TO ‘VEGA$’ WITH LOVE: Forty years ago, a classic TV series brought the tourists to Vegas
Eras change. Cool remains. You can say that about Vegas. And you can say that about Vega$ — even 40 years later.
Robert Urich/Dan Tanna? Coolest cat in town. Tony Curtis/Phillip Roth? Coolest boss in town. Red Thunderbird convertible/1957 version? Coolest car in town. (Parked in Tanna’s living-room garage — hey, isn’t everyone’s?)
Vega$? Coolest show on TV from 1978-81.
Looking back now, the private-eye series that hit ABC’s airwaves four decades ago is smack in the middle of the five most enduring pop-culture touchstones that helped define this city, along with the original Ocean’s 11 and Viva Las Vegas on the big screen before it, and the small-screen CSI and Pawn Stars after it.
Vega$ was Vegas to a nation of viewers. We still owe it a debt for capturing a perfect, swaggering moment in the Vegas timeline — after the Strip had grown up and outward from the earlier, cozier Rat Pack days, but before it exploded into a megaresort mecca. A cultural/historical sweet spot.
And we owe it for swelling our tourist ranks and stoking Vegas fever, as fans arrived hoping to glimpse the on-the-Strip filming, or even that hipster hangout where our hero resided — a converted theatrical prop shop next to Circus Circus. As the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority noted in 2014 about a media/visitor survey, 74 percent of leisure travelers questioned cited TV shows featuring Vegas as an important factor in their decision to visit us.
In a 2002 story in the Las Vegas Sun, former Desert Inn President Burton Cohen recalled the benefits of his hotel being the show’s resort home base. “I felt that it would be good public relations, not only for the DI but for Las Vegas, and it went over very well,” Cohen recalled. “We turned the hotel into a movie studio and production offices and used employees as extras.”
Ex-Vega$ stagehand JR Reid told the newspaper that “the show was a defining moment for Las Vegas that showed that the city, its glitz and glamour aside, was like any other in America that had problems like any other place.” Reportedly, one of the show’s big fans was Anthony Zuiker, who would go on to create CSI.
Pedigree? Vega$ had it in spades, from ace creator Michael Mann, the master of stylized crime drama (who later exec-produced Miami Vice and Crime Story and hit his zenith with the Pacino-De Niro film classic Heat) to the era’s do-no-wrong producer, Aaron Spelling.
Starring the easygoing, in-his-prime Urich, who lent the series a sex-appeal breeziness as Tanna, Vega$ followed the private dick’s exploits as he initially took many of his assignments from Phillip Roth, fictional owner of the very real Desert Inn. As portrayed by longtime Henderson resident Curtis (who was more of a drop-in guest star than a co-star, despite his billing), Roth was nicknamed “Slick” — ’natch. That wasn’t the only irresistible cliché as the series played on longstanding Vegas tropes and hardboiled cop-show bromides.
Rounding out the cast for stints of varying length over the show’s run were: Phyllis Davis as Beatrice, Tanna’s assistant, an ex-showgirl (’natch, yet again); Judy Landers as Angie, his other, more airheaded assistant/ex-showgirl (can we get another ’natch?); Naomi Stevens as Metro Sgt. Bella Archer; Greg Morris (of Mission: Impossible fame) as Metro Lt. David Nelson, a no-nonsense (pile on another ’natch) top cop pal; and Will Sampson as Harlon Twoleaf and Chick Vennera as Mitch Costigian, both of them Tanna’s Vietnam buddies. Providing comic relief as a hotel pool boy/reformed petty thief/Tanna’s boy-Friday was Bart Braverman as Binzer.
Biggest co-star? The sights, sounds and icons of this unique town.
We’re talkin’ that propulsive, ’70s-style theme music by composer Dominic Frontiere, a mashup of swing-band heat and orchestral cool. We’re talkin’ headliners of the era showing up for the simplistically fun whodunit plots (Dean Martin, Wayne Newton, Shelley Berman, Red Buttons, Lola Falana, even Muhammad Ali). We’re talkin’ blast-from-the-past resorts flying by (The Dunes, The Stardust, The Frontier, The Mint) as that T-bird zoomed around town, top-down, Tanna’s studly hairstyle barely mussed. We’re talkin’ only-in-Vegas scenarios (is that really a woman in her glittering showgirl tights checking on her roast in the oven?) and overheard conversations (“You walk up, drop in a coin — ba-da-BING!”).
And we’re talkin’ the stars: too-cool-for-school Curtis striding through a line of showgirls, ordering the director to “get rid of the tops” and instructing his entertainment assistant that “Sammy wants to switch his dates with Liza — tell him it’s OK.” And, of course, Urich, ever so chic with his upturned shirt collar splayed over his sport jacket lapels, fisticuff-ing the baddies and lip-locking with Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton (Hef’s gal pal!).
Vega$ is a time capsule now, a totem of a simpler TV aesthetic that predated today’s emotionally richer, character-complex (and explicitly violent) crime dramas. But it memorably advanced and helped cement an image that this city wears proudly and flamboyantly to this day.
Happy 40th anniversary, Vega$ — Vegas thanks you for the cultural cachet you lent us, the business you brought us, the memories you left us and the singular style you reflected back at us.
Where else would we even consider parking our car in our living room?