Early that morning his telephone had begun ringing nonstop, and he found himself thanking directors, casting directors, producers, actors, and all the members of the Actors Studio. He’d seen many of his actors receive Oscar nominations, but when he heard his name among the 1974 nominees for The Godfather: Part II, Lee Strasberg was astounded. The callers told him he’d been a master actor on the set; he had blown away his own pupils (“They were wonderful, but nothing compared to you”); he’d been able to humanize and at the same time portray the horror that was Hyman Roth; he must have awed even Francis Ford Coppola.
After a while his responses became routine, just like the compliments he was receiving, and Strasberg began to experience a sense of boredom. After all, it was just a little statuette, and the nomination was as supporting actor. In any case, it wasn’t even a given that they would award it to him. Hollywood myths, nothing more.
Then, late afternoon, he received another call. This time the caller was unknown, and yet it was someone with whom Strasberg was extremely familiar. The voice was plaintive and nasal, the voice of a man of few words, a man who had nothing to do with Strasberg’s world.
“Am I speaking to Hyman Roth?”
Strasberg didn’t understand. “You must have the wrong number. This is the home of Lee Strasberg.”
“Exactly,” continued the nasal voice. “Am I speaking to Hyman Roth?”
A chill traveled down his spine. For a moment he didn’t say anything, and then he said, “With whom am I speaking?”
“I am disappointed. I thought that you’d studied my voice.”
Strasberg didn’t dare say a word.
“This is Meyer Lansky. I wanted to pay you my compliments.”
“Thank you.” He was about to add “Mr. Lansky” and then thought better of it.
He just wanted to hang up the phone as quickly as possible. The man on the other end of the line, however, had something more to add.
“Truly a great performance, but you could have made me a little more sympathetic.”
Strasberg remained silent. All he could think was: How did Lansky get his phone number? And was this a threat? He tried to stay calm.
Lansky didn’t say a word.
Who knew from where he was phoning. In The Godfather they had him living in Florida; the FBI said he was in Miami. This, however, meant very little, and in the film the Italian mafia killed him off—something that wasn’t true. Somewhere Strasberg had read that the man had tried to move to Herzliya Pituah, a community along the Israeli coast. The newspapers described it as a way to escape the accusation of tax evasion: it was said that he had three hundred million in a Swiss bank account, and that he’d offered a third of that to the Israeli government in exchange for permission to live out his remaining years there and, once dead, to be buried by the sea. Legends, probably, serving to embellish the myth of a man born in Belarus from very religious parents, who had dreams that one day he would become a rabbi. He had loved them more than anything in the world, he said, yet he’d thrown their teaching to the winds.
Strasberg had the impression that Lansky knew exactly what he was thinking and was smiling.
Strasberg’s own family also came from Eastern Europe, of course, and his own real name was Israel. He also enjoyed the sea, and there was no other sea like the Mediterranean. He recalled then that, in fact, the Israeli government had determined that Lansky was an undesirable visitor and had sent him back to the United States, where he had been put on trial based on the accusations of a small-time thug called Vincent Teresa. “Fat Vinnie,” however, had been so unreliable a witness that the gangster had been acquitted—allowed to live his life in anonymity.
Perhaps it was a question of narcissism, amusement, irritation, or simply boredom, this call and the reproach. The very same feelings that Strasberg had begun to experience up until the arrival of that phone call.
Perhaps Lansky had imagined Strasberg’s stunned reaction. Perhaps this amused him, or maybe he didn’t even give a damn. Strasberg had studied this man minutely: they were about the same age, and both had grown up on the streets of the Lower East Side. They probably knew each other when they were little, might even have hung out together. He had been truly surprised to find out how religious Meyer’s father, Max, had been, and tolearn of the lullaby his mother, Yette, would sing to him every night: “Little child, close your eyes. If God wills it, you will be a rabbi.” Strasberg’s own mother, Ida, had sung something similar to him.
That ritual of identifying with the character, which he had taught so well to his students, had pushed him to find out the real name of that gangster’s family, Suchowljansky. They came from Grodno, quarantined on Ellis Island before moving to the Lower East Side. Max and Yette Suchowljansky had suffered but then had come to love America. Still, they had succeeded in instilling in little Maier the idea of returning to the Promised Land: “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim.”: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Who knows what the family thought when young Maier began hanging out with two mugs like Salvatore Lucania, a Sicilian who called himself “Lucky Luciano,” and Benjamin Siegel, whom everyone called “Bugsy.”
Lucky had been impressed by the courage with which Maier resisted an attempt to extort money from him. When Bugsy found himself in big trouble after one of his usual bragging episodes, it was Maier, the young man who didn’t become a rabbi, who saved his life. The two new friends fastened to him the nickname “Little Man,” but only those two could call him that without risking their lives. Who knows when exactly Max and Yette found out that Maier had become Meyer.
Lansky’s silence troubled Strasberg, but he couldn’t hang up, and his mind kept racing.
In the midst of the “War of Castellammare,” it was Lucky, Bugsy, and Meyer who architected the alliance between the Italian and Jewish mafias. From their initiative grew the criminal syndicate, and at the end of a meeting in which the American territory was divided up into regions, it was Siegel who declared, “The yids and the dagos will no longer fight each other.” No one else dared to use those terms face-to-face, but Bugsy thought offenses a type of intimacy. In any case, he boasted that he strangled his enemies with his bare hands, which made his friend Meyer happy, because he preferred, even as a young man, to be the person in the shadows giving the orders.
