Las Vegas 1960, a time when the first steps were being taken towards the gaudy pleasure domes lining the strip today. Wealthy west coasters had flocked to the city during the casino boom of the late 1950s, now advances in aviation opened the city to the east coast as well. With those new arrivals came a new set of tensions as east coast gangsters looked to muscle in on the gambling scene.
Enter the (very) laconic Ralph Lamb, a former cowboy-turned-sheriff, and a man as quick with his fists as he is slow with his words. Today the idea of a cowboy lawman riding his horse into town in the swinging Sixties seems surprising but alongside the Vegas of Frank Sinatra and the Sands Hotel, was another, slower world. In the early 1960s parts of Clark County were still cowboy country, even if the number of people clinging to frontier ways was growing smaller. In Lamb they saw one of their own, a man who would stand up for their rights as the brash, glittering town in their midst slowly subsumed the desert all around.
Based on a true story, Vegas, which comes to Sky Atlantic next month, is both old school western, all open spaces and cowboys with swagger, and mob drama complete with cold-hearted dames and made men in sharp suits.
In lesser hands that might seem like a rather unholy hybrid or at the very least a show in which no cliché would be left unuttered. Luckily Vegas, which stars Dennis Quaid as Lamb, is scripted by Nicholas Pileggi, the award-winning screenwriter behind Goodfellas and Casino, and a man who knows a thing or two about making gangster stories seem fresh and exciting.
“One of the reasons I was fascinated by this period is because 1960s Las Vegas begins the journey of that city,” says Pileggi, adding that he first became interested in the era when writing Casino. “That was set in the 1970s but when I was working on it I kept thinking that the most fascinating thing was the 1960s, so once we finished I said to myself I’m going to go back and look at the 60s because it’s the most critical period in Las Vegas history. That’s where it starts.”
Executive producer, Greg Walker, agrees: “I think there was a kind of unchecked self-interest that Vegas offered people at that time,” he says. “It’s about a city at a critical juncture in history: a time when the east in the form of the gangsters meets the west in the form of the cowboys.”
Pileggi and Walker realised that in Lamb, still alive at 85 and still living in Vegas, they had the perfect conduit for their tale – if only they could get the notoriously ornery former Sherriff to speak. “Arthur Sarkissian (the show’s other executive producer) basically convinced Ralph to talk to us,” says Pileggi. “Because he never wanted to talk, he never gave interviews, he didn’t care, thanks to Arthur he began to give me and Greg the story and we took it from there.”
They weren’t the first people to try and capture Lamb’s life – a proposed film version directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Clint Eastwood collapsed under the weight of Peckinpah’s drink problems in the early 1980s – and it’s easy to see the appeal. In its most basic form Lamb’s story seems almost like a real life version of a Hollywood western, a comparison Sarkissian plays up comparing the former Sheriff to both Eastwood and John Wayne.
The reality, he admits, wasn’t quite that simple. “As we progress into the storyline we tackle certain things that came up in real life with Ralph and it’s not so black and white,” says Sarkissian. “It’s good versus evil but the evil helps the good and the good helps the evil…sometimes for their own benefit.”
For Quaid, taking his first television role since a bit part in 1970s cop show Baretta in his youth, the biggest appeal lay in Pileggi’s writing. “I just feel some great writers have gone to television because writers have more power in television,” he says. “I’d been circling television for about two or three years because I really like what’s going on there, the fact that they’re telling the kind of stories I like to see that aren’t really happening any more in movies…when this came along what really drew me was that Nick Pileggi was the creator, the man behind Goodfellas and Casino, so you know…”
Certainly Vegas’ main strength lies in the slow-burning relationships between its various characters. In the early episodes the drama lurches uncomfortably between the dark-hued character drama it clearly wants to be and the type of crime-of-the-week procedural so common on US network TV. However, as the drama has progressed so the procedural element has, thankfully, receded into the background as the increasingly complex arrangements between various characters from Lamb and mobster Vincent Savino to Lamb’s younger brother Jack and ice-cold mob accountant Mia come to the fore.
“I think at the start we weren’t sure of our footing so we kind of went with the bigger procedural story,” admits Walker. “But now there are episodes where there’s no case at all and it’s all about the entanglement of our characters and how they interact with each other. What we are trying to do is tell a story about the characters who lived in this exclusive time and exclusive place.”
Yet for all Vegas’s strengths – the cinematic pilot episode which was shot by Walk The Line director James Mangold makes the most of its wide open vistas to create a haunting sense of a slowly vanishing era – its future is by no means secure. Solid reviews and an audience of around ten million a week may not be enough to save it for a second season in a demanding climate which needs a drama with such high production values to be a bigger hit. Like the prematurely cancelled horse racing drama Luck there are also concerns about the age both of the cast (Quaid is 58, Michael Chiklis who plays his mob nemesis 49) and audience (it is watched mainly by viewers in their fifties and over, a less coveted demographic than the supposedly all-important 18-49 group).
The cast, however, remains upbeat despite a slew of stories predicting an early demise. “I just feel that the themes and stories are resonant today,” says Chiklis. “The world is still full of dreamers and seekers, people who are looking for their fortune and just trying to make it in this world. There is a whole lot of that in Vegas in 1960.”
Is it enough to keep one of this year’s more thoughtful network dramas alive? The jury is still out but if there’s any justice then Pileggi’s lovingly crafted tale of law and disorder will survive.
Vegas starts on Sky Atlantic at 10pm on February 14th