On the list of my ten all-time favorite movies, the top two are comic book movies, and half are mob movies. Growing up, if it had an inkling of the mafia, I watched them all. Sometimes, I had to suffer through a few for my sins, like Mobsters. Richard Grieco, Christian Slater, and Patrick Dempsey? Are they serious? It was Grey’s Anatomy with Tommy Guns, Tiger Beat Magazine in pinstripes—a complete embarrassment. Thankfully, these films are in the minority. The Untouchables, The Godfather I and II, Goodfellas, and Casino; now those were movies. The only problem I have when re-watching these films is the sadness I feel when I think of how insane Robert DeNiro has become. Perhaps his fight scenes in Raging Bull weren’t simulations. Nevertheless, movies like these and others—like The Departed—packed a punch that will forever be remembered. I knew I made it when my uncle let me sit on the couch to watch Scarface. I had to pretend to be appalled by the violence to keep up the appearances of innocence. My mother would yell at my uncle for letting me watch “that filth.” For some reason, she wouldn’t turn off the television. Better to watch it at home with family than with the neighborhood kids, I suppose. Otherwise, I may get the wrong idea and think it was acceptable to cut a man in half with a chainsaw and snort piles of cocaine. If you’re a lady reading this and wondered if the men in your life have ever used the phrase, “Say hello to my little friend” in a horrible Cuban accent, the answer is yes.
Who could forget Michael Corleone grabbing his brother Fredo by his face, kissing him on the mouth and saying, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.” Or, Joe Pesci trolling Ray Liotta with the “Funny how?” scene from Goodfellas. Although I know how it ends, it’s a tense exchange that makes you question the outcome—masterfully done by Joe Pesci. If you are in the mood to view one of these classics again, or for the first time, I don’t recommend watching any of them on FX or any other cable network. Testosterone-fueled movies involving organized crime have a penchant for colorful language and violence that always get edited for mainstream audiences. I remember one day I made the mistake of watching King of New York on television from a hotel room. I was horrified. It felt as though I was watching King of the Hill, not the Christopher Walken classic. Every other word was replaced with “sucker.” Do yourself a favor and watch the uncut versions.
The real-life people that inspire unforgettable characters and movies are fascinating. Think Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Arnold Rothstein. One man, in particular, was Benjamin Siegel. Siegel was born February 28, 1906, to a Jewish immigrant family, and wasted no time getting his hands dirty. He was a tough, rough-and-tumble kid who would extort pushcart merchants on the Lower East Side. Before young Jewish men went into medicine, law, and business, they used their fists. Most escaped oppressive regimes in Europe and wanted a fresh start in America. But, it wasn’t going to be handed to them. Siegel would befriend another young Jewish hoodlum, Meyer Lansky, known for his gifted mathematical mind, and formed Bugs-Meyer Gang. Meyer Lansky doesn’t have the number of on-screen reproductions as Al Capone, but his name appears in every other rap song made in the 1990’s. Benjamin became known as “Bugsy” to his fellow gang members due to his hot temper and violent disposition; crazy as a bedbug. Using violence to get their way was the modus operandi of the gang, affectionately known as Murder, Inc.
In the roaring 20’s, Charles “Lucky” Luciano gave us what we now refer to as Organized Crime. He created a national syndicate, comprising of a network of crime families and organizations across the country, with himself as the head. He wasn’t formally referred to as “The Boss of Bosses,” but that’s who he was. Bugsy played a significant part in establishing the new regime, including executing the old guard. With the three of them at the helm, organized crime reached a new level of power and profit. No one is above the law, and Federal Agents eventually nabbed Luciano. Lansky could see the writing on the wall and surmised he and Siegel were next. He suggested that Ben move west to Hollywood, and institute operations there. Lansky went down to Florida and eventually Cuba. Bugsy went to the City of Angels and quickly got to work. Between running prostitution rings and narcotics, he found time to hobnob with Tinseltown’s finest. It seemed as though he found his niche. No one in Hollywood was going to match his muscle, so his authority would remain unchallenged, and his affinity for the high life made him feel at home.
In 1945, he and his girlfriend Virginia Hill moved to the desert—Las Vegas. Siegel had a vision of a desert oasis, filled with lights where the wealthiest from around the country would flock with bags of cash. In the mid-1940’s, there were scatterings of saloons and casinos, like the El Rancho, where Clark Gable was known to have stayed. But, there was nothing like what Ben had in mind. It all started with the Flamingo Las Vegas.
William Wilkerson, the founder of the Hollywood Reporter, started the project in 1945. Since no hotel of the Flamingo’s scale had ever been attempted, Wilkerson quickly ran out of money—Bugsy Siegel and the New York syndicate to the rescue. Siegel was given a budget of 1.5 million dollars to complete construction. Just as a reference point, The Bellagio was built for 1.6 billion—with a “B”—dollars. Unfortunately, Bugsy did not rise to prominence in the mob for his business acumen. That was Lansky’s strength. Bugsy was muscle, sharp-dressed muscle, with a short fuse. Expenses on the Flamingo ballooned to 6 million by the time of its opening on December 26, 1947. If the unforeseen expenditures were attributable to development, licensing and so forth, perhaps New York would understand. It was not, and they would not. Bugsy stole many of the funds and mismanaged a lot more, even announcing that he would return the loans in “his own good time.” In the mob, loyalty is a life-saving attribute.
