergency landing on a golf course, as agents are carrying out surveillance of Rothstein and the mobsters.

This did happen at the Las Vegas Country Club.

A plane landed on the 10th fairway, piloted by the FBI. It ended up in the water, after narrowly avoiding a golf cart.

The FBI insists it was a training mission gone awry – not a surveillance op that ran out of gas.

7. Rosenthal Didn’t Have a Gaming License – FACT

Incredible but true: the man who was running, not one, but four Las Vegas hotels never actually held a Nevada gaming license.

The Chicago Outfit knew Rosenthal’s connections would make it impossible for him to get one.

Instead, they gave him less high-profile roles, including entertainment director and food and beverage manager.

Allen Glick was the man who owned Argent; the company that legally owned the casinos. Of course, the mob bankrolled Argent’s purchase and ‘owned’ Glick.

Glick recalls Rosenthal saying to him: “If you interfere with any of the casino operations or try to undermine anything I want to do here, I represent to you that you will never leave this corporation alive.”

There was only one real boss in town: Rosenthal.

8. Rosenthal Survived a Car Bomb – FACT

The movie Casino opens with Robert De Niro’s Sam Rothstein getting into his 1981 Cadillac Eldorado.

There was a balancing problem with early models of the car that affected its handling. A metal plate was installed by GM to correct the issue.

Fortunately, for Frank Rosenthal, the plate diverted the explosion and he escaped with minor burns.

Retired journalist Myram Borders witnessed the incident. She said: “A guy was getting out of a car sort of smoky, and his hair was standing on end. He was shouting They’re trying to kill me; they’re trying to kill me!”

When Borders asked Rosenthal who he was talking about, he immediately shut up.

9. Rosenthal and Spilotro Were Childhood Friends – FICTION

In Casino, Pesci and De Niro’s characters are portrayed a childhood friends.

Not accurate, according to Hole in the Wall gang leader Frank Cullotta:

“I know Tony didn’t grow up with this guy, but they say he’s a childhood friend. That’s bullsh*t. Tony probably met “Lefty” somewhere around in the ’60s, because I know in 1961, when I first met “Lefty,” he was by Tony’s house and he was gambling. […] I know Tony and he wouldn’t gamble with good friends.”

In the end, Spilotro and Rosenthal were close. Well, until Spilotro had an affair with Rosenthal’s wife. Gangsters, eh!

10. Rosenthal was Trustworthy – FICTION

rosenthal
Image: FamousFix

Martin Scorsese takes no blame here.

Rosenthal died of a heart attack in 2008, aged 79. Immediately after his death, three senior law enforcement sources revealed what was long suspected: Lefty Rosenthal was an FBI informant.

He was known by the codename Achilles and was allegedly a “top echelon” informer, long before the 1982 attempt on his life.

Why did Rosenthal inform?

Well, no one knows for sure but sources suspect that a wise betting man always plays both sides, if there is an advantage.

Arbitrage? Lefty would have played it.

Paul Cullen
Casino Industry Expert
Paul Cullen
Casino Industry Expert

Paul Cullen is an industry veteran, with a track record that stretches back to day one. He started his career as a copywriter and creative for the world’s very first online sportsbook: Intertops.com. There was no one else. Since then, he has seen the industry evolve and grow, working at BetonSports, BetWWTS, Absolute Poker, Ultimate Bet, InterCasino, PartyGaming, Mansion, Bodog, Casino Choice, Costa Bingo and Casumo. The evolution of Internet gaming, the arrival of the online casino, the poker revolution, and the bingo boom. He’s got the t-shirt.