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The Many Faces of Meyer Lansky

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In 1977 Grandpa Meyer and I were at Wolfie's in North Miami Beach, and I noticed two young boys in yarmulkes looking over at us. I was standing behind Grandpa when the boys walked up. One said, "Hey, Mr. Lansky, we'd like to get your autograph!" Grandpa paused for a moment. He looked seriously at the boys and said, "What did I do? Win an Academy Award?" One of the boys looked earnestly at Grandpa and said, "Well, we thought it would be worth some money someday." Grandpa then smiled and replied, "Sorry, son, I don't sign autographs."

As the years have passed, I have often remembered that afternoon in the deli. I wonder what Grandpa would have thought of the award-winning actors who have portrayed him, either as Meyer Lansky or characters based on Meyer Lansky. While Grandpa passed away in 1983 when I was 26, today, at 56, I watch. At times it's a bit shocking to hear his name (which is also my name) while enjoying a good story with great actors. I'm often entertained, and always appreciative of the casting, of Grandpa's appearances as part of the boys' legacy, including Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, Ben "Bugsy" Siegel and Frank Costello.

In every movie and television show featuring Grandpa, I listen for the voice, the inflection, and the vocabulary. I look for physical characteristics, the tailored wardrobe, and the Dunhill cigarette case. I compare. Every actor portraying Grandpa has proven exceptional in capturing a feature or essence, but I have my favorites, and I hope one day to see Grandpa portrayed in live theater.

Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II, 1974

The most iconic film for Grandpa. He not only saw the movie but phoned Strasberg to congratulate and offer light criticism. In life, Grandpa spoke with his hands behind his back, and talked baseball (Yankees!), but could become irate quickly, as Roth suggests. Strasberg's acting emitted personal recollections of actual conversations, but I doubt Grandpa ever saw business guests in his home wearing an unbuttoned shirt. Roth's final scene in the Miami Airport is still haunting to me.

Robert De Niro as David "Noodles" Aaronson in Once Upon a Time in America, 1984

Reportedly De Niro requested an audience with Grandpa to prepare for this role but was turned down. Grandpa was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1982, passing on Jan. 15, 1983. However, De Niro clearly seized the role critically. The modest, humble demeanor and calm, steady articulation, only speaking when necessary, were familiar.

Martin Landau as Max Brower in The Neon Empire, 1989

While he's nearly a foot taller than Grandpa, certain qualities about Landau's performance stand out. Landau's studied mannerisms and strong gaze were reflective of Grandpa's classy, intelligent persona.

Ben Kingsley as Meyer in Bugsy, 1991

Grandpa had a thick head of hair, which seems inconsequential when you compare Kingsley to Meyer, a born leader. In Kingsley, I see Grandpa's directness and firm logic, visible organization, and impeccable attire with attitude.

Patrick Dempsey as Meyer in Mobsters, 1991

Dempsey ably captures Grandpa's quick-thinking, scrappy identity as a young man surviving on New York's Lower East Side. Dempsey's portrayal provided a tableau of my grandparents' wedding, which I enjoyed. Historically, Grandpa married my Romanian-born grandmother, Anne Citron, in the spring of 1929, where Ben Siegel served as Grandpa's best man. Soon after, Ben married Esther, where Grandpa served as Ben's best man.

Richard Dreyfuss as Meyer in Lansky, 1999

The only full-length movie about Grandpa, which touched on our Lansky family relationships. While Dreyfuss has the overall appearance, Grandpa walked straight and strong, never with a limp. A dialog on the Jewish American experience is eerily similar to a discussion we once had.

Dustin Hoffman as Meyer in The Lost City, 2005

Parallel in stature and assertiveness, and I found Hoffman's voice pitch-perfect to Grandpa's. Hoffman's tone of passion, of love, and emotion for Cuba is all there, just as Grandpa would express his feelings about Cuba. Incredible.

Anatol Yusef as Meyer in Boardwalk Empire, 2010

Remarkably close to Grandpa in height, vocabulary, and chain smoking. I often wonder if Yusef has viewed Grandpa's scarce public video footage, including the interview conducted in Israel. In season four of Boardwalk Empire when Grandpa, as a young businessman, makes a deal with Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the story, terminology and practical mannerisms are performed with accuracy.

Throughout the years, I've noticed similarities and disparities, but I am always eager to see a new portrayal of Grandpa over 30 years after his passing. In 1999, I remember giving a newspaper interview with film critiques of Grandpa and stating that I felt he would be embarrassed by all the publicity. But today, relaxed and with time to compare notes with my father, I think Grandpa would be amused at his continued representation as part of the early American mafia.