Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Vegas: Everything old is new again

I just finished watching that new show "Vegas" with Dennis Quaid. It is set in 1960 Las Vegas, focusing on the battle between a sheriff (Quaid) and a mobster who runs a casino (Michael Chiklis). What stood out for me last night, as an 80s man was guest star Jonathan Banks, who played the visiting mob boss.

Who is Jonathan Banks, you ask?

It's funny, the weird things I remember. Banks was a character actor in the 80s who seemed to either play a heavy in every show, or land continuing roles in shows that never lasted. One of the first roles I ever saw him in was "The Gangster Chronicles". He played real-life gangster Dutch Schultz. So, he's come full circle playing a gangster. Weird eh?

"The Gangster Chronicles" did not last long, and like most shows on peasant vision, I watched it after it had already played on cable for awhile. Still, I was enamoured with the show, and gangsters in general. The whole period fascinated me. The protagonists (because it's hard to call any gangsters "the good guys") were three men: Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, Benny Siegel, and Michael Lasker. Luciano and Siegel were actual gangsters. I read in the TV Scene (or whatever the TV guide that came with The Lethbridge Herald was called back then) that Lasker was based on real-life gangster Meyer Lansky.

They did battle with a bunch of other real-life gangsters, namely the aforementioned Dutch Schultz and Al Capone. One of the most chilling scenes I recall was in jail. Capone had been jailed for tax evasion and someone went to visit him. He received his guest while sitting in the electric chair. It was that old style with the piece the executioner put over the prisoner's head hanging there behind Capone.

It was a strange thing, sympathizing with gangsters. Yet it was compelling, at least for an 11 year old. I do recall that TV Scene article saying the same thing: before you know it, you're cheering for Lucky and the boys.

The show was a mid-season replacement and only lasted a few episodes. What was notable was the actors who went on to other roles later in the 80s. Joe Penny played Benny Siegel, before going on to star for three seasons as Nick in "Riptide", and later as Jake in "Jake and the Fatman". Michael Nouri played Luciano, and would go on to get his big break in "Flashdance" like two years later. Markie Post played Chris Brennan, a love interest, and would go on to spend some time on "The Fall Guy" before landing a role as Christine Sullivan in "Night Court". Louis Giambalvo played Capone, and he's another actor you'd recognize as a bit player in pretty much everything in the 1980s. He also had a recurring role in Madeline Kahn's short-lived foray into the TV sitcom world. (I just Googled "Gangster Chronicles" and totally forgot Brian Benben played Lasker. He's got a pretty good gig now – he plays Sheldon on "Private Practice"). Check out this clip, advertising the show:

And of course there was Jonathan Banks. He would go on to have a role in the short-lived science fiction series "Otherworld" as Kroll, and I recall seeing him in other stuff, most notably "Hillstreet Blues". It was a blast from the past seeing him on "Vegas" tonight, and cool that he was playing a gangster again, 30 years later.

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