At first glance, “Vegas” — the heavily hyped CBS drama premiering Tuesday, Sept. 25 — looks like a throwback to a TV drama from several decades ago. It stars Dennis Quaid in his network series debut as Ralph Lamb, a local cattle rancher pressed into service by the Las Vegas mayor (Michael O’Neill) when the town’s sheriff goes MIA under mysterious circumstances.
The time is 1960, and Vegas is in an awkward transition from the bump-in-the-road casino town familiar from Warren Beatty’s “Bugsy” into the glitz magnet that it would become. Certainly a financial boom is in the offing, however, and that has caught the attention of the Chicago mob, which has dispatched Vincent Savino (Michael Chiklis playing a composite character) to look after its interests — which, from all appearances, are in direct conflict with the values and interests of Lamb and his fellow locals.
“Basically, ‘Vegas’ is about cowboys vs. gangsters,” Quaid tells Zap2it, laughing. Except that’s just the beginning of things.
Co-created by Nicholas Pileggi (“Goodfellas”) and Greg Walker (“Without a Trace”), “Vegas” starts out like an archetypal battle of good (morally upright Lamb) and evil (corrupt mob guy Savino), but watch for things to start moving from black-and-white into more ambiguous shades of gray as the story unfolds, Quaid says.
“I’m not interested in playing just a traditional hero,” Quaid says flatly, “although he starts out that way. I would sort of put (Ralph Lamb) in the category of a character from Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch,’ where you felt that at one time this person had a moral center and knew who he was — and how that Western world was defined at that time — then along came automobiles and suddenly these men felt as if they were out of place. That’s what happened to Las Vegas, too.”
A fourth-generation Mormon whose family roots in the area went back to the 19th-century Indian wars, the real-life Ralph Lamb, like his friends and neighbors, felt understandably threatened by the influx of crime figures into Las Vegas, Quaid adds.
“There was always vice on some level, with gambling, and prostitution was legal, but then the mob came in and the local people really started feeling as if they were having their town taken away from them,” the actor says. “When Ralph Lamb became sheriff, he was fighting to preserve that or at least keep it from completely taking over, trying to preserve the rule of law and keep the community together.”
Yet while Ralph may come into his new job with the best of intentions and a strong sense of right and wrong, viewers can expect to see the seductive power of his position starting to work its corruptive power on this man.
“What’s interesting about playing Ralph Lamb is that what you see in the pilot is just the starting point for a long arc that, hopefully, you will see play out over a number of years,” Quaid says. “The real Ralph Lamb was sheriff of Las Vegas for 20 years and over that period of time a lot of things changed, I think for him personally as well as the city. And in order to get things done, sometimes you have to cross lines. One thing that Ralph does is take the law into his own hands sometimes. He has his own set of rules about how he handles things. And the line keeps getting moved.
“Vegas certainly isn’t the moral center of the world, and then you have these mobsters on the other side like Michael’s character. He and I are at odds with one another, and that’s never going to change, but there are times when we are forced to work together to get things done.”
Quaid says CBS executives Les Moonves and Nina Tassler piqued his interest in taking his first TV series role by telling him they wanted to bring the edgy creativity of cable dramas (such as “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire”) to the network.
“To make compelling television, or film for that matter, you really have to start out with a good story and great characters,” Quaid says. “We do have an element of a procedural show going on, but our show is a hybrid, and as it goes on, it becomes more and more character-driven.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Quaid has spent a fair amount of time with the real Ralph Lamb to make sure he captures the essence of this larger-than-life man, even though the series is not a literal chronicle of the real Lamb’s career.
“When I met Ralph in Las Vegas, we went out to dinner with one of his old mob nemeses and they’re actually good friends now,” Quaid says. “A couple of decades ago they were trying to kill each other! The other guy actually said, ‘I wanted him dead and he wanted me dead. We just never were able to get each other.’ And now they’re friends, sitting there and having dinner together and talking about old times. They were like two old warriors from World War II or the Vietnam War, previously on opposite sides but now sitting down as friends now that the war is over.”