To seal this alliance the three gangsters organized the killing of Salvatore Maranzano, the boss of all bosses, in the Helmsley Building, in the center of Manhattan. It was a demonstration of power, a message to anyone who contemplated the idea of obstructing the plans of the rising stars.
“How is your wife, Anna?” Lansky suddenly asked.
Very formal. Too much so.
“Fine, thank you.”
“And your children?”
Strasberg felt the nerves in his nape stiffen, cold down his spine. He had to respond.
“Well, thank God.”
He was a little surprised at his own religious reference, but then he understood that he was entrusting himself to Lansky’s parents.
“And you—how are you? Everything okay?”
“Yes, sure,” Strasberg answered after a few seconds. “I’m just a little tired.”
He had responded automatically, but it was the truth.
“I understand,” Lansky said. “People tend to trivialize your business, but it is hard work.”
Strasberg tried to sound normal, agreeing, “It’s exactly like this.”
Lansky, Strasberg thought, was probably never tired. He was one of the founders of Las Vegas! The original idea was Bugsy’s, but it had been Lansky who guaranteed the soundness of the investment to the Italian families. Bugsy busied himself convincing the stars to perform at the Flamingo. He was a personal friend of many, and on more than one occasion Lansky had been able to meet them and see them work.
Then things began to go badly. When the Flamingo began to lose money, Lansky had to defend his lifelong friend from a death sentence issued by the New York families. He managed to save Bugsy twice, but after another balance sheet went disastrously red, Lansky had given the green light, and no one ever knew if he ever regretted it.
Bugsy was riddled with bullets from machine guns in the living room of his own home. He had known that his time had come, and he had not resisted.
Lansky had moved on. After cementing ties with Fulgencio Batista, he’d decided to invest in casinos, and until the revolution took place, Cuba was fertile soil for extraordinary investments. A majority of the clientele were Americans, and Lansky was able to control the FBI thanks to a series of erotic photographs of J. Edgar Hoover. In the film, the story revolved around the business accoutrements of the criminal and the beginning of the crisis caused by Castro and his barbudos. But Strasberg had freely imagined the violence, abuse, torture, and murders Lansky commissioned to keep order, while playing the part of a retired old man in love with baseball.
At the apex of his career, Lansky said that he’d become greater even than U.S. Steel. This is what Hyman Roth says to Michael Corleone. But Strasberg knew that Lansky had really said it to his wife after seeing a TV show on the power of the criminal syndicate that he had created. Lansky had talked about his business—this was the near-rabbi’s term for the terrain on which he could create art and the most authentic reason for living. And, at the end of the day, Hollywood executives called it a business, too.
“I want to tell you a story,” Lansky said suddenly.
“Please,” Strasberg responded, a little ashamed.
“A friend of mine, a politician in with a liberal crowd, told me that in Yorkville, a few years after the war, a Nazi group had formed. This friend of mine was very upset. He couldn’t possibly understand how something like that could happen in a country like America, the home of the brave, the land of the free.”
“I know the song,” Strasberg interjected, wanting to correct with an offhand remark the excessive formality he’d just shown. Perhaps even his fear.
Lansky was silent. Then he continued: “We found out where the group met. It didn’t take much. You know, we don’t lack contacts. At that point I gave the order to some very reliable people to make them understand what America means.”
He again paused before saying, “I think they understood very well.”
While preparing for his role, Strasberg had read that the young Nazis had been thrown out the window together with their swastikas. The newspapers had spoken of a rebellion by Jewish New Yorkers.
“Something I have never told anyone, and that today I would like to tell you, is that on that day I decided to go along with my friends. I felt that I owed it to my parents, who were two very good people.”
The story must have ended there, because he didn’t say any more, except, “I salute you, Mr. Roth.”
Lansky hung up without waiting for a response, and Strasberg remained for a while with the receiver still in his hand. Then he too replaced it. He unplugged the phone and tried to rest. Soon the Oscar campaign and the constant Actors Studio engagements would take up Strasberg’s time, and he’d realize that in daily life there are moments of excitement, a lot of anguish, and many other oddities. The Academy would decide not to give him the Oscar, and Ryan and Tatum O’Neal would call instead Strasberg’s pupil Robert De Niro to the stage for his interpretation of the young Vito Corleone. But until then, prior to falling asleep, Strasberg imagined Little Man Lansky during the war, when he’d helped the American government identify German infiltrators. It seemed he’d discovered numerous plots to sabotage submarines.
Antonio Monda is the artistic director of the literary festival Le Conversazioni. A columnist for Vogue and a regular contributor to La Repubblica, he is the author of the collection of photos and short stories Nella città nuda; the novels Assoluzione, L’America non esiste and La casa sulla roccia; and the interview collection Do You Believe?. His work has been translated into eleven languages. He is a film professor at NYU.
Listen to Antonio Monda and Ian Bassingthwaighte discuss “Am I Speaking to Hyman Roth?” on our Contributors in Conversation podcast.