”Benjamin Siegel wasn’t an ordinary gangster, and I’ve known a few,” says James Toback, the maverick writer-director whose script for Bugsy was seven years in the making. ”He invented Las Vegas; it sprang up out of his brain. He was the first gangster to pal around with movie stars — a mad, poetic visionary whose enormous charm masked an irrational core.”
Forty-four years after his death, Bugsy Siegel may have found his ideal biographer. To many, Toback is the quintessential outlaw of American film — a onetime compulsive gambler, notorious womanizer, and legendary hell-raiser who pals around with such stars as Bugsy’s Warren Beatty. In fact, Toback says he was drawn to the ’40s gangster because ”Bugsy believed he was the sole exception to the rules. We’re all a little like that, right?”
Apparently so. For two decades in Hollywood, Toback has generally behaved as though the usual rules didn’t apply to him, either. The son of a New York stockbroker, Toback made a precarious living teaching, gambling, and writing groundbreaking sports pieces (including a 1971 biography of his friend, football’s Jim Brown). He broke into films in 1972 with a job as an assistant to director Arthur Penn. Two years later, Karel Reisz was directing Toback’s script for The Gambler, a story that seems to have been inspired by his own sports-betting fixation. Since then, Toback, 47, has written and directed a string of low-budget cult favorites, including Fingers (1978), with Harvey Keitel; Exposed (1983), starring Nastassia Kinski and Rudolf Nureyev; and The Big Bang (1989), a documentary featuring both the semifamous and the unknown expounding on life, sex, and death. None has made money, and at least a couple were treated by the companies that financed them ”as if they were diseased,” says Toback. Bugsy is likely to earn more in its first week than all of Toback’s previous efforts combined.
Then there is the matter of Toback’s offscreen reputation. Several magazine articles, particularly an infamous 1989 Spy profile, have portrayed him as a compulsive womanizer. Asked about that depiction, Toback simply says, ”If this guy exists, I’d like to find him some day, give him a good smack, and send him packing.”
It may be impossible to separate Toback’s notorious image from the reality, but he carries his identification with Benjamin Siegel just so far. ”Meyer Lansky insisted till the day he died that he was a liberal Democrat,” says Toback. ”I think Siegel’s politics, to the extent that he had any, were more in the other direction.” What would Bugsy Siegel be doing if he were alive today? ”He’d probably be hosting the Republican convention. In Las Vegas.”