Forty years ago, this month, the Las Vegas Strip was abuzz because two of the biggest stars in the world were in town to film a movie called “The Electric Horseman.”
Robert Redford and Jane Fonda were the lead actors, but a notorious high roller talked his way into having a bit part. His name was Jimmy Chagra and at the time, he ran one of the biggest drug smuggling operations in the world.
The I-Team looks back at the Chagra story and efforts to turn it into a movie.
Robert Redford riding a stolen stallion through Caesars Palace and then down the Las Vegas Strip was one of the unforgettable scenes from the hit film The Electric Horseman. The movie production was a big deal in Las Vegas when it kicked off in Nov. 1978, and no one was more excited than high-rolling gambler Jimmy Chagra, who had talked his way into a small speaking role in the movie.
“Jimmy’s claim is the reason he got the role is that he provided recreational escape drugs to several members of the crew. Jimmy’s goal in life was to get a speaking role and a SAG card,” said Jack Sheehan, author and screenwriter.
Chagra and his wife snagged a snapshot with Redford, and photos with many other celebrities as well. at the time, Chagra was Las Vegas royalty, but his big scene was cut from the film before its release, in large part because he was indicted for running one of the largest marijuana smuggling rings in the world, an operation that sprung from a single plane load of weed and grew into an empire.
“Over the course of years, he ends up with 5, 6, 7 planes, three freighter ships. He’s delivering to the East Coast under the protection of the Patriarca crime family. He’s delivering to the West Coast. One of the questions he asked me when we first met, he says, ‘You were at the University of Oregon. Did you smoke any weed in college?’ I said I cannot tell a lie. Little bit, recreationally. He said, ‘That was my stuff,'” Sheehan said.
“The prime minister of the Bahamas got $10 from every pound. I had shootouts with the federales. They kidnapped my pilot, had to go down and pay them and they let the plane go filled with pot,” Chagra said in an interview in 2008.
He spent 24 years in federal prison and was still in witness protection when he first spoke to Sheehan and sold the rights to his story to a group of Las Vegas investors. In just 10 years, Chagra went from working in an El Paso rug store to kingpin status on the Strip. He would fly in with a posse of bodyguards, six or seven men Chagra called his stone-cold killers, hauling footlockers filled with illicit cash.
Chagra and his brothers would take over entire tables, betting a quarter of a million per hand. He became known for outrageous tips that paid off the mortgages of cocktail servers, and booted Frank Sinatra out of the Frank Sinatra suite.
“He was very smart, cagey, charming and partly evil person,” Sheehan said.
When Chagra’s brother Lee was murdered in Dec. of 78, federal agents found evidence of $100 million in stashed drug profits. The judge assigned the case, known for strict drug sentences, was gunned down by a hired killer named Charles Harrelson, the real-life father of actor woody Harrelson.
Chagra was acquitted of the murder-for-hire thanks to a crafty attorney named Oscar Goodman (left in photo – wearing glasses) but still did years in prison for drug smuggling.
He died of cancer in 2008. Sheehan wrote a screenplay about Chagra based on more than 40 hours of interviews they did, and still hopes it gets made into a movie.
WEB EXTRA: More of Knapp’s interview with Jack Sheehan about the wild times of Jimmy Chagra
“The stories of them in Las Vegas were the wildest you could imagine. There’s one you can’t use on the air, but knowing you, you probably will anyway,” Sheehan said.
Chagra’s tips were so lavish that dealers at Caesars palace awarded him with a humongous trophy proclaiming him as the biggest high roller of all time.