Walking around the set of the CBS series Vegas, filmed in Santa Clarita, it was a treat to observe the detail that has gone into recreating vintage Las Vegas. From the neon lights, one-arm bandits (aka slot machines), to the costumes for the showgirls, the authenticity is impressive. Classic cars are even lined up outside the Savoy Casino on Fremont Street, one of the main settings for the hit drama set in 1961.
The stars of the show were there for interviews the day I came during the television critics press tour. Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis, Jason O’Mara, Carrie Anne Moss, Taylor Handley, and Sarah Jones, were on hand along with the executive producers Greg Walker, Nicolas Pileggi, Cathy Konrad, and Arthur Sarkissian. All expressed a fondness for embracing the era, especially Chiklis, who plays one of the most interesting characters, a mob-connected casino operator in charge of the Savoy.
Chiklis has played cops before, the good guy titled role on The Commish, and after that the rogue police detective “Vic Mackey” on the FX series The Shield. Now he’s definitely on the other side of the law as Vincent Savino, a replanted Chicago gangster at odds with the local Sheriff Ralph Lamb (Quaid).
It would be easy for Chiklis to play his mob guy role in a stereotypical way, but instead he says, “We want this to be entertainment, but we also want it to be impactful, and to tell really great stories. So that’s what our focus is on. We are not interested in overblown clichés and playing cartoons. We want to ground all these characters in reality. It’s very easy to get into clichéd archetypes, but we are keenly aware of that, and so are the writers. I know for my part, we’ve all been really focused on playing it for the real and different situations.”
He says his Savino character was bound to clash with Dennis’ Sheriff, but there is some admiration between them as well. “I remember the scene in the pilot when I’m coming out of the plane and I see him for the first time. And you can imagine what a guy from Chicago is thinking when he comes off the plane and sees someone like Roy Rogers. There’s that sort of grudging admiration for each other.”
Vegas gives depths and layers to the characters that inhabited the early days of the gambling oasis in the Nevada desert. Chiklis notes that it was a great time of growth, “when the town really exploded. It went from a relatively small town, and over the course of the next 20 years, I think by ’81, there were three and a half million people there. I think we’re going to need a bigger set as we go on.”
Having classic cars around to invoke the era is a treat for everyone. Chiklis says, “I can’t claim that I was a car aficionado, but I love vintage cars. There are certain cars I really respond to. I remember my dad had an old Cadillac convertible with the wing tips. That was my favorite car of my childhood, because we didn’t bother with seat belts back then, and my brother and I used to rumble in the back seat.”
Chiklis explains, “I was born in ’63, so when I think of this period, I think of my earliest memories and I look at these cars, and there are certain tactile memories that come along with it of my grandfather and grandmother, and certain smells that just make me reminisce about some of the people I love the most in my life.”
Chiklis, 49, directed an episode of Vegas, as he did several times with The Shield. He’s also a classically trained actor, who earned his Equity card at age 13 appearing in off-Broadway theater productions. He attended Boston University’s School of Performing Arts, and after graduating he auditioned for the role of John Belushi in the controversial film Wired. Afterward, Chiklis guest starred on a variety of series, from LA Law to Seinfeld. Along came The Commish, which ran from 1991 to 1996. Chiklis also starred on Broadway in the one-man show Defending the Caveman. Some of his film credits include the Fantastic Four film franchise, The Tax Man, Do Not Disturb, and Soldier. He also starred in the No Ordinary Family series, and had fun playing “Curly” in the ABC movie The Three Stooges.