Sin City Sheriff

Last Updated: 7:33 PM, October 31, 2012
Posted: 11:25 PM, October 27, 2012
On a recent episode of “Vegas,” CBS’ new period drama, Sheriff Lamb, played by Dennis Quaid, punches out a Chicago hood, cuffs him and marches him out of a casino. The Post asked the honest-to-goodness Ralph Lamb, now 85, if that event really happened.
“Yes it did,” he says. “His name was Johnny Roselli.” Roselli was then an underling of Sam Giancana, who ran the Chicago mob. “We never meant to get him hurt,” says Lamb. “I just give him a whoopin’ right there in front of everybody.”
From 1961 to 1979 Lamb was the law in Sin City. “I was the youngest sheriff in the United States,” he says in a soft, Southwestern drawl. “And I was there longer than anybody’s ever been there by 12 years.”
Lamb, who’s a technical adviser on the series, can spout stories about the old Las Vegas like the fountains in front of the Bellagio.
He first met Sinatra in the 1950s. “He’d get full of whiskey and like everybody get a little tough sometimes,” Lamb says of Ol’ Blue Eyes. “But he was all right; he wasn’t hard to handle.” Lamb developed a particular fondness for Dean Martin. “Dean was the kind of guy that would sit down and have a cup of coffee and visit and talk in between shows,” he says. “Just an easy guy to get along with.”
But Lamb interacted with more than just mobsters and headliners. In September 1963, John Kennedy came to town to make a speech at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
“They were all in the Sahara Hotel, had a whole suite of rooms there, the Secret Service and him,” says Lamb, who was also in the suite. “Let’s get out of here,” Lamb remembered Kennedy saying to him. “You’re the boss,” Lamb replied. The president and the sheriff made their way down to the hotel bar and were gone several minutes before the Secret Service knew Kennedy was missing. “They found me first,” Lamb says, chuckling. “And he’s just sitting there. He was a great guy.”
Shot in a studio an hour or so north of Los Angeles, “Vegas” has an amazing re-creation of the strip on Fremont Street, including the fictional Savoy casino. The slot machines are real and made of cast iron. The chairs were salvaged from a defunct casino. Set designers also built an exterior of the iconic Golden Nugget.
Though the show’s producers have gone to great expense to replicate the glory days of Las Vegas, it’s Lamb who’s the real McCoy. And the idea of bringing his story to the screen has been kicking around for a long time. The director Sam Peckinpah was the first interested in doing it, back in the early 1980s, Lamb says. Peckinpah had Clint Eastwood slated to play the sheriff.
“We were up in Livingston, Montana, writing a book and a play [screenplay],” Lamb says. Peckinpah died, however, before the project could get off the ground.
Lamb’s story found its way to television courtesy of Arthur Sarkissian, an executive producer of “Vegas.” Sarkissian met Lamb about six years ago through then MGM chairman Kirk Kerkorian. Like Peckinpah, Sarkissian had visions of his story on the big screen. He reached out to Nick Pileggi (“Goodfellas”) to write the screenplay. While the project was in the early stages of development, MGM was sold and Sarkissian held on to the property. It was then agents from William Morris approached him about a television series based on Lamb.
“He was John Wayne and Clint Eastwood rolled into one,” Sarkissian says of Lamb. “He wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He was just real.”
Pileggi and Greg Walker (“Without a Trace”) are co-creators of the series.
Lamb especially gets a kick out of being portrayed as a tough guy on the show. “I don’t know where that originated,” he says. “I never hit a guy with nothing but my fists.” And Lamb thinks the part is right up Quaid’s alley. “He’s done a great job with it,” he says. “So far, you know.”
When Lamb found out that he and Quaid share the same birthday (April 9), the sheriff gave the actor a pair of his cowboy boots, which Quaid wears.
Lamb still lives in Las Vegas. “I have a little home out at the northwest part of town,” he says. “Always where I lived.” And he wears his television celebrity loosely. “I don’t get really excited about anything,” he says. Still, Lamb receives calls “out of the woodwork” from people he’s known over the years who’ve seen the show advertized. But not from any of the mobsters he’s known.
“I think I might have outlived all them guys,” he said.