In a gaudy, gilded lobby bar, in one of the more classy of the countless vast, brash hotels that make up modern-day Las Vegas, Ralph Lamb is recounting tales from times gone by. Dapperly dressed in a grey-blue suit and crisp white shirt and tie, he sits, straight-backed, sipping a vodka martini at four in the afternoon, a resplendent relic of another era. “Everyone wears Levi’s now,” he observes, in his soft, Southwestern burr. “Back in my day, if you didn’t dress up here, you couldn’t get into the shows.”
As if to prove that Levi’s aren’t nearly the worst of it, the cocktail waitress wanders over in an eye-wateringly low-cut, bottom-skimming dress, and asks “the sheriff ” if he needs another drink.
Pretty much everyone in Las Vegas still addresses Lamb as the sheriff, despite his being indicted for evading taxes to the tune of $34,399. And although he stood trial and was acquitted, he was still voted out of office. Now 85, he ran the booming desert city for the best part of two decades, from 1960 until 1978. A rancher and rodeo-rider, he was also once considered the most powerful man in Nevada, and colourful tales of his time as the city’s notoriously tough law enforcer abound.
Lamb’s legend is spreading beyond the city, county and state lines thanks to Vegas, the period drama that began on Sky Atlantic last week. The 1960s-set series captures Sin City on the cusp of change, about to enjoy the boom – in mob-controlled crime as well as casinos – that would transform it from a one-horse Wild West town into the glitzy, gambling mecca we know it as today.
The drama is written by Nick Pileggi, the author and screenwriter of those other gangster and gambling films Goodfellas and Casino, who has plundered many of Lamb’s real-life memories (with full co-operation) and blended them with pinches of fiction for the scripts. On-screen Lamb, with his lassos, leather jackets and serious cowboy swagger, is played, in his first major television role, by Dennis Quaid, 58, a bona fide Hollywood star whose films include The Big Easy, Great Balls of Fire! and Far from Heaven.
The lavish set is in Santa Clarita, outside Los Angeles, where a 170ft-long replica block of vintage Vegas has been constructed, including a full-scale fictional Savoy casino, complete with chandeliers, slot machines and roulette tables, plus a pawn shop, bingo hall, jail and the sheriff’s station, at a cost of £1.2 million. Shooting in contemporary Vegas wasn’t even an option. “The city has changed beyond recognition,” Lamb agrees in his gravelly voice, gained from the sustained smoking of five packets of Marlboro a day.
“It was the first time in the United States that any city had opened up like this, and the Government was really concerned,” he recalls. When Lamb began working for the sheriff’s office in 1947, the population of the city was 15,000; the 2010 census chalked it up as 1.95 million. “I had to show the Government that we had control of it,” he says.
Gambling had been legalised since 1931 in Nevada but, during the 1940s, gangsters from Chicago began taking over the casinos.
Lamb kept tabs on them by throwing a few coins to the young attendants working in the casino lots, and developing a network of tipsters who’d alert him when a mobster was coming to town. He also dealt directly with the gangsters in “the language those boys understood”. “We had rules,” he nods. “If a guy kept his word, there were no problems. If he didn’t keep his word… we had ways of letting him know what he had done.
“Some people thought we were too rough,” he shrugs. “But I never hit anyone with anything more than these,” he says, holding up his fists. Given their impressive size, it’s perhaps not so surprising that Lamb claims he rarely had to use his gun in the line of duty, favouring old-school brawn over bullets. “If I was going to have to take somebody out, I would just wait until he went outside and take him then. I didn’t want to have to shoot nobody,” he insists.
Lamb was born and brought up on a ranch in Alamo, a tiny rural outpost 95 miles north of Las Vegas, the eighth of 11 children. When he was ten, his father was killed at a rodeo – crushed while attempting to save a 12-year-old boy whose horse had bolted. His father was just 40, and Lamb’s youngest brother had been born the same morning, he tells me.
His father’s fate – and that of his grandfather, who had also been killed at a rodeo – never stopped Ralph from saddling up. “I used to ride every day, until I got blind,” he says (a degenerative eye condition forced him finally to stop riding rodeos two years ago, at the age of 83). “It was a good way of letting off steam. I would go out there and ride those horses for a few hours, and come back and put on a suit.”
After a brief stint in the Army during the Second World War, working in intelligence in the Pacific, Lamb returned to the area and joined the sheriff’s office in 1947. For a few years in the 1950s he opted out of the force to set up his own private detective agency with another former police officer. “That was hilarious, I can tell you,” he chuckles. “I had some great clients who came to me with some very personal problems.” Their best known was Howard Hughes. “He was just a regular guy then; people made him a recluse because they wouldn’t leave him alone,” he says.
In 1960, Lamb stood for election as sheriff, aged 32. “I was the youngest sheriff elected in the United States,” he tells me proudly. And he was dynamic. Lamb is credited with moving Las Vegas law enforcement into the modern era, introducing new concepts such as crime labs, using forensic science to help investigate cases, and the first Swat [special weapons and tactics] team. He expanded the police presence in the city enormously, combining two previously separate divisions into one Metropolitan Police Force, and oversaw its development from a department that sent out 40-man posses on horseback to one that trained its officers at the FBI Academy.
But his role extended far beyond crime control. Under Lamb’s rules, every sports star and entertainer who landed in Vegas – no matter how famous – had to check in at the sheriff ’s office for a permit to perform: even Muhammad Ali, Elvis and the Beatles.
“I met everyone who ever sang a song here,” he smiles. “My favourite was Dean Martin, though. Not because of who he was as a singer – he was just a great guy. It didn’t matter who you were, Dean would treat you just the same.” He sips his martini slowly and confides, “Whereas Sinatra, he could be trouble, once he got a few drinks inside him.” However, 90 per cent of the stars who came to town were no trouble at all, he says. “One of the Beatles did hit me over the head with his guitar,” he admits, although he claims to be unable to recall which one.
“Jackie [John F] Kennedy was my friend,” he continues, more as a simple statement than a boast. “He was the most smart, sleek-looking guy you ever saw and he loved it here. But he was tough to handle – he’d want to jump right off the stage into a crowd to talk to ’em.”
Though he mingled with the stars and mixed with the Establishment, Lamb says he lived his own life outside it. “I never was a country-club guy, and it cost me a lot of votes,” he says. “I was never one for making public speeches – I’d be out there riding horses.” However, there were others who accused him of losing votes for different reasons – there was the indictment for tax evasion, which he has always denied.
These days, the sheriff lives alone in a small ranch house in the north of the city. His wife, Toni, died four years ago, although his three grown-up children live close by. Of his ten siblings, only he and one younger brother are still living. The Lamb name, however – and the legends that surround it – now have quite another life of their own.
Vegas begins tonight at 10:00pm on Sky Atlantic