Friday, Feb. 26, 1999 | 10:45 a.m.
A blessing or a curse?
It would be a tough call for Meyer Lansky II to make. After all, not many people are saddled with such an infamous name or, for that matter, the family tree that goes with it.
But that's also what makes this Lansky -- a Northern Nevada resident who is the grandson of Meyer Lansky, late financial mastermind of the Syndicate, a k a the Mob -- wonder why Hollywood has not sought him out.
The 41-year old card dealer can only speculate why he hasn't been asked to consult on films that have featured portrayals -- thinly veiled or otherwise -- of his grandfather, including "The Godfather Part II" and "Bugsy."
The latest omission: "Lansky," the two-hour drama starring Richard Dreyfuss in the title role, which debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday on HBO (Cox Cable Channel 54) and will repeat throughout March. The film touches on Lansky's ties to Las Vegas gambling.
Although he claims to have "pursued" HBO about the project, he says he received no response from the pay cable channel.
"We don't have any specific recollection of hearing from the grandson," an HBO spokesperson said, "although we did hear from other family members at a point when the script was about to go into production, so by that point, the process was well underway."
Lansky says he would like to have been a part of the production. "I don't know what (HBO's) reasons are, unless (the movie industry is) just a real cliquish type of thing."
He was, however, included among the interviews featured in "Meyer Lansky: Mob Tycoon," a 1996 installment of A&E's popular "Biography" series.
Ted Schillinger, who produced and wrote the special for Towers Productions, says Lansky II provided the documentary team with stories, photos and Lansky family artifacts "that would have been impossible to find anywhere else.
"He gave our team a close look into the family's life that really added a special dimension and depth to our portrait of the old man," Schillinger says.
All the more reason Lansky, who deals 21 at the Peppermill hotel-casino in Reno, says: "It's frustrating. I'll be sitting in the break room and here's (a commercial on TV for) the HBO premiere ... and people are going, 'Meyer, look, it's 'Lansky.' Are you going to meet Richard Dreyfuss?' I just go, 'Nah.' I push it away; I won't think about it.
"Then, I walk out of work, and some nights I'll be frustrated. Here I am, just an average dude ... and I've got a chance to meet a movie star, to be maybe part of a movie."
But Lansky II's life has been anything but average, beginning with the name that his father, Paul -- a West Point graduate and former engineer who is Lansky's youngest son -- bestowed upon him.
Traditionally, Jewish parents do not name their children after people who are still living. So, according to Lansky II, Paul's decision to name his son after Lansky did not sit well with the reputed mobster.
"He called his father, and (the elder Lansky) said, 'No,' " Lansky II says. "Then he called him back and he insisted. Then he was proud that my dad had named me that."
Living with the legacy
Lansky II says he realized, even as a youngster, the weight the name carried with it. "That's one of the reasons (the elder Lansky) didn't want me named that: He thought it would be hard, and some parts of it have been."
While in grammar school, not long after his grandfather's estimated wealth of about $300 million had been publicly disclosed, Lansky II narrowly averted being kidnapped while walking to school.
Two men, whom the boy mistook as utility workers painting traffic lines on the street, approached him. He ran the rest of the way to school. Soon after, FBI agents -- who were already watching the family -- were posted on the playground. The suspects were never caught.
In 1973, following his parent's divorce, Lansky's mother changed the 15-year-old's name to Bryan Mason.
During those days, the elder Lansky was a feature on the nightly news, as he had fled the United States to avoid indictment on tax evasion charges. After being exiled from Israel, he embarked on an unsuccessful search for a country that would grant him amnesty. He was eventually extradited back to the U.S. and charges against him were dropped.
Given his grandfather's high profile, "there were some problems and things going on" that led to the name change, Lansky II says. Otherwise, he believes the move was an attempt by his mother -- who also changed her and her daughter's last name to Mason -- "to kind of exile herself from the family."
Having "never really felt comfortable" with it, though, he returned to using his birth name in his early 20s.
These days, his experiences being recognized are generally less harrowing.
Often, when he's dealing cards, gamblers will approach him. "They'll see my name tag ... and they'll say, 'Oh, like Meyer Lansky,' and I'll go, 'Yeah, as a matter of fact, you're right,' and I'll just keep on dealing."
Although they lived across the country from each other -- with grandfather tending to his pair of profitable hotel-casino ventures in Miami Beach, Fla., and grandson growing up in the state of Washington -- Lansky II says he did manage to visit with his namesake often.
"We went to dinner together a lot; we went to lunch together a lot. He always wanted to buy me clothes when he came out to visit," he says. "We'd go to a lot of soccer games, and football games and baseball. ...
"He wasn't a cold grandfather, but he was more of a real business- like-type of guy. I always felt very powerful when I was around him."
During the winter holidays, Lansky II would visit his grandfather in Florida, usually staying with his Great Uncle Buddy, Lansky's older brother who suffered from cerebral palsy and ran the hotel's switchboards.
"(Lansky would) come over and take me to dinner. ... Then he'd be gone again, and he'd pick me up for breakfast. He'd stash about $300 in my pocket ... in case I wanted to do something. It was quite interesting."
