Mike Burstyn's Portrait of Lansky


By Masha Leon

Published February 19, 2009, issue of February 27, 2009.


Mike Burstyn, a nice guy and a great actor who can do anything — walk a tightrope (as he did in the Broadway hit “Barnum”), win two Israeli Oscars, host his own show (in Dutch) in The Netherlands, emote in Yiddish, wow them in English and perform before royalty — seems to be a victim of “Lansky” playwrights Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna (also its director, and husband of Fran Drescher’s TV mother-from-Flushing, Renée Taylor). The one-person 90-minute monologue based on Robert Rockaway’s 1993 book, “But He Was Good To His Mother,” reduces the sangfroid, brainy gangster Meyer Lansky to a Catskills-style shtick artist obsessing about a lousy pastrami sandwich at his hotel in Tel Aviv, Israel, because the sandwich lacks the tam of Wolfie’s in Miami Beach. A self-proclaimed hero of the Jewish people, he boasts of helping smuggle arms to Israel and beating up Nazi sympathizers. Coming to Israel ostensibly to go to his Jewish roots, but actually fleeing prosecution for the United States for tax evasion, Burstyn, as Lansky, is dapper in a pinstripe custom-made suit. Photos and film clips of the real Lansky (or of his portrayers, such as Mark Rydell in “Havana” or Lee Strassberg in “The Godfather II”) show the man in casual style with open-collar shirt? Not until the end of the show do we see Burstyn at his best, revealing Lansky’s true color — bile blue. The opening night crowd, which included Fyvush Finkel; Jerry Stiller; Eleanor Reissa; Leon Charney; Rabbi Joseph Potasnik; Israel’s consul general, Asaf Shariv; author Rockaway, and a large contingent of his Israeli fans, gave Burstyn a standing ovation.

Legend: Sidney Lumet was honored at the event.
Karen Leon
Legend: Sidney Lumet was honored at the event.

In a flawless monologue — a masterful piece of memorization on Burstyn’s part — Lansky recalls his roots in Russian Grodno Gubernia, now Belarus (where the families of Leonard Nimoy and Leonard Bernstein come from), and chronicles his acceptance by, and rise in, a world populated by the likes of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Bennie “Bugsy” Siegel and their ilk. He ran the casinos in Miami and in Havana, bankrolled Bugsy’s vision of Las Vegas and never got his hands bloody, thanks to out-of-sight murders. He died in his sleep at 80.


Celebrities were gawking at each other at the January 29 presentation of the Legion of Honor to film director Sidney Lumet, at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. There was Liam Neeson, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Gene Saks, Alan Alda, Ben Gazzara, Wallace Shawn, Martin Richards, Ellen Adler and Ellen Barkin. “You are a first-generation American,” said medal conferrer Pierre Vimont, France’s Ambassador to the United States. “The core of your work was formed even before your birth… when your family emigrated here, along with so many Jewish families from Eastern Europe. From this strong… cultural legacy you inherited… a deep respect for justice. You once said that the first time you saw Hamlet, it was in Yiddish.… In France, the true story of a cop that you directed in ‘Serpico’ in 1973 will always represent a moving vision of hope against a seemingly unbeatable system.” Vimont added: “In fact, you once said in an interview: ‘I am interested as soon as authority makes a mistake.’” Lumet was, as they say, in Yiddish, in zibetn himl — on cloud nine.

“Did I really do all these things?” Lumet asked, smiling at his colleagues, friends and admirers in the salon. “I am knocked out by this.… There has always been a strong connection between me and the times I have been in France.” Lumet’s movies have received 46 Academy Award nominations, and his filmography includes “The Pawnbroker,” “Network,” “Twelve Angry Men, “ Prince of the City,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” He confided, “I have always been asked, what was the origin of my name.” He then shrugged, as if to say, “I don’t know. My parents came from Warsaw.” Then, on a tangent, he spoke about Bonaparte’s flight from Moscow, a soldier finding a beautiful girl in Warsaw. I am not sure how it fit in. Was it a piece of history, a movie plot or an allusion to how his father met his mother?

Before everyone broke for champagne, Vimont placed the beribboned Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur medal around Lumet’s neck. (The National Order of the Legion d’Honneur was founded by Bonaparte “to recognize outstanding achievement in the military as well as in the pubic and private sectors”). It was noted that Lumet began his theatrical career in the Yiddish theater in America. And speaking of the Yiddish theater, during my chat with film and Broadway director Saks (“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Mame,” “The Odd Couple,” “Barefoot in the Park”), he told me that he will be directing “Spiel! Spiel! Spiel!” three short plays by Murray Shisgal, for the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene.


“Any time after escaping from Vienna [in 1938] is a bonus to me,” said Julius Rudel, who was honored at the January 11 Opera Index Gala at the Essex House. “Not only did I get out of Nazi territory, but was fortunate with my life and career,” said Rudel, whose grandest aspiration as a young man had been to be a rehearsal pianist at the Vienna Staatsoper. Instead, starting as a $50-a-week accompanist at the New York City Opera, Rudel, a legend in music history, became director and principal conductor of the New York City Opera for 22 years, conducting 165 operas. He was also the first artistic director of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where he commissioned Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. “Every time I step into an orchestra pit, I get a sense of awe. Music energizes us and shows us the best of mankind.”

Rudel, who throughout his 70-year career nurtured such artists as Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo, is currently rehearsing with the Washington National Opera. Rudel’s son, Tony, presented his father with the Distinguished Achievement Award. “In 1957, my father was asked to take over a bankrupt company.… Then, as today, the company faced a dark season and bleak future.” As an example of his father’s meticulous attention to detail, Tony recalled something that happened when he lived at home. “My father came to me, hunched over, grabbing his back and grimacing in pain. ‘Are you all right?’ I asked, racing to help. ‘Are you hurt?’ My father replied, ‘I was just seeing how to fit the musical phrases with [the singer’s] steps as he hunches over after he is beaten” in “Die Meistersinger.”

Murray Rosenthal, president of Opera Index, told the guests at the black-tie gala that his passion for opera was “ignited with the City Opera’s production of “La Boheme” in 1972. “I came away sobbing and was hooked,” he said. The Opera Index, which held its first vocal competition 25 years ago, this year awarded $41,000 in prizes. Past honorees include Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rusanek, Anna Moffo, Marilyn Horne, Roberta Peters, Renata Scotto, Regina Resnick, Jessye Norman and Sherrill Milnes.

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