Is Casino the Movie Based on a True Story?

Is the film Casino based on a true story? Despite the explosive events shown, sometimes — art imitates life.

Pop Culture

Undoubtedly, Martin Scorsese is one of America’s most legendary silver screen masters, and his 1995 crime epic titled Casino is one of his most famous masterpieces in a portfolio of many. Moreover, the movie, distributed by Universal Pictures, based on the Nicholas Pileggi nonfiction book – Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, often gets heralded as the best depiction of Sin City and casino gambling on film.

Celebrated Hollywood critic Roger Ebert wrote about it claiming, that – “Unlike his other Mafia movies, Martin Scorsese’s Casino is as concerned with history as with its characters and plot.” That, without question, holds true, as when one watches this film, it radiates a certain sense of authenticity, making the viewer wonder – is Casino, the movie a true story?

To cut to the chase, it is, in a sense. Of course, the standard artistic licensing gets utilized here and there to add drama and fuel a plot that can sustain Casino’s almost three-hour running time. Nevertheless, its foundations feature a construction rooted in historical events.

What Is the Plot of Casino?

The Casino movie story begins in 1973, revolving around a casino executive named Sam “Ace” Rothstein, an associate of the Chicago mob who gets sent to Las Vegas to run the Tangiers, a respectable gambling establishment. He first does so from behind the curtain, using a frontman to act as the venue’s CEO.

After instantly achieving success, Rothstein’s operations get complicated when his Chicago boss, Remo Gaggi, sends his childhood friend Nicky Santoro to protect the organization’s business interests in Nevada.

The movie depicts the escalation of the relationship between these two close friends, which grows volatile over the years, mainly as Santro increases his influence in Vegas and Rothstein’s marriage and business prospects sour.

Who is Nicholas Pileggi?


Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the book that Casino got based on.

Nicholas Pileggi is a New York crime journalist that worked for the Associated Press in the 1950s and had a respectable three-decade career mainly reporting on organized crime affairs. During this period (the 1950s to the 1980s), while covering stories for various New York Magazines, he established a wide net of contacts in the Mafia world.

Yet, he rose to mainstream prominence via Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, a book depicting the life of Mafia associate Henry Hill, who turned into an informant and testified against his fellow associates. Wiseguy served as the basis for Scorsese’s 1990 Academy nominated movie Goodfellas.

After Scorsese followed up Goodfellas with a few successful but not as critically acclaimed films (Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence), he again went to Pileggi for inspiration. Though the crime author had not yet published his book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, he presented Scorsese a rough draft, which served as the structure for the film, on whose screenplay he collaborated with Scorsese.

Love and Honor in Las Vegas came out in October 1995, a month before the film got released in theaters.

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What Real-Life Characters Inspired Casino?

What was Casino based on, and who was the real-life cast of characters that inspired it?

The role played by Robert De Niro, Rothstein is a quasi representation of Frank Lwerance Rosenthal, nicknamed Lefty. He was a professional sports bettor that worked for the Chicago Outfit. That is the Italian-American crime syndicate that Al Capone led in the 1920s, during the Prohibition era.


Rosenthal was an experienced handicapper that plied his trade in Chicago and Miami before moving to Las Vegas. The Chicago Outfit selected him to run their casinos because, at one time, he successfully operated the biggest illegal bookmaking office in the US.

On May 4, 1969, Rosenthal married Geri McGee, a Vegas showgirl. Who gets played in Casino by Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna. McGee’s real-life ex-husband, Lenny Marmor, bears the name Lester Diamond in Casino, with James Woods portraying him as an ex-boyfriend of McKenna. Though everyone remembers Woods in the movie, many people often wonder – what happens to James Woods’ character in Casino? Rightfully so, since he disappears mid-way through the story. In real life, Marmor died in 2016, and he was  a prime suspect in McGee’s death, as the police doubted that someone gave her a “hotshot.” That is a drug dose intended to kill the user.

Joe Pesci’s character, the film’s main antagonist, Nicky Santoro, got based on mob enforcer Anthony Spiltoro. Spilotro was the ringleader of a Vegas outfit he formed in 1971 called the Hole in the Wall Gang. Per all accounts, he was an individual notorious for his violent disposition. Despite Joe Pesci getting killed in Casino because his bosses seemingly had enough of his unpredictable behavior and propensity to cause trouble, according to Spilotro’s son, Vincent, historically, the real target was his brother Michael. The reason Anthony got murdered was to prevent any revenge from taking place.

Which Parts of Casino Were False?

Historically speaking, Casino is surprisingly gruesomely accurate in parts. Yes, Rosenthal did shatter a guy’s hand with a mallet, and Spilotro did put a man’s head in a vice, squeezing it until his eye popped out. So, many of the things shown in the movie did happen.


Frank Rosenthal and Geri McGee, the real Ace and Ginger.

Nonetheless, the film did leave out many aspects of the real story and twisted others. For example, Lefty Rosenthal ran four casinos, not one. The Spilotros did not get killed in a cornfield but inside a basement of a house near the O’Hare International Airport in Bensenville. They also did not get murdered using baseball bats. They got beaten by fifteen or so men, who dominantly used their bare hands. Furthermore, the real reason they got eliminated was that both were facing high-profile legal problems. Thus, the mob feared they could turn against them.

Virtually all the interactions in the movie depicting the mob bosses discussing Vegas gaming are fiction, as no one knows what happened behind those closed doors.

Other tidbits that Scorsese left out include that Rosenthal and McGee had two children, that Lefty cheated on his wife, and that McGee’s mother lived with the couple.

Also, Senator Richard Bryan (Dick Smothers) had a far more pivotal role in real life than what audiences saw in the movie. These are just a few nuggets in a slew of historical inaccuracies that the film portrays. But, since this is a movie and not a documentary, people should accept that not everything depicted in Casino is 100% accurate, as Hollywood productions mainly aim to entertain.

Joseph Ellison

Joseph is a dedicated journalist and horse racing fanatic who has been writing about sports and casinos for over a decade. He has worked with some of the UK's top bookmakers and provides Premier League soccer tips on a regular basis. You'll likely find him watching horse racing or rugby when he isn't writing about sport.

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