The Strange Saga of the Showtime Producer, High-Stakes Poker and the Russian Mob
This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The scene was right out of Ray Donovan, the new Showtime drama about a Los Angeles "fixer" for the rich and famous. On the morning of April 16, producer Bryan Zuriff was arrested and handcuffed in front of his young children at the family's Brentwood home -- the same 6,500-square-foot, six-bedroom house that Zuriff's neighbor, Judd Apatow, used as the setting for Knocked Up and This Is 40.
Federal prosecutors charged Zuriff, 43, a wealthy wannabe Hollywood player and executive producer on Ray Donovan, with being part of a bookmaking operation linked to an alleged international gambling and money-laundering scheme worth more than $100 million.
Among the 33 other people indicted in connection with the alleged criminal enterprise -- many of whom were arrested in simultaneous raids in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Detroit -- was Molly Bloom, who gained attention in 2011 for her role in arranging high-stakes poker games that attracted celebrities such as Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. And, ominously, prosecutors named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, 64, an alleged Russian gangster accused in 2002 of attempting to rig Winter Olympic skating competitions in Salt Lake City.
One raid took place at Manhattan's prestigious Helly Nahmad Gallery in the posh Carlyle Hotel, home to moguls and luminaries from Barry Diller to Brad Grey. Prosecutors allege gallery owner Hillel Nahmad and the gallery, which sells blue-chip impressionist and modern art, helped finance the criminal operation. Nahmad was charged with playing a leading role in the alleged scheme and has pleaded not guilty.
Authorities have not outlined exactly what role Zuriff specifically may have played, but in an April 16 press release, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney called all 34 people charged "members and associates of two Russian-American organized crime enterprises."
If convicted, Zuriff could face up to 10 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty. With a trial set for June 2014, he is on supervised release and can travel only between Los Angeles and New York.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement, "As alleged, these criminal enterprises were vast and many-tentacled, with one of them reaching across the Atlantic to launder tens of millions of dollars from Russia to the U.S. via Cyprus and, in some cases, back again."
Neither Zuriff nor his attorney responded to repeated requests for comment on the case, and the U.S. Attorney's office declined to elaborate on the allegations. But interviews with some of Zuriff's Hollywood associates reveal a portrait of a born-to-wealth hanger-on whose family made its fortune in banking and harness racing. Zuriff yearned for Hollywood success with little result until he began to work with prolific producer Mark Gordon (Grey's Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Army Wives). That led to Zuriff's greatest success to date: the executive producer role on Ray Donovan.
Some of those closest to Zuriff believe he may not have recognized the potential seriousness of his gambling-related activities. They say they cannot see him as a major cog in a sophisticated international criminal enterprise.
For years, Zuriff, who put up his house on a $1 million bond, was known as someone who played far more than he worked. Outside of his recent job, Zuriff has been an active golfer and networker at L.A.'s Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, where he shot in the low- to mid-90s. (One golf buddy is said to be WME agent Nick Stevens, who declined comment.) "Bryan never worked, so if somebody wanted to take a day off and play, he was the perfect guy to call," one source says. Zuriff is "one of those people that only Hollywood has -- one of those people on the outside of the bubble who will do whatever he can to fake being on the inside. … When he met Mark Gordon, it was an opportunity to say he was a real producer."
Though Zuriff has called himself a producer for many years, he appears to have no credits before 2009. Since then he's had his name on only two small films that grossed less than $2 million combined. Ray Donovan, premiering June 30, could be a breakthrough of sorts in his quest for Hollywood credibility. The show, well-reviewed by The Hollywood Reporter, stars Liev Schreiber as a kind of fixer to the rich and famous of Hollywood, solving problems just outside the law.
It's not clear exactly how Zuriff secured a credit on the high-profile series, created by veteran Ann Biderman, whose previous work includes Southland. Also unclear is exactly what duties Zuriff performs, but several people say he has been on the Sony lot set in recent weeks. Showtime declined comment.
Now Zuriff may need a fixer of his own. Beside his white-shingled home there is a guest house that, according to one visitor, is "dedicated to gambling." (Kathryn Heigl's character lived there in Knocked Up.) There are several flat-screen televisions tuned in to various games, this person says, as well as a bar and card table where sources say Zuriff's friends have gathered to play high-stakes games of Texas Hold 'em. Among them: director Todd Phillips (The Hangover), Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) and Maguire. None responded to a request for comment.
Zuriff is telling former associates that his problems with the law have been blown out of proportion. "He said his part in it was very small, not as big as people made it out to be," says one. Though that claim is met with skepticism by some acquaintances, Zuriff's good friend Joe Francis of Girls Gone Wild fame -- whose own issues with the law have landed him behind bars in the past -- claims that a deal is in the works. According to Francis, who is godfather to one of Zuriff's children, Zuriff will pay a fine of just $250 and be put on probation in exchange for pleading guilty to one count of online gambling. And, Francis says, Zuriff -- or BZ, as his friends call him -- will not even have to offer testimony in the government's broader case. (Federal prosecutors declined comment.)
"He's the unlucky fish that got caught in a bigger net through a very unlucky phone call," claims Francis, who says he knows several of the major players in the alleged scheme and is familiar with some details. "He got caught on a bad phone call with one of the peripheral people." Francis declined to offer specifics, but the government was known to have recorded as many as 25,000 conversations during extensive wiretapping connected with the case.
Francis describes Zuriff as "a great guy," "a charismatic guy" and "a classy guy." He says the guesthouse was hardly a venue for gambling. "He has a few flat-screens like everybody else has," Francis says. "Every guy has them in their man cave."
Hollywood has had a long love affair with poker and its variation Texas Hold 'em, which has no limit on what can be bet and thus delivers the biggest highs and lows for those whose wealth and ennui leave them hungry for thrills. It demands total concentration, making it a distraction from the day's anxieties. "You get in front of that green felt, and that's all you can think about," says one regular player.