More to a mafioso than meets the eye

Mike Burstyn's one-man show in Los Angeles resurrects the infamous Jewish mobster, Meyer Lansky, remembering him as a patriot, a loyal Jew and a victim of circumstance.

MIKE BURSTYN 88 298 (photo credit: Cyona and Adam Burstyn)
(photo credit: Cyona and Adam Burstyn)
When he died peacefully as a retired businessman in Miami on January 15, 1983, the New York Times headlined the sizeable obituary, "Meyer Lansky dead at 81; Financial Wizard of Organized Crime." A few paragraphs down, an FBI agent, who had dogged Lansky for decades, expressed his admiration for the acumen of the deceased, saying, "He would have been the chairman of the board at General Motors if he'd gone into legitimate business." The story of how young immigrant Meier Suchowljansky became "the financial genius of the underworld" is told in Mike Burstyn's gripping one-man show, now playing at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles. The uninterrupted play focuses on one particular episode in Lansky's later life, his desperate attempt in 1970 to get away from the Feds by moving to Israel and, like any other Jew, claim citizenship under the Law of Return. For once, Lansky's ruthless shrewdness, combined with generous donations to the right people, didn't work. Prime Minister Golda Meir bridled at the thought of the "mafia" infiltrating Israel, and President Nixon let it be known that Uncle Sam would be mightily displeased if Lansky slipped through his fingers. But in making his case to the Israel Supreme Court (and the audience) as to why he was entitled to stay in the Jewish state, Lansky reviews much of his life. Sure, he illegally slaked the thirst of the American masses during Prohibition, but so had the respectable Bronfmans and Kennedys, right? Of course, he had worked hand-in-glove with his boyhood pals, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, in running gambling empires in Miami, Cuba and Las Vegas, and sometimes a few folks had to be roughed up, but he personally had never killed a man. And throughout he had been a loyal Jew and patriot. In the 1930s, when the German-American Bund had rallied at Madison Square Garden, he and some of his muscle boys attended and "persuaded" the Nazis to take to their heels. After Pearl Harbor, when the US Navy couldn't figure out how to identify potential saboteurs among longshoremen at New York harbor, Lansky visited his pal Luciano, who ran the docks from his jail cell, and the problem was solved instantly. And in 1948, when American munition-makers shipped their wares to Arab states while the US government slapped an embargo on supplies to the nascent Jewish state, Lansky arranged to "divert" some of the ships to Israel, while arms bound for Egypt were mysteriously dumped at sea. IT'S FORTUNATE that Burstyn is not only a compelling actor but has a fabulous memory, because for 90 continuous minutes he is never off the stage, and never stops talking. However, he was a bit daunted when first confronted by director/co-author Joseph Bologna's 64-page script. The Jerusalem Post talked to Burstyn and his wife Cyona at their Los Angeles home, decorated wall-to-wall with photos and memorabilia of a stage, screen, television, night club and concert career, which started at age three in the Yiddish theater and shows no sign of slowing down at a youthful 61. He made his debut on New York's Second Avenue with his parents, famed Yiddish actors Pesach'ke Burstyn and Lillian Lux. Born in New York, he traveled during his childhood with his parents for extended stays in Europe, Israel, and North and South America. Thanks to his foreign residences, and a remarkably acute ear, Burstyn can perform in seven languages, passing as an accent-less native. In Israel, where he spends part of each year, his name is inextricably linked with the title role in the "Kuni Leml" films of the 1960s and '70s, playing a kind of Jewish, Forrest Gump-like, anti-hero and earning two Israeli Academy Awards. His earlier theatrical experience in Israel wasn't quite that successful. He and his parents appeared in Yiddish plays in the early 1950s, a time when the League for the Protection of the Hebrew Language fought fiercely against the use of Yiddish as a "ghetto language." "Ticket buyers had to pay an extra tax for viewing a foreign-language production. Sometimes people threw rocks at the theater, and after two years we were asked to leave the country," Burstyn recalls. The setback didn't slow him down. After the "Kuni Leml" films, Burstyn resumed his American career. He vividly recalls his Broadway debut in "Inquest," which dealt with the atomic spy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. "I was 24 years old and played Roy Cohn, of Joe McCarthy infamy, who served as assistant government prosecutor at the trial," said Burstyn. "The moment I opened my mouth, everyone in the audience started booing and hissing. "I didn't know what hit me. I froze. I asked myself, 'why do they hate me?' But then, the audience reaction gave me a push. I told myself, 'you hate me, I'll show you,' and gave a powerful performance." Subsequently, it turned out that the theater had been booked that night by a group of left-wing lawyers, who bitterly opposed the death verdict in the Rosenberg case and hated the government lawyers." Since then, Burstyn's roles as actor and singer in on- and off-Broadway shows and regional theaters have won him critical praise and numerous awards in such plays and musicals as "The Rothschilds," "Barnum," "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Megillah" and "Jolson." "Lansky" is Burstyn's first one-man show and he has grown rather fond of his character. He stands up for his man, even during interviews. "In a sense, the story of Meyer Lansky is an American tragedy," said Burstyn. "It's about the choices poor immigrants made to escape the life of the Lower East Side ghetto. "Lansky could have been anything he wanted. He made the wrong choices, but he was also, in a way, a victim of hypocrisy and politics. The United States put him on trial three times and could never convict him." Burstyn has talked to Israeli lawyers who believe that today, a more assertive Israel would not have denied Lansky his citizenship and his dream to be buried in Israel. Burstyn would also like to see more self-confidence among American Jewish investors in theater productions, who uniformly turned him down because, he believes, "they didn't want a play about a Jewish mobster." As a result, the actor violated the first rule of his profession by putting his own money into the play, and doubling as co-producer with Dan Israely. He is now anxiously awaiting the reviews and, if the play does well in Los Angeles, he plans to take it to New York and London.