So, did you hear the one about Police Commissioner Stewart “Mac” McMillan, Darth Vader, Mr. Miyagi, and a future Golden Globe winner who probably doesn’t want anyone to know she got her start in the biz with a role in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, and the ex-husband of Cloris Leachman (Mel Brooke’s Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety) walking into an NBC-TV gin joint?
Yes, today The Vegas Strip War is remembered as Rock Hudson’s last movie: he died less than a year later (remember when Rock went “sci-fi” with Embryo?). Ah, but we, the TV movie lovin’ dorks of B&S About Movies, remember this as the final film directed by Leachman’s ex and Jack Albertson’s nephew (Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), George Englund — who brought us the world’s first “electric western,” the 1971 counterculture classic (read: dud), Zachariah, starring, off all people: Joe Walsh of the Eagles (then with the James Gang), San Francisco hippy-rockers Country Joe and the Fish, and Don Johnson (A Boy and His Dog).
Englund, who was best buds with Marlon Brando, made his directing and producing debut with Brando as his star in the 1963 political adventure, The Ugly American, which he followed up with one of the lesser known, but well-made film noirs, 1965’s Signpost to Murder (written by Sally Benson of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) fame). After the critical and financial failure of (the previously linked) Zachariah, Englund’s career cooled, but the 1972 snow-based Italian crime caper, Snow Job, was a pretty darn cool UHF-TV movie favorite of yesteryear (not bad for starring an Italian Olympic skier who couldn’t act). Englund ended his career producing the series Blossom and The Golden Girls for NBC-TV and publishing the 2004 memoir about his friendship with Brandon: Marlon Brando: The Way It’s Never Been Done Before.
The Vegas Strip War is another one of those films that, even thought it was released on VHS, is hard to find. And it would have been lost forever if not for Martin Scorsese’s back-to-back box-office hits Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). And as you can tell from the original VHS and its DVD reboot, Sharon Stone’s supporting role, which wasn’t even mentioned on the VHS, is front and center on the DVD, which got a title change to tie it to the 1995 Scorsese film.
Rock is Neil Chaine, a character not far removed from Robert DeNiro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein, who’s fired in a coup d’etat from The Desert Inn, the hotel-casino he operates. In an act of subtle revenge, Chaine purchases a decaying casino next door, The Tropicana, with the goal of crushing his old employer. Helping him along the way are Sarah (Sharon Stone), a casino hostess who uses her “connections” (i.e, she sidelines as a prostitute) to get Chaine a gambling license, and Jack Madrid, a sports promoter (no, that’s not Don King-meta, that’s James Earl Jones in a fright-wig doing Don King!) that’ll set up a prize-winning boxing match at the new hotel.
Of course, Madrid’s got other plans . . . and Chaine’s nefarious short cuts lead him to a stint on Alcatraz — and prison sex with Sharon Stone. Oh, I almost forgot about Pat Morita: He’s the offensively named Yip Tak (hey, it was the ’80s), a high rolling Chinese gambler from the Desert Inn days; he makes a deal with Chaine to bring rich Asian businessman to the Tropicana. Yep, it’s all a double cross as Tak and his friends bankrupt the casino in a gambling scam.
Oh, yes! That spinning ITC logo is the same production company behind U.F.O., Space: 1999 and the Kirk Douglas Star Wars dropping, Saturn 3. And if you’ve been, or your parents have been to Vegas (and you saw the pictures), you’ll notice this was all shot on location inside the late-famed The Desert Inn and still standing (but totally revamped) The Tropicana. And after the failure of Saturn 3 and Raise the Titanic, ITC was on verge of bankruptcy and had no choice but to shoot-on-location-on-the-cheap (they went under shortly thereafter). Is this as great as the Scorsese flick? No, but for a TV movie production on a budget, George Englund delivered an entertaining mob flick.
There are more TV movies to be had with our “Week of Made for TV Movies,” “Lost TV Week,” “Son of Made for TV Movie Week” and “Grandson of Made for TV Movie Week” tribute spotlights to those films that, in many cases, are even better than the movies that played in theatres.