Behind the Action: Sam Rothstein from Casino

Sam Rothstein from the movie Casino has become one of the most popular characters across all gambling films. Learn all about him and the person he was based on in this article.

Martin Scorsese is a legendary filmmaker. On his impressive resume, Casino stands the test of time. The tale of Las Vegas mobsters holds up today. Part of that is due to Robert DeNiro’s character, Sam Rothstein.

The film Casino is everything that we pictured the Las Vegas gambling scene to be. The biggest casinos were run by the shadiest characters, money flowed freely into the coffers of those who dipped their toe into the outer edges of the law.

One of the standout characters from that film is Sam “Ace” Rothstein. Played by the unforgettable Robert DeNiro, the character quickly became a favorite among Casino fans. In the days of online casinos, the story of Sam Rothstein seems too crazy to be possible. But it is based on a true story.

Based in Reality

Just like other gangster films, Casino has a basis in reality. Though details have been changed and fudged and given a little bit of oomph, the character of Sam Rothstein didn’t come out of the blue.

Rothstein is based largely on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a very real gambler and gangster known for his smooth demeanor. DeNiro probably didn’t have to stray too far away from the source material to turn in one of the best performances of his career.

Rosenthal knew how to make the odds work in his favor, maximizing profits for the less-than-reputable characters for which he worked. While millions came through the doors for roulette, blackjack, and baccarat, far more happened behind the scenes. In the end, it made for a great story. This story, as it turns out.

The Rise of Rothstein

Sam Rothstein’s story in Casino begins with a trip to Las Vegas. A Mafia associate and noteworthy handicapper, Rothstein is sent to run the Tangiers Casino, which is funded by Teamsters and run by a conglomerate of Midwest mafia families.

Rothstein quickly becomes the de facto boss of the Tangiers and doubles its profits in no time. Naturally, the profits are skimmed by the mafia before any records get reported to tax agencies. The bosses quickly become happy with Sam’s work and send caporegime and enforcer – not to mention Rothstein’s friend – Nicky Santoro out to offer protection.

This move becomes important later down the line. Despite Rothstein’s success, Santoro’s hot head continues to get him in trouble. He ultimately is banned by the casino gaming board from every Las Vegas casino. Not to be denied, Santoro runs burglaries and shakedowns of his own accord.

The Downfall

Things begin to turn in the wrong direction for Rothstein when he meets Ginger McKenna. Though the relationship is touch-and-go to begin, they quickly marry and have a daughter, Amy. Things quickly begin to fall off the rails as Nicky and Sam find that Ginger is secretly giving money to a former boyfriend, Lester Diamond.

Sam also begins to run into issues after firing the son-in-law of the Clark County Commissioner, resulting in his casino license application being pulled. In retaliation, Sam goes on television and openly accuses the city government of corruption. His bosses, however, are not happy with that move and ask Sam to go home.

As a result, the bosses turn to a Kansas City underboss to reduce the amount of skimming local mobsters are doing for themselves. He’s quickly caught but the real trouble is in the deterioration of the relationship between Sam and Ginger. She plans to run away to Europe with Amy and Lester, but ultimately brings her back.

As Ginger slips into alcohol and drug use, she becomes even more erratic. Sam ultimately confronts Ginger and things fall apart. After begging Nicky to “whack” Sam, she steals their bank key and attempts to withdraw everything from their vault. She gets some of the savings but FBI agents quickly arrest her.

The End?

With Ginger in hand, the FBI quickly uncovers the skimming operation. Suddenly, the mob’s casino empire started to collapse and many of the bosses are arrested. After a brief congregation, they come together to decide that anyone who may testify needs to be dealt with.

Ginger never overcomes her addictions, ultimately dying totally broke in Los Angeles due to a drug overdose. Sam, meanwhile, is nearly the victim of a car bombing thanks to the directive of his bosses. It is botched, however, and he makes it out with his life.

Sam suspects that Nicky is behind the hit, but never gets his chance to confront his former friend. Nicky and his brother Dominick are taken out to the desert and beaten to death by their former associate Frankie Moreno.

As the mob falls out of power, big corporations begin to buy out all of the old casinos. They plan to demolish those old relics and create much larger, grandiose gambling attractions. We find Sam lamenting that Las Vegas’ new family-friendly attitude doesn’t have the same classier feel that Vegas had when he was in charge at the Tangiers. In the very last scene of the movie, we see that Sam is living in San Diego. He is a sports handicapper for the mob, stating that he is, “…right back where I started.”

Character Legacy

Those who wonder why mafioso were considered so en vogue in the 1980s and 1990s need to look no further than DeNiro’s character in Casino. At the peak of his success, Rothstein rolled in money for both himself and his bosses, creating good times for all.

Rothstein carried himself with a calmness that exuded cool. Wherever he went, you could bet he would be in a tailored suit and have his hair slicked back. Sam Rothstein was class mixed with just enough danger, creating the template for “cool.”

Scorsese has made several more notable films since the release of Casino. No matter what further projects he releases, however, fans will fondly remember the time that gangsters ran the casinos of Las Vegas.

Noah has worked in the iGaming space for more than five years, first as a freelancer and now as part of Duluth Media. He’s experienced in all facets of the industry and has covered plenty of sports.

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