'Casino' at 25: A guide to its protagonist and Hollywood's other Jewish mobsters

Saturday 28th November 2020

JTA -- "Casino," Martin Scorsese's examination of the mob's control of Las Vegas in the 1960s and 70s, debuted in theaters on November 22, 1995 -- 25 years ago this past week.

It may be a tick below "Goodfellas," which came out just five years earlier, in terms of its reputation in the eyes of film historians. But the three-hour epic remains one of Scorsese's most ambitious and gorgeously realized films. It also may be the best crime film with a Jewish protagonist at its center.

That was Sam "Ace" Rothstein, the character played in the film by Scorsese mainstay Robert De Niro. Rothstein is depicted as a Jewish associate of the Chicago Outfit, an expert bookmaker and sports handicapper who is sent to Vegas to run the Tangiers, one of the largest casinos on the Strip. The character is based on Frank Rosenthal, a real Jewish gambling expert from Chicago who had ties to the Chicago Outfit and eventually headed to Vegas to run casinos for them.

While the film is somewhat fictionalized, Rosenthal really did pioneer the idea of sports books in casinos, really did survive an assassination attempt by car bomb and really did have his license denied by a state gaming commission, which was led in real life by Harry Reid, before he was a senator.

Rothstein, as depicted in the film, is sort of a gangster, and sort of not; he is with the mafia, but not of the mafia, because of his ethnic identity. Like Henry Hill, the protagonist of "Goodfellas," Rothstein can't ever be a "made guy" because he's not fully Sicilian.

However, Ace sees his work running the casino as having a certain degree of above-board legitimacy and is constantly worried that his longtime friend Nicky (Joe Pesci), a fully "made" mobster, is ruining that reputation with his loose-cannon antics.

In the film, the viewer never hears Rothstein himself address his Jewishness or what it means to him, and he appears to lead a largely secular life. The topic is mentioned, however, by Pesci's character, in a somewhat pejorative way.

"I gotta make sure no one f***s around with the golden Jew," Nicky says at one point. As their relationship begins to sour, he says things like "Jew motherf*****," and threatens to "take a piece out of your Jew ass."

"Casino" also featured a supporting cast full of famous Jewish comedians, including Don Rickles, Alan King and Kevin Pollak.

In the end, Rothstein is the perfect symbol of how Jews could find great success in mid-20th century America -- even in the crime world -- yet remain outsiders, through no fault of their own.

After Frank Rosenthal's death in 2008, it was revealed that he had long been an FBI informant. In an interview prior to his death, Rosenthal was asked whether his heritage protected him while dealing with underworld figures.

"No, when you excel at anything -- my expertise was sports and thoroughbred wagering -- you rise to a very high level," he said. "Some people were impressed and took special notice that I could beat the odds. To have recognition, in my judgment, opened certain doors for me. It put me in a semi-celebrity category."

Another fact surrounding the Rothstein character is that he was portrayed by the non-Jewish De Niro -- something that could have raised eyebrows today. Of course, this can go the other way, too: Actor James Caan has said in interviews that he's had to turn down "Italian-American of the Year" awards multiple times, because even though he played Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather," he is in fact the son of German Jewish immigrants.

Rothstein is far from the only major Jewish character in the canon of American gangster movies. Here's a quick recap of some of the others:

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