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.
The game also has brought with it a number of legal worries. A string of Hollywood players had to deal with unwelcome publicity after a Ponzi-schemer named Brad Ruderman made his way into their game in 2006. Once his fraud became apparent and his company, Ruderman Capital Partners, was forced into bankruptcy, his Hollywood friends -- some of whom had pocketed easy winnings from him -- found themselves on the receiving end of litigation. A court-appointed trustee sued players to claw back the ill-gotten gains that Ruderman had lost at the poker table. Among them, Maguire put up stiff resistance, finally settling in November 2011 for $80,000. Cassavetes and Welcome Back, Kotter star Gabe Kaplan also were targeted in that litigation. Ruderman himself was sent to a Texas prison in 2009 to serve a 10-year sentence.
According to court filings in the Ruderman bankruptcy case, Bloom, an attractive brunette, managed games at multimillion-dollar homes and high-end hotels. The court-appointed trustee alleged that Bloom was paid to arrange hotel suites for games attended by such players as Maguire, DiCaprio and Ben Affleck. Court filings also alleged Bloom relayed information to players, hired dealers and arranged for food, drinks, massages and bodyguards. She also kept track of winnings and losses and arranged for payment to be made among players. She has since settled all claims in that case.
Bloom relocated to New York sometime in 2009 and was reported to have started a poker game in Manhattan, arranging for sessions at high-end hotels and recruiting women from nightclubs to attend. In 2011, the tabloid Star reported that after she relocated, Bloom received a beating at the hands of "two Eastern European thugs" -- an attack confirmed by her attorney at the time, though he discounted suggestions that the incident was related to poker. In June 2011, Bloom was said to have moved again, this time to Malibu. The charges in the current indictment relate to her conduct from 2010 through the present. Bloom's attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Zuriff's connection to Bloom, if any, is unclear, and prosecutors have not laid out any possible connection between the two other than naming both in connection with the alleged money-laundering and gambling scheme.
According to a source who has knowledge of Zuriff's background, he stands to inherit $150 million or more from his grandfather and his mother. The family made a fortune in banking (their company, Century Business Credit, made loans to clients in the fashion industry, including Tommy Hilfiger).
Zuriff's grandfather Stanley Tananbaum and his brothers Martin and Alfred were major figures in harness racing who took control of the Yonkers Raceway in 1956. His mother, Ricki, married Eugene Zuriff, who worked for the family banking business for many years. Ultimately the couple divorced, and Eugene for a time served as a top executive with the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse chain.
According to a knowledgeable source, Bryan Zuriff is Stanley's favored grandson. Zuriff also is related by marriage to E! News personality Giuliana Rancic, who is his wife's sister. (Rancic also is godparent to one of Zuriff's children.) Hotelier and restaurateur Jeff Klein, whose properties include the Sunset Tower, is Zuriff's cousin.
Zuriff grew up on Park Avenue and attended private schools. Except for a brief stint in an acting program at NYU, he skipped college and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. According to several sources, Zuriff achieved little that was visible for many years, other than investing in flipping some houses in the Beverly Hills flats. "He was saying he's a producer and he never produced anything," says a source with knowledge of his activities.
Even colleagues at Gordon's production company aren't sure how Zuriff and Gordon came together. One heard a rumor that Zuriff befriended Gordon at the Four Seasons in Kona, Hawaii. Another thinks they met through their children's school. "Bryan sort of just joined the company all of a sudden," says a former associate. "It was this odd thing. I had no idea who he was or where he came from."
The business arrangement between Gordon and Zuriff also was unclear. Some associates believe Zuriff got a title and an office and no pay. As they understood it, the deal was that Zuriff would bring projects to Gordon in exchange for a piece of whatever deal came together.
Gordon gave Zuriff credits on several projects, including Oren Moverman's 2009 drama The Messenger, which brought Woody Harrelson an Academy Award nomination for supporting actor, and the small 2011 dark comedy The Details, which starred Maguire as well as Laura Linney and Elizabeth Banks. A blurb in Showtime's publicity materials for Ray Donovan says Zuriff's upcoming projects include the Steve Jobs biopic that Aaron Sorkin is writing, though Scott Rudin would seem to be by far the most significant producer on that project. Several sources say that Zuriff and Gordon terminated their business relationship a few months ago.
Asked about his arrangement with Zuriff, Gordon said through a spokesperson: "The Mark Gordon Co. has had a relationship with Bryan for several years, which has led to such successful projects as The Messenger, The Details and Ray Donovan." He declined further comment. In fact, The Details grossed only $63,595 and The Messenger, which cost a little under $10 million, grossed just $1.5 million.
What surprised some of Zuriff's former colleagues at Gordon's company was that this out-of-nowhere newcomer had unexpected connections. One says Zuriff seemed to know "everybody -- A-list actors, top agents at CAA. That was Bryan's in. … He had money and relationships." Former colleagues say Zuriff was in the office daily and seemed to take the job seriously. "He's like an agent, always working it," one says. "He's not a creative type, but he works all the angles. It's beneficial, in our business, to use someone who's able to do that."
To another, Zuriff seemed "sweet" and nonthreatening, and he got access to desirable spec scripts. When money was needed for The Messenger, he came up with the cash and got a credit. A source says he paid $1 million for the project after phoning his skeptical grandfather for help and arguing that the project would make money.
Now, Zuriff's legal troubles could derail his attempt to establish himself as a Hollywood player -- and not just the kind who sits at a card table. Joe Francis has faith in his friend, and that his legal troubles will soon be behind him and the way forward will be clear. "Hollywood is very forgiving," he says, "especially with a scandal like this. BZ was not part of any mafia situation or anything like that. I'm very happy for him." And Francis suggests that his friend may emerge from this episode an even better man. "BZ will never gamble again," he says. "He's scared straight."
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