In the postwar 1940s, organized crime was rampant in Los Angeles, and the men behind the mob were Jewish, guys like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer “Mickey” Cohen, who rubbed elbows with movie stars and reveled in their notoriety. These rather glamorous gangsters are the focus of TNT’s new noir drama, “Mob City,” with the first of six episodes premiering on Dec. 4.
The series is the brainchild of writer-director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Walking Dead”), who mixes fictional and real-life characters — including corruption-fighting police chief William Parker — to tell the story.
“People don’t realize how prevalent the Jewish mob was. It was huge. Like my friend Steven Spielberg says, they were tough Jews — street kids that came up during Prohibition and the Depression, and they did what they had to do to survive,” Darabont said in an interview. “These guys had to break the rules to make ends meet and get ahead. They lived in an extremely violent world, the world that was bequeathed to them.”
Darabont’s main research source about the period was “L.A. Noir” by John Buntin, which is rich in detail, including about the relationship between Siegel and Cohen, who in the series are played by Edward Burns and Jeremy Luke, respectively. “They were terrific friends. Ben let Mickey get away with stuff he never let anyone else get away with, because he liked the guy,” Darabont said. “What struck me was there was never a power struggle between them, though the table was set for one.”
“Mob City” is set in 1947, when boomtown Los Angeles attracted enterprising criminals “like flies to honey. What stood in their way was William Parker [played by Neal McDonough] drawing a line in the sand, but first he had to clean up the police department. Half the force was on the mob payroll,” Darabont said. Other characters in the show are fictional, among them detective Joe Teague (“Walking Dead” alumnus Jon Bernthal) and trigger-happy mobster Sid Rothman (Robert Knepper).
Darabont, an avid fan of noir “thrillers with desperate men and dangerous women,” encouraged his cast to watch well-known examples of the genre like “Double Indemnity,” “The Third Man,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “True Confessions,” as well as more obscure ones like “Nightfall” and “Killer’s Kiss.” Luke zeroed in on films featuring Cohen as a character and read “L.A. Noir,” finding it revelatory. “Something that surprised me was his obsessive-compulsive disorder and how close he came to death a number of times.”
Burns researched “just enough to get familiar with the time period and, specifically, Bugsy Siegel,” which informed his portrayal. “This guy needed to be larger than life, very cocky, but also charming. He says whatever comes to mind. He reacts violently, and that short fuse, combined with the ambition, is the thing that led to his downfall,” Burns observed. Being Irish-American was no obstacle. As a friend remarked to him, “If Liev [Schreiber] can play a Donovan, you can play a Siegel.”
For Darabont, getting the look and style of the period right was crucial to the success of “Mob City”: “I take such delight in the fashions of that time and the music and the cars and the tone and the vibe, and inviting the audience to admire what was a very stylish and sexy era.” Everything from vintage draped, slim-waisted suits to the rented old phones and typewriters at the police precinct lend the project authenticity, as do the settings, some of which were created digitally.
Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos) in the “Mob City” premier “Guy Walks Into a Bar.”
“We have a beautiful view of Sunset Boulevard when Bugsy Siegel is pulling into the Clover Club in his big cream Buick Roadmaster, and most of it is digital, mixed with footage we shot on a back lot,” Darabont said. “It’s a magic trick that lets us create a past era.”
While interiors of City Hall and the adjacent police headquarters were meticulously re-created on a soundstage, Darabont used some of his favorite Los Angeles locations for exterior scenes, including Union Station, the Baldwin Hills oil fields and, for a shoot-out sequence, the merry-go-round in Griffith Park, near Darabont’s 1924 Spanish-style home in Los Feliz. “On concert nights, I hear the Greek Theatre from my house,” he said.
Born in 1959 in a French refugee camp to Hungarian parents fleeing the revolution there, Darabont grew up in Hollywood from the age of 5, attended Bancroft Junior High and Hollywood High School. “I’m not Jewish, but all my friends’ grannies would feed us kreplach soup after school, and I went to all the bar mitzvahs — the adopted goy,” he said with a chuckle.
It’s not surprising that he relates to the Jewish mobsters, “having come here as an immigrant and seeing generations of families having to adopt and adapt and fit in. Whether you’re involved in crime or not, these are very real things for every generation that is new to this country. I think that aspect of it is tremendously potent.”
Darabont wrote the first two “Mob City” episodes, co-wrote the sixth, directed four of them and oversaw them all. He said he also has thrown in several plot twists that will surprise the audience. “I love being caught off guard, and when storytellers manage to surprise me, and that’s what I’m trying to do here,” he said, hoping he’ll be able to do a longer second season. “There are things about the Jewish mob that have not been explored. I’m hoping to get a couple of Hungarians into it at some point. Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was a killer for Murder Inc., and he was a Hungarian Jew.”
While Darabont has set aside a couple of months to have back surgery and then a few months off to relax and recuperate, he has other projects percolating, including an adaptation of a Stephen King novella called “The Long Walk.” He received Oscar nominations for his “Shawshank Redemption” and “Green Mile” screenplays, based on King’s stories.
In choosing projects, he said, “I find the thing I’m most excited about and walk down that road, following the passion. It’s a philosophy that has served me pretty well.”
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