On June 20, 1947, Siegel visited Los Angeles and stayed at Virginia Hill’s Beverly Hills home. While he sat, reading the newspaper, nine shots erupted through a window. The display was gruesome. Newspaper headlines read:
“BUGSY SIEGEL MURDERED–RUBBED OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS IN HAIL OF BULLETS.”
Photographs from the murder scene appear as though he was shot through the eye socket. He was not, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from memorializing it in the Godfather. Moe Green, a character based on Siegel is shot in the eye while getting a massage, dubbed the “Moe Green Special.” It is worth noting that Warren Beatty, who played Bugsy in the lackluster film by the same name, has been riddled with bullets twice. Once in Bugsy, and the other as Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. The day after Siegel’s death, representatives of the Las Vegas mob, backed by Lansky, took over operations of the Flamingo. Decades of mob rule had begun in Las Vegas. To this day, the Siegel murder has not been solved.
When you think of Las Vegas, what comes to mind? Buffets and Cirque Du Soleil? What about gambling, a Nevada staple since 1931? When we think of gambling, we think of James Bond playing poker to save the world, or maybe Robert Redford and Paul Newman swindling Robert Shaw in The Sting. Even if you’ve never seen The Sting, I’m willing to bet you’d recognize the theme song after six seconds. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Gambling has a larger role in our lives than we think, particularly in fitness.
Gambling: taking risky action in the hope of a desired result.
When we gamble, the longshot, the biggest risk of them all, has the most appeal. It’s dangerous, reckless, and you tell yourself you shouldn’t. You repeat it in your head, even as you place your chips on the table. The more you put down, the more electric the feeling. The unsafe bets give us a primal adrenaline rush, hanging on to the thread of hope that we’ll strike it rich. Every day, we take gambles on our health and fitness, but without the tuxedo and martini, shaken-not-stirred. We subconsciously know we are gambling but do not call it by that name. Look at where people spend their money and their energy. The Weight-Loss Industry rakes in 66 Billion dollars per year. Akin to Feds chasing bootleggers and hooch, the NIH spent 913 million to “study” why weight loss is hard. Let’s all collectively facepalm.
Each new diet book, fat burning tea, “bio-hack,” all resemble luxurious Casino tables. Each one, promising a massive payoff, like the brand-new Jaguar rotating on display. But, the payoff never comes. No huge jackpot. The House always wins. We must know that these get-fit-quick schemes are bullshit. Don’t we? We must certainly be aware that there’s no shell under the cups. But, it’s the rush. It’s the faint sense of “you never know” and “maybe.” We talk ourselves into it. The oiled-up fitness guy pops up on your Facebook feed, encouraging you to “burn fat” and “get photoshoot ready” in six weeks, and you can’t help but think, “this is garbage, but what if it works?” You step up to the high-stakes casino table thinking, “what if,” and give up the cash. The what-if ends the way it always ends, with you going home empty-handed and the only thing that leaned out is your wallet.
Is safe boring? Is the dependable bet the one we don’t want to make? If you knew you’d win, does that make you less likely to play? Does it make us pass by those tables, favoring the sparkly ones, with bikini-clad ladies standing on either side and a gentleman sporting a six-pack standing behind? “Take a seat, play a while, and all this can be yours.” The dealer flips a card—a hundred burpees. He flips another—an hour on the treadmill, first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. A cocktail waitress walks by, to refresh your drink. It’s not whiskey, but a multi-filtered, ultra-premium, muscle-building, fat-destroying Protein Powder, infused with Vibranium-coated BCAA’s from Wakanda. It’s getting late, you’re falling asleep. You’ve only eaten 800 calories. The waitress comes by again. This time, with coffee. But, not just any coffee. There’s a stick of butter in it, formulated to transform your gut into the leanest and sexiest stomach this side of an Instagram filter. It’ll make you a mental genius, and launch you to the top of the Forbes list, and the cover of Sports Illustrated. Eventually, it gives you the runs, and you’re still losing money. The House always wins.
After eighteen years in the industry, I was not immune to the big wagers. If there was a new gizmo guaranteeing results, I owned it. If there was a seminar promising the latest, cutting-edge methodology, I was on the next plane. I remember staying at a roach motel in Queens for a week, where I’m pretty sure there was a dead body under my mattress. Why? To attend a seminar that claimed they could identify altered hormonal patterns by pinching someone’s fat. I’m not a victim, I was a big boy and made my own decision to go. It was an exciting gamble. It was also bullshit. The next time I grab your stomach fat, I’m analyzing your thyroid hormone—or something.
Don’t go all-in and sink your money, effort, and emotions on the big tables that offer much and never deliver. Bet on the reliable, again-and-again. Win small, but win. Accumulate the small winnings into a large pot. By the end of six months or a year, you’ll need to exit the casino with a briefcase and security detail. Notice I said, six months—not six days, and a year—not a week. That’s the thing with the safe, dependable fitness gambles. They take effort. They take time. They also bring out the best in us and don’t cater to our gluttonous and greedy natures. There’s nothing wrong with a little gambling. However, it’s never a substitute for good, old-fashioned work. So, step right up and place your bets. Win a little and win often.
I do wonder, sometimes, would Bugsy Siegel have survived the shooting if he was drinking Bulletproof Coffee?