As were the characters with whom Lansky surrounded himself -- people his grandson had read about and ended up mingling with in Florida.
"I'd already known a lot about them, and I'd never ask, but I'd say, 'Oh, yeah, that's 'Lefty,' that's 'Shorty' (and) 'Ice Pick' George. ... These were little bitty guys, nothing like you see in the media."
Though he never met one of Lanksy's closest confidantes, fellow mobster and Flamingo hotel founder Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Lansky II says, "I can't imagine them being together.
"My grandpa was a banker-type of guy, very serious, and Ben had this side that was very flashy, a very stereotypical gangster, more personality. (His grandfather) wasn't anything like Ben Siegel."
Lansky and Siegel were among the partners who invested in El Cortez casino, in downtown Las Vegas, in the mid-'40s. Profits from the casino's sale later that decade went toward constructing the Flamingo.
"Ben actually handled the money right on that one. They made like one-hundred thousand bucks on that," Lansky II says of the El Cortez deal. The Flamingo's debt-plagued beginnings, however, eventually led to Siegel's mob-ordered death.
"My grandfather never really had a big interest in Las Vegas early on. He was more interested in Miami Beach," he says. "Vegas was out to the west, and that was Ben's deal."
For the most part, though, Lansky II didn't inquire about his grandfather's business affairs.
"He died when I was 26 (in 1983 from lung cancer). Even up until then, I never asked him anything" he says. "I wouldn't have anyway, even if he had been an easygoing guy. ... With his type of attitude, you knew not to really pry too much.
"I think I asked him one time, 'I hear you know Frank Sinatra.' ... He said, 'No, no I don't,' and he got off the subject real quick. In fact, my dad and I never really talked about it until 10 years ago, and then he started telling me everything about it." (The two, however, are now estranged.)
'He had the insight'
Still, he shies away from calling Lansky -- who was never convicted of a major crime -- a gangster.
"He had the insight," he says. "He developed (Cuba) and gaming (in) Cuba. He was an entrepreneur at a time when nobody else was doing it."
Schillinger says: "Meyer II is aware that his grandfather was a criminal, and that is not lost on him.
"I don't think he's interested in promoting the old man as a role model, but he's aware that Meyer Lansky the gangster has become something of a cultural icon in his own way, and it's OK that he wants to preserve his grandfather's story."
Lansky II's collection of photos and memorabilia about his grandfather includes a photocopy of his 1929 license to marry Lansky II's grandmother, Anna Citron. Siegel's signature appears on the document as a witness to the nuptials.
He had hoped to display the stuff in a "Roaring '20s" -themed microbrewery that he wanted to build a couple of years ago in Carson City. Meyer Lansky's, as it would have been called, was to be patterned after a small chain of pubs of the same name in Germany.
But the venture "just kind of fizzled," he says. "It would have been more of a microbrew out of the Northwest style, with different beers on tap and a lot of real memorabilia ... just taking off on the theme of flapper girls serving drinks and that kind of thing."
Lansky II, the father of a 6-year-old daughter, also works as a bartender and manages an up-and-coming rock band, The Joey Vegas Band. He's also considering penning his autobiography.
"I've got 11 years (living) in Nevada, in closing out the 20th century with his name. I think I've got enough material," he says.
While previewing the HBO movie recently, Lansky II said: "This messes with my head. Here I am watching this stuff; these people are my ancestors."
The film follows Lansky, his family and his cohorts from his early childhood in Poland to his teen years spent gambling in the streets of New York's Lower East Side to his violent heyday with the Syndicate, troubles with the government and the years preceding his death.
Lansky II commented on the authenticity of several of the movie's scenes, including one in which a teenage Lansky (played by Ryan Merriman) looses the bread money given to him by his mother in a street corner dice game.
In actuality, because the family did not have an oven, Lansky was to have used the money to have their meal of stew warmed at a business that did so for a fee.
"He came back with cold stew and he was so ashamed," Lansky II says. "He swore he would never lose a game again."
He also critiqued Dreyfuss' portrayal of his grandfather. "The glasses and ... the shirt he wears, yeah, I can see it." But the slight limp he walks with is a mystery.
He does, however, wonder how Dreyfuss was able to nail some of Lansky's other mannerisms -- for example, how he leaned in when he spoke.
"How is Richard Dreyfuss gonna know how to do that? He must have really had to search to find that. That's one of those gestures that he probably would have done. That looks very familiar to me."
In any case, he's more pleased with this performance than previous portrayals, especially that of Lee Strasberg's "Godfather: Part II" character Hyman Roth, which was based on Lansky.
"The storyline was great, but Lee Strasberg was nothing like my grandfather at all," he says.
"(Strasberg) represents a weak man dying of cancer, with a little bow tie and real frail. My grandfather was in hard shape up to the end, even with his cancer. ... He was just too little to be playing him. My grandfather was more husky and had more of a perseverance than that man did."
Ben Kingsley played Lansky in 1991's "Bugsy." "He did alright," he says.
How would the real Lansky feel about the past and present portrayals?
"He'd be embarrassed by it. I think he'd just shut it off," his grandson says. "He, obviously, wasn't anything for publicity -- he didn't like it at all. He just didn't need that for himself."