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Reel Las Vegas

Long before Britney's big marital oops, the stars were swarming to Sin City; here's where they shot some of your favorite films
Image: Viva Las Vegas
Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley step out in the 1964 movie "Viva Las Vegas"AP

When it needs to, Hollywood can recreate just about anything. New York, Paris, an earthquake-ravaged Los Angeles--even a parting of the Red Sea. When it comes to Las Vegas though, it seems like only the real thing will do.

Since early appearances like 1936’s Boulder Dam and 1941’s Las Vegas Nights (Frank Sinatra’s first movie), Las Vegas has enjoyed starring roles in hundreds of films, TV shows and commercials. In fact, the garish, flickering backdrop has practically become a character unto itself, casting a glow of drama, tension and humor across the faces of some of the world’s biggest stars. Here is a decade-by-decade look at some of the more popular moments that have helped turn Sin City into "Scene City."

The 1950’s - Hollywood rolls the dice in the desert

Though Vegas had seen some action in the mid 1930’s-1940’s, it was during the ‘50s that it began to establish itself as a reliable location that could easily front for itself. 1950’s My Friend Irma Goes West highlighted the swimming pool at the Flamingo (3555 Las Vegas Boulevard South), and was also the film debut for the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Later that year, Charlton Heston made his debut in Dark City, shot in part at Vegas’s historic McCarran Airport.

In 1957, Frank Sinatra came to Vegas to shoot parts of The Joker is Wild, and the sci-fi flick The Amazing Colossal Man came to town. The camp-classic revolved around a man (Glen Langan) who grew ten feet a day due to nuclear fallout, then wreaked havoc throughout the Strip. In one memorable scene, he took on Las Vegas Vic, the iconic, 40-foot high neon cowboy that towers over the Pioneer Club at 25 East Fremont Street. But even bigger stars were soon to follow…

The 1960’s – Swinging affairs with Elvis and The Rat Pack

Two of the films most closely associated with Las Vegas were released in the 1960s. Perhaps the granddaddy of all Vegas flicks, 1960’s Ocean’s Eleven, showcased many authentic Vegas locales. The tale of eleven WWII pals who plan to rob five of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas in one night, Frank, Dino, Sammy and company forever solidified their swingin’ lifestyles in this time-capsule classic. Featured in the movie (among other places along the Strip) are the Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands and Flamingo.

As for 1964’s Viva Las Vegas starring Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret, though it was shot mostly in Hollywood, they did film the famous, risqué Folies Bergere revue at the Hotel Tropicana (Located at 3801 Las Vegas Boulevard South).

The 1970’s and 80’s –The Godfather, James Bond and a blown nest egg

By now, Vegas had firmly become a Hollywood mainstay. The early 1970s brought us Michael Corleone’s trip to Vegas in The Godfather, which was shot at the Tropicana (located at 3801 Las Vegas Boulevard South). A couple of years later, The Godfather II shot scenes at The Desert Inn, 3145 Las Vegas Boulevard South.

And who can forget when James Bond (Sean Connery) paid a visit in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever? In the movie, Bond and Tiffany Case met up at Circus Circus, located at 2880 Las Vegas Boulevard South. Willard Whyte’s White House was actually the Las Vegas Hilton (3000 Paradise Road). And Bond scored $50,000 at the Riviera (2901 Las Vegas Boulevard South), where he also won the sultry charms of Plenty O’Toole (played by Lana Wood, Natalie Wood’s sister).

In 1985’s hilarious Lost in America, ad-exec Albert Brooks watched in horror as his wife (Julie Hagerty) blew the family nest egg at The Desert Inn, then he tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the pit boss (Garry Marshall) to give it back.

Director Barry Levinson brought the cast and crew of Rainman to Las Vegas in 1988 for a pair of pivotal scenes. It was at Caesar’s Palace (3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South) where we saw Dustin Hoffman demonstrate his prowess with cards, and it was also here where Tom Cruise memorably taught Hoffman to dance in the hotel suite.

The 1990’s – Lights, camera, Austin!

Entering this era, Vegas had hit its stride as a major player in big budget films. In 1993, Robert Redford made an Indecent Proposal to Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson at the Las Vegas Hilton. Also within this hotel (and seen in the movie), is the Benihana Village, the restaurant with those peculiar singing statues.

