Who Killed Bugsy Siegel? - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Investigative Reporter

Who Killed Bugsy Siegel?

Posted: Updated:
The Flamingo under construction The Flamingo under construction
Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel
Tony Curtis Tony Curtis

(Jul. 23) -- The murder of gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel back in 1947 easily ranks as one of the most significant crimes in the history of our town. The murder occurred in Southern California, but it helped to put Las Vegas on the map.

Officially, the murder has never been solved, but there are plenty of theories about who did it. Now, a few new sources of information are speaking publicly for the first time, including a legendary movie star.

Most of us have seen Bugsy, the 1992 Warren Beatty movie about Ben Siegel, in which the mobster who helped to found Las Vegas was murdered on orders from his gangster pals. What few people know is that the rights to the Siegel story were held for many years by actor Tony Curtis, who now lives in Las Vegas. Curtis has his own theory about the murder.

The Hollywood version of Ben Siegel's murder is gruesome enough, but the actual event was no picnic either. In the Beverly Hills mansion that Siegel shared with his girlfriend Virginia Hill on the night of June 20, 1947, someone crept up to the window and fired nine shots from an army rifle. Siegel was hit in the head.

The crime scene photos were featured in newspaper stories around the world, and every story mentioned Siegel's Las Vegas connection.

Las Vegas historian, Michael Green, says, "If there's anything the media love, it's a good gangland slaying. People around the world heard about Bugsy Siegel and it means Las Vegas gets attention."

It can be argued that Siegel did more for Las Vegas in death than he ever could if he had lived. The murder told the world that Las Vegas was a place to rub elbows with mobsters.

Film legend Tony Curtis, who now lives in southern Nevada, has more than a passing interest in the Siegel story. These days, the 79-year-old Curtis spends his time on his paintings, drawings, and other artwork. But for decades, he was one of Hollywood's biggest stars, appearing in blockbuster movies. Curtis always figured that his crowning achievement, his masterpiece, would be the Ben Siegel story.

Tony Curtis, actor and artist, says, "Everybody I spoke to said, 'When are you gonna do a movie like that?' I thought it would be my way of presenting Ben Siegel in a way people never saw him."

It wasn't an offhand interest. Curtis had met Siegel when he first came to Hollywood. He was schmoozing at the Brown Derby restaurant. Curtis recalls, "In Benjamin Siegel. I was stunned because I knew all about him. Growing up in New York City, he was like an idol. He was an idol to all Jewish boys."

Curtis says Siegel was glad to see someone from his same background get a shot in Hollywood and told Curtis to call if he could help. At the time Siegel had plenty of movie contacts. But he was killed before he did Curtis any favors. The actor became obsessed with the Siegel legend.

In the 1960's, Curtis bought the rights to a Siegel biography and planned to play the title role himself, in what he still thinks would have been a great movie. "He wanted to get out of that environment he was trapped in and there was nothing he could do about it. He was trapped."

Curtis says the rights to the story were stolen from him. Years later, the Warren Beatty version was made. Don't ask what he thinks of it. But you can ask who he thinks murdered his friend.

The most popular theory is that the hit was ordered by Siegel's syndicate pals, including Meyer Lansky, because of cost overruns at the Flamingo, or because Siegel might have been skimming money.

Curtis has a simpler explanation. He thinks Siegel simply wasn't paying enough attention to the Flamingo. "He was distracted you know -- the woman, Hollywood, going to parties. He felt it was his way to work his way into it. He couldn't handle it all. You couldn't be sitting in L.A. on an open street where anyone could pop you."

Curtis figures that outside hit men were brought to L.A. by the syndicate to do the job. FBI files on Siegel repeat that theory, but the pages also contain several competing theories.

"Usually when someone connected to organized crime is killed, it's hard to find a witness, someone to say he did it," said Michael Green, Las Vegas historian.

But there was a witness to Siegel's murder, someone else who was in the room with him, Siegel's friend and fellow mobster Allen Smiley. Smiley never talked publicly about the murder, but now his daughter has written a book about her dad's mobster days. Plus, the I-Team uncovered a friend of Smiley's who says he knows who did it.

Powered by WorldNow
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2014 WorldNow and KLAS. All Rights Reserved.
For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.