Channels

Photo: Zvika Tishler
Mike Burstyn
Photo: Zvika Tishler
Kuni Leml joins the Mafia
Mike Burstyn premieres as famous gangster Meyer Lansky in a new one-man play in Los Angeles. "I'm trying to portray both sides of this fascinating man who claimed he never killed or maimed, but threatened and terrorized others all of his life," he said
Mike Burstyn, the actor-singer who is best known for his "Kuni Leml" film and act, as well as a host of musicals, is changing his stage direction. "It has to do with my age," 61-year-old Burstyn explained, speaking ahead of the premier of his one-man play "Lansky," coming up at the Odyssey Theatre in LA. "Last September, I came to Israel for the Israeli 'Oscar' and met director Joel Zilber, with whom I made Kuni Leml and Herschele films. He told me he had just finished directing Yosi Graber as Lansky in a Cameri Theater production here, and suggested I could do the same in the US."

 

Why Lansky?

 

"It is right for me now and I can relate to the subject matter. I am also the right age for this, after 50 years onstage. At this phase of my career, I would like to evolve into something more serious, more dramatic. I bought the English-language play rights with a good friend, Dani Israeli. If we are lucky and the critics love it, we will be able to take it to New York, which should open the doors for us to all of America and London."

 

His success is our success

The Lansky premiere is June 14, and already the schedule is tight: six times a week, for 10 weeks on the West Coast, while keeping an eye on off-Broadway venues. Even with Mike Burstyn's vast experience and show-business reputation, every production starts from scratch. The Israeli Consulate in LA decided to help promote the show too, not because Israel decided to deport Lansky when he tried to make aliyah in the 1970s, but because of Mike Burstyn. "He always speaks, appears, and is willing to do everything to help Israel. His success is our success," explained Israel's LA consul-general Ehud Danoch.

 

Jewish gangster Lansky wanted to emigrate to Israel because the FBI was looking at him too closely for his taste, but America's pressure was stronger than the Law of Return, and he was turned over to the US authorities. He was later convicted of tax evasion and handed down an 18-month prison sentence. He appealed and was eventually acquitted. Unlike many other Mafiosi, Lansky died naturally of cardiac arrest in his bed in 1983.

 

"Lansky was no saint," said Burstyn, who collected every piece of information he could find about the man, and defends the Jewish felon who helped provide Israel with weapons in the pre-state and War of Independence days. At the time, the United States banned arms shipments to Palestine, but Hagana agent Yehuda Arazi contacted Lansky who, with the help of Lucky Luciano and the Italian Mafia that dominated the New York ports, sent weapons to Israel.

 

Lasnky turned up in Israel in the early 1970s. Actually, he suddenly showed up in the office of the late Ma'ariv reporter Uri Dan, who was surprised to find the ill-famed gangster in his office. Lansky came to Dan asking for his help in finding the tombs of his grandparents, who immigrated to Israel in 1906, when his parents took him to the USA.

 

Lansky attempted to take advantage of the Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to any Jew, and escape from American law, but politics has it own laws. At the time, Israel needed Phantom jets and the Americans asked for and received Lansky in return.

 

"Lansky appealed his deportation and, appearing before the Israeli Supreme Court, he claimed that he helped Israel during the war of '48," Burstyn related. "They asked him to prove this, but of course he could not because it was all done in secret and without a paper trail. He found himself in a kind of Catch-22: On the one hand, he claimed that he was an honest businessman; on the other hand, how can a kosher businessman dominate New York ports?"

 

Burstyn, who was born in New York and immigrated to Israel with his parents, Yiddish actors Pesah and Lillian Burstein, researched the period in which Lansky grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "The Jews and the Italians arrived in New York in the early 20th century, but the good jobs were already taken by the Irish, who arrived first.

 

"The Italians and the Jews, therefore, lived in extreme poverty, working 12 hours a day in hard and underpaid labor. Those who chose the straight and narrow worked their backs off to send their kids to school. Those children later became judges, businessmen, and rabbis.

 

"People like Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Luciano chose the easier way and took to the streets. At the end of the play, an FBI agent is quoted as saying that Lansky could have been the president of General Motors, if he only chose the right path. He was a business genius. He remembered everything and had a natural talent for numbers and calculating odds. They tried to catch him a number of times, but failed. In the end, he died in his own bed."

 

The name Lansky makes you think of a gangster and a murderer, but Burstyn chose to look at his other facets. "Lansky was an excellent businessman who never cheated his casino clients or business partners. He ran orderly accounting books, and his word was stronger than a signed contract. This was his reputation. I studied Lansky down to the finest detail. I'm trying to portray both sides of this fascinating man who, according to him, never killed or maimed, but threatened and terrorized others all of his life," Burstyn said.

 


First published: 06.15.07, 00:39
 new comment
See all talkbacks "Kuni Leml joins the Mafia"
Warning:
This will delete your current comment