Nicolas Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas. Though the casino interiors were shot 90 miles south of the Strip in Laughlin, there are still many key moments in the film that take place in Vegas. Cage’s character first met hooker Elisabeth Shue at a stoplight located just outside the Flamingo Hilton and Tower. Later, Shue found Cage in front of Bally’s Casino Resort at 3645 South Las Vegas Boulevard. They had a discussion in front of Circus Circus’s giant lit-up clown and then Shue got picked up by the college jocks on the aerial walkway in front of the turrets of Excalibur, located at 3850 Las Vegas Boulevard South.

Cage also starred in another Vegas-based feature, 1992’s Honeymoon in Vegas. In that movie, the now-famous parachute group, The Flying Elvises, landed at Bally’s.

Mike Meyers’ 1997 hip spy spoof, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, featured Vegas as prominently as any film ever. (Remember how pretty the glittering Strip looked in the scene where Burt Bacharach serenades Meyers and Elizabeth Hurley atop the red double-decker bus?) The many casino interiors for Austin Powers were shot at the Riviera Hotel and Casino and for Alotta Fagina’s penthouse, they used the Oriental-themed Imperial Palace at 3535 Las Vegas Boulevard South.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau took a trip to Vegas in 1996’s Swingers. For a change, the city’s old downtown district was featured. The pair was filmed inside the venerable Fremont Hotel and Casino at 200 East Fremont Street. (However, the exterior used was the Stardust Hotel and Casino at 3000 Las Vegas Boulevard).

Martin Scorsese used the Strip to its full glossy effect in 1995’s Casino. The production was largely shot in Vegas—in fact that fictitious casino in Tangier was actually the Riviera Hotel and Casino. And remember the space-age-looking motel where Joe Pesci enjoyed a brief affair with Sharon Stone? It’s the funky La Concha, located at 2955 Las Vegas Boulevard South.

A quirkier film featuring Las Vegas was director Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks. The 1996 ode to kitschy 1950’s sci-fi included Tom Jones performing at the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel, located at 3900 Las Vegas Boulevard South. Mars Attacks also highlighted a more obscure Vegas landmark, the "neon graveyard", which was in fact the old sign yard behind YESCO (the Young Electric Sign Company).

YESCO is the firm responsible for the many neon extravaganzas that help illuminate Vegas and other glitzy places the world. (They even created the huge twanging guitar that stands outside the Hard Rock Café; the one featured in such films as Honey, I Blew Up the Kid and Con-Air.) Until recently, the "graveyard" seen in the movie where hundreds of once-vibrant signs were left for dead was visible behind YESCO at 5119 Cameron Street. However, the collection was acquired by the Neon Museum, which now restores the signs for public display. As for old signs waiting for restoration, they’re now kept on a three-acre "Neon Boneyard" at the corner of Encanto and McWilliams drives, just north of downtown. Though the lot is not open to the public, many old signs are visible from the street as they were at their previous site.

2002 - Returning to the scene of the crime with Clooney, Pitt & Roberts

Vegas’s most recent prominent starring role was in Steven Soderbergh's 2002 splashy, entertaining remake of 1960’s Ocean’s Eleven. Heavily centered at the elegant Bellagio (3600 South Las Vegas Boulevard), one of the movie’s focal points was the hotel’s famous fountain, light and music show. Set on the eight-acre lake out front, the fountains can shoot water up to 240 feet in the air. (Trivia note: in the remake, the group robs The Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand.)

That’s a wrap!

There are many others movie locations that would stretch beyond the space of this article. Vegas Vacation, Midnight Run, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, Starman, Prizzi’s Honor, The Electric Horseman and hundreds more have helped make Las Vegas one of the world’s most recognizable celluloid landmarks.

Image: James Dean Died Here

So the next time you visit, pay close attention. If that casino where you’re playing looks familiar, maybe it’s where Austin Powers prowled. Or where the flying Elvises landed. After all, the shimmering, glimmering world of the Las Vegas Strip has become a megawatt star in its own right. It’s a real-life movie set that never sleeps, a place which truly epitomizes the word, "Action.’

Chris Epting has created many popular advertising campaigns over the last 20 years. He is also the author of six books including Roadside Baseball and James Dean Died Here, The Location’s of America’s Pop Culture Landmarks. Marilyn Monroe Dyed Here, More Locations of America’s Pop Culture Landmarks comes out this May from Santa Monica Press.