Our Greatest Tough Guy Goes Prime Time

Legendary Sheriff Ralph Lamb returns to the neon as the inspiration for Vegas, television’s latest fling with Sin City


Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

Hollywood can’t keep its horny paws off our town. Las Vegas, it seems, is forever irresistible, which explains why we’ve dated nearly every television network, sashaying over the airwaves in one series or another. Our romantic scorecard is checkered: We cemented one long-term relationship (with those nerdy-sexy crime solvers of CSI). Had a few fun flings (handsome Bobby Urich, his bedroom eyes and red ’57 Thunderbird in Vega$, and pockmarked bulldog Dennis Farina in Crime Story). Enjoyed some steamy hookups (even an older Jimmy Caan had that bad-boy appeal in Las Vegas). Suffered a whole lotta losers (Blansky’s Beauties, for one, wherein wacky Nancy Walker supervised frisky Vegas showgirls! Laugh track ensued).

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Cities across America have flirtations with scripted prime-time series, New York and Los Angeles being our biggest rivals. (We’re way better looking and much hotter in neon, though.) Now CBS, one of our steady suitors—they courted us with short-lived Dr. Vegas, The Defenders, Hearts Are Wild and grandpappy CSI—has again asked us out for a night on the town, hoping we’ll blow on their dice. This one could be more than a good time. This one could be romance (or at least hot monkey love). Even this suitor’s name is familiar.

Slice the “$” off Vega$, replace it with a plain ol’ “s” and meet Vegas, starring Dennis Quaid as our venerable ex-sheriff, Ralph Lamb (10 p.m. Tuesdays starting Sept. 25 on KLAS Channel 8).

Pedigree pours from Vegas, from the headliner (Quaid, a bona-fide movie star in his first TV series, after doing some TV movies) to the co-star (Michael Chiklis, who created compelling, good cop/bad cop-in-one Vic Mackey in FX’s The Shield) to the writer (Casino/Goodfellas scribe Nicholas Pileggi, who penned the pilot and will contribute to future episodes).

Shotguns and slots, craps and crime, the law and the lawless—that’s this series, which, like most Vegas-centered shows, is more in love with how we look than who we are, but at least takes elements of our history seriously. Perhaps not since Warren Beatty’s Bugsy on the big screen has Hollywood given a prominent nod to a genuine Vegas public figure, and Lamb is an obvious choice.

Two-fisted and no-nonsense, Lamb, an ex-rancher and rodeo cowboy from Alamo, Nev., was Clark County’s longest-serving sheriff from 1961-79. Our “cowboy sheriff” took on mobsters, bikers and troublemakers of every ilk—sometimes physically—with an amiable swagger. (Famously, he roughed up wiseguy Johnny Roselli at the Desert Inn in 1966 and sent him on his way out of town.)

Simultaneously, Lamb yanked local law enforcement into the modern era by creating a crime lab, organizing the city’s first SWAT team and helping supervise the merger of Las Vegas and county law enforcement agencies into the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. (See interview with Lamb.)

Mirroring his tenure, Vegas is set in the ’60s (and if the series lasts long enough, the ’70s), and surrounds Quaid’s Lamb with a passel of fictional supporting characters (it’s not, after all, a documentary). Cast as his antagonist is Chiklis as Chicago mob fixer Vincent Savino, who takes over the fictional Savoy Hotel, setting the weekly law-vs.-the-Mafia square-off in motion. Co-starring are Carrie Ann Moss as an assistant district attorney, Jason O’Mara as Lamb’s brother and Taylor Handley as his charmingly impulsive son.

Rugged and roguish, Quaid’s Lamb is minding his own business at the outset of the pilot episode when he’s pissed off by planes soaring overhead, rattling his ranch. Before the first commercial, Lamb has busted a dismissive airport official in the chops. Soon after—in a plot not drawn from Lamb’s career—the governor’s niece is found murdered. Remembering Lamb’s experience in military intelligence during World War II, and admiring him, the mayor of Las Vegas enlists him to head up an investigation while the current sheriff is away.

Does he solve the case? Need we answer that?

Along the way, Lamb also pops an insolent biker in the mouth after a gang runs wild on Fremont Street, and stands ramrod straight on the highway as a car speeds toward him, shooting out two tires with steely calm. Meanwhile, Chiklis’ Savino arrives, and their relationship, initially cordial, turns tense to the point where, in a highly improbable scene, Lamb and his deputies stride through the casino toting shotguns to confront him.

