Once upon a Time in America

Meyer Lansky
Lee Strasberg

  • Michael Corleone
  • Robert De Niro
  • David “Noodles” Aaronson
  • Sergio Leone
  • Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz
  • Harry Grey

People from the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth also made careers in American organized crime. Interestingly, many of these figures became the inspirations for characters in US cinema. Meyer Lansky (1902-1983), born Meier Suchowlański, known as the “Mob’s Accountant”, was a major American organized crime figure in the 20th century who became a source of inspiration for the US cinematography and literature.

Meyer Lansky, Source: Library of Congress

Meyer Lansky was born in Hrodna (now Belarus). When asked about his native country, Lansky always responded that it was “Poland”. Lansky emigrated to the United States before the First World War. Lansky played a key role in the development of ‘Kosher Nostra’, a Jewish-American mafia in the interwar period. He was also instrumental, along with his close associate Charles “Lucky” Luciano, in the development of the so-called National Crime Syndicate, a loosely connected informal confederation of several criminal organizations, including many Polish-American gangsters. Lansky built a gambling empire that stretched across the world. He established casinos in the Bahamas, Cuba, Las Vegas, and London. Despite being involved in organized crime for almost half a century, he was never convicted of any crime besides illegal gambling. He is recognized as one of the most financially successful mafia bosses in American history.

Certain aspects of Michael Corleone, the main character in the legendary Godfather films, as well as the character Hyman Roth from the second film, are based on Lansky. For instance, Roth’s famous quote that “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel” was based on a comment made by the gangster. Roth was portrayed by Lee Strasberg (1901-1982), a Jewish-American actor, director, and theatre practitioner. The role earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In 1931 Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre, which was hailed as “America’s first true theatrical collective”. Strasberg was born as Israel Strassberg in Budaniv, Eastern Galicia, now in Ukraine. His uncle was a rabbinical teacher. A relative introduced Strasberg to the theatre by giving him a small role in a Yiddish-language piece. He trained several generations of film actors and directors, including Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro. Shortly after the premiere of Godfather, Part II, Meyer Lansky called Strasberg and congratulated him on a good performance, but added that “You could’ve made me more sympathetic”.

Shtetl in Manhattan, “Once Upon a Time in America”, Source: Screenmusings

Lansky was also the inspiration behind the character of Jewish mafia boss David “Noodles” Aaronson, who was portrayed by Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America, an epic crime drama film co-written and directed by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone (1929-1989). The movie chronicles the lives of best friends David “Noodles” Aaronson and Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz. They lead a group of youths from a Jewish immigrant neighborhood, who eventually rise to prominence as gangsters in New York City’s world of the Kosher Nostra. In order to prepare for his role, De Niro tried in vain to arrange a private meeting with Meyer Lansky. The movie was based on Harry Grey‘s (1901-1980) novel The Hoods. The book was one of the few autobiographies of real gangsters at the time. Grey’s real name was Herschel Goldberg. He was born in Kyiv in 1901 and migrated to the US as a four-year-old.