‘The Rest Is History. I Killed Him.’ The True Story Behind ‘Casino’

Las Vegas Street
Getty Image

My graduate advisor, who’s consulted on a couple of films, liked to say, ‘A word is worth a thousand pictures.’ You cannot exactly capture what happened in a movie. Casino captures the era, the look, the personalities.

There are certain thoughts that manifest when you’re engaging in conversation with a man that willingly took another man’s life. Despite the inherent reservations, I felt no danger: Frank Cullotta is half-way through his 70s at this point, his days of pointing pistols are well behind him. Still, the man’s words crackle and whip like the syllables were poisonous. He drops his “R” pronunciations, and rifles off f-bombs with the grace of a hobbled Cirque de Soleil dancer. There’s a hazard to his huffs, even at his age. The former mafioso-turned-witness had a contract on his head for at least a decade, and when speaking to him, it’s obvious that the remnants of his past boil the cuss stew escaping through the phone’s speaker.

A Chicago tough guy in the mafia, Cullotta made his way to Las Vegas in the late ’70s, and became a part of the mob machine helping run the desert city. He was there through the bloodshed, the big business, and the mob’s eventual implosion. Now, Cullotta runs several tours in Las Vegas that take visitors through the old haunts the mob used to frequent. He also has thoughts on the film that loosely documented his era in Sin City, Casino, along with, of course, his own brand.

“It’s about 75% to 90% accurate,” he told me. “They got to juice it up. It’s a movie. Real life is boring. Movies, that’s what they do, they juice them up. I was the technical consultant on the movie. Nick Pileggi did a tape on me. If it wasn’t for me, there would be no book Casino, and there would have been no movie Casino.”

More than just a technical advisor on the film, Cullotta is also portrayed in the movie by actor Frank Vincent. Yet, the truth is, in order to get the full story of the mafia’s time in Las Vegas, one needs to go deeper than just absorbing Martin Scorsese’s mafioso masterpiece. The film does have a lot of truths in it, but it’s just one era of the mob’s stranglehold of the Vegas strip represented in the movie. The mafia began their domination of the desert town long before the film begins.

What was Las Vegas really like when major mafia families held their interests there? How exactly did they come to control one of the most lucrative cities in America? What did Casino get right?

To understand the gravity of the mafia’s control of America’s gambling capital, you need to start at the beginning…

Blood on the Strip

Getty Image

circa 1947: The outdoor swimming pool at Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada.

It’s safe to say the Flamingo was the beachhead — on the Strip at any rate.

Las Vegas was being built on a foundation of gold.

“The state of Nevada legalized gambling and reduced the residency requirement for divorce[1931] ; both of which were designed to get people to come here, like the place, and stay here and invest,” UNLV Associate History Professor, and author of the History of the Silver State, Michael Green explained over the phone. “But if they didn’t, at least they would spend some money while they were here.”

“World War II was a key turning point thanks to a lot of military bases being built in Nevada and the surrounding states,” Green continued. “Also in 1941, the first hotel on the strip opened — the El Rancho Vegas — on April 3. It had about 65 rooms so it wouldn’t exactly fit in today. The El Cortez opened the same year, downtown, and that may have been the first [Meyer] Lanksy/[Bugsy] Siegel property. It’s also in 1941 that Nevada legalized off-track betting which made the race wire very profitable, and that’s really what excited the interest of Lansky and Siegel. The hotel business followed.”