Violence is a major component, but isn’t hampered by network constraints in any meaningful way and wouldn’t be significantly enhanced had Vegas landed on HBO or Showtime on premium cable, or even FX or the USA network on basic cable. One intense scene shows Savino severely beating one of his lackeys, and it is nasty. Graphic treatment would make the audience cringe more but wouldn’t express Savino’s brutality any better. Only in the restricted use of language is Vegas at a disadvantage for realism, the tradeoff being how many viewers CBS can deliver. (Last season, in statistics gathered by Nielsen Media Research, CBS attracted the most viewers—11.74 million—of any network, claiming that distinction for the ninth time in 10 years.)

Degrees of realism in Vegas, though, are about more than language and violence.  Author H. Lee Barnes—who served in Lamb’s department in the late ’60s, advancing from deputy to detective to sergeant—chuckles when asked about Hollywood’s (dis)respect for Vegas history.

“Hollywood views Las Vegas in the way they view King Arthur myths. … The real stories of the sheriff’s department weren’t so much about Ralph as the deputies and detectives who went out and did the work day to day,” says Barnes, who at press time had seen the series’ trailer, but not the entire pilot episode.

“One of the real distortions is that one of the reasons the mob no longer has its tentacles in Las Vegas the way it once did … is not so much for what Ralph Lamb did as what happened when the FBI got into who was running the casinos and the skimming operations. It was a nationwide effort on behalf of the feds, with the cooperation of Metro.”

Pileggi’s participation doesn’t impress Barnes, either. “Same guy who did Casino, which is all bullshit too—well, not all bullshit, but it’s Hollywood. Now we know that the [Frank] Rosenthal character he created was a snitch, which puts a whole different patina on things.”

Yet Barnes, who wrote an essay about his experiences in Lamb’s department in a Vegas Seven essay (“We Got ’Em Boys,” Oct. 20), is still an admirer of the former sheriff. “It’s great that somebody wants to honor Ralph Lamb. He contributed monumentally to the growth of law enforcement in this town and he’s a real Nevada character.”

What might give Vegas resonance for the rest of the country is what Quaid’s Lamb symbolizes, particularly now: One strong daddy figure staring trouble in the eye and bringing it to heel, as Gary Cooper did dramatically in High Noon and James Garner did comically in Support Your Local Sheriff.

Ideologically fractious from Democrats to Tea Partiers and scrambled by the Great Recession, we are a confused nation. Entertainment such as Vegas with its good guy/bad guy moral clarity—oversimplified as it may be—provides a salve. Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney, awash in the real-life muck of politics, is a matinee-ready hero astride a strapping steed. Sheriff Lamb, CBS-style, is that rescuer, his motives unquestioned, his purity intact, tacitly assuring that whether it’s Chiklis’ baddie or the Recession, evil will eventually be vanquished.

One hour of catharsis—with just enough fact to justify the fiction—every week.

As for the cold, ratings-driven realities of network television, odds are good that Vegas will advance to a sophomore season, if the usual indicators are on target. Ratings seem archaic as a gauge of success or failure in an age of online viewing, delayed DVR playback and competition from roughly a billion cable channels. Yet Nielsen is still the industry’s equivalent of a Roman emperor’s thumb in front of quaking Christians and lip-smacking lions.

Quaid & Co. can count on strong lead-in support at 9 p.m. from NCIS: Los Angeles, which was ranked 27th among primetime series by Nielsen last season, and was a top-10 performer in reruns this summer. Competition from established shows at 10 p.m. is not intimidating, with ABC countering with Private Practice (ranked No. 43 last season, having hemorrhaged viewers after switching from Thursdays to Tuesdays) and NBC slotting Parenthood (No. 56, and in danger of cancellation in the past). That leaves the crime-show audience wide open for Vegas to grab.

Since Quaid portrays a mature hero on a network that skews older, Vegas likely will appeal more toward the 50-plus audience—the very audience advertisers tend to ignore. Still, Vegas should nestle snugly into CBS’ successful model.

Hollywood, with all its fibs and flaws, its tendency to treat us like wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am one-nighters, desires us once more. Well, what the hell?  We’re always ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Smile pretty for Vegas, Las Vegas.

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