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The men who inspired ‘The Defenders’ on TV are living the legal dream

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Las Vegas attorneys Michael Cristalli and Marc Saggese
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

For Michael Cristalli and Marc Saggese, the musclebound, pissed-off guy throwing a chair across their office and screaming a blue streak in an ACLU lawyer’s face was all part of a routine day. The documentary filmmakers in their offices at the time, however, were stunned at what happened next. “We jumped up, ran over, got in his face and fearlessly told him to sit down, because we’re the boss here,” remembers Marc. “There was, like, 15 seconds of awkward silence. The boom guy was shaking. But all of a sudden, the guy gets this big smile on his face and says, ‘I like you guys. I’m hiring you. You’re my lawyers!’”

The film crew, headed up by the Gantz brothers (Taxicab Confessions), was in town in 2006 filming a documentary about efforts to legalize prostitution. The musclebound guy in question had gotten into it with the police during a pro-legalization rally and had his money confiscated. Suddenly, the Gantzes were following this guy around, which led to the encounter at the offices of Cristalli & Saggese, longtime Vegas defense lawyers who have been involved in some of the city’s more famous recent cases.

After seeing Marc and Michael in action, the Gantzes had a new project in mind—the lives of two dynamic attorneys, guys who fight for the little guy in a very colorful way. They got Fox on board to bankroll a docudrama pilot and spent 30 days in 2006 following both men around constantly, in the office, in court, wherever their jobs took them. Everyone involved agreed that the finished product was good, but despite initial interest, Fox passed. Michael and Marc kept in contact with the Gantzes, who continued to shop the project to other networks.

In 2008, they got a call letting them know CBS was very interested. Only CBS didn’t want to do it as a docudrama. They wanted a dramatic series with characters based on Michael and Marc. Skip ahead two years and The Defenders, starring Jim Belushi (Cristalli) and Jerry O’Connell (Saggese) is pulling in around 11 million viewers every Wednesday night. Needless to say, Michael and Marc are grateful that this appears to be a Vegas-set CBS drama that will lean more toward the success of CSI and not, say, Dr. Vegas. CBS has renewed it for a full season, although a second season is still up the air. For the time being, both men can’t help but smile while talking about a dream come true.

The truth is often magnified for television, but you don’t have to tinker much with Michael and Marc’s past to think their entire story up to now has been part of some symbiotic serendipity. Take, for instance, their families: Their mothers grew up across the street from one another in Utica, New York, but Marc and Michael didn’t actually meet until both had moved to Vegas to set up legal practices. “And we found out much later that my great-grandfather and his grandfather, who came to America together, were best friends,” Marc says.

Michael, 40, moved here in 1995, establishing his practice in 1998, with Marc, 37, moving here in 1999. Both men were introduced that year by a mutual acquaintance and began a great friendship. “At that time, Vegas was demographically great for lawyers,” Michael says. “There was no law school, the bar was offered only once a year—my number is 6266, and Marc is 6271, even though we were more than a year apart. I saw an opportunity here, where in New York, there are hundreds of thousands of lawyers.” The two launched Cristalli & Saggese in 2004.

Their friendship stemmed from far more than just familial ties and a shared neighborhood—both men also have a deep love of boxing. Marc, who was an amateur boxer at age 17 in upstate New York, became a professional fighter at age 35, going 3-0. “I knocked the last guy out,” he says. Michael and Marc have represented numerous fighters, are licensed boxing promoters and at one time even owned a gym here. Their office is filled with boxing memorabilia and photos of some of their favorite pugilists, both professionally and personally. “Mike Tyson is the nicest, kindest man,” Marc says. “He loves Piero’s, too.”

Ah, fondness for the food and drink at Piero’s, another similarity the men share. It’s their favorite haunt in Vegas, a place they go to unwind and enjoy what they call “the city’s best martini.” All this is represented in the show, albeit through Hollywood’s slightly warping lens—Piero’s is swapped for Bruno’s, a Los Angeles restaurant. Their favorite diner, City Centre Cafe? LA again. The gym Belushi where works out? Ditto.

While 30 percent of the show is filmed here (Planet Hollywood and Spring Mountain Road were both used recently), most of it is filmed in LA because of the challenges of moving an entire film crew here. And storylines, while based on famous cases handled by their firm, are actually an amalgam of several cases with names changed. (A recent episode, “Black Betty,” borrowed liberally from the Sandy Murphy/Rick Tabish trial, complete with bars of silver.) And though both men are happily married, plot lines have had one propositioned by a judge and the other sleeping with a client just after the trial—she’s no longer his client, see?

None of this fazes Michael or Marc. “People are flawed in general,” Michael says. “That’s what makes it entertaining. They want to see people who have to deal with the same bullshit they have to deal with every day. Most of these legal shows, it’s so not real. The prosecution is so pristine and perfect. No idiosyncrasies.”

Yes, The Defenders is sometimes goofy fun, but it’s also a serious look at some of the messier aspects of the law, something Michael and Marc fight to get into every episode. “We have the luck and blessing to be involved in the show daily, which is important,” Marc says. “I’ve already talked to them twice today. The scriptwriters have hundreds of questions, and we’re actively involved.” Both men now regularly fly to LA for whatever creative consulting is required, schedules permitting. “Michael and I, by being involved, keep it real.”

Well, as real as you can get in a city built on illusion. Still, Michael and Marc are determined to make sure the show reflects as much of their body of work as possible—including police intimidation, as evidenced by a recent episode in which a juror is pressured into changing his verdict based on coercion. “That 100 percent happened,” Marc says. “We got an email from a guy who was messed with by an officer on the way home. He said, ‘I changed my vote because I’m a coward.’ I couldn’t believe it. I got called as the star witness. Cristalli became my lawyer. The cops were in the courtroom glaring at me.”

Fighting such pressure is what both men have staked their careers on, and regardless of whether the series continues to be watched by millions, they want to show that aspect of their profession. “We fight the heavy hand of the state on a daily basis,” Michael says. “Whether it’s a small guy or a big guy, the government is big to everybody. They have the resources and power to go after an individual. We wake up every morning to fight that fight. It’s not often a fair system or a just system, but it is a great system.”

Adds Marc, “We fight so hard just to make the system fair. This show shines some light and shows the real practice of law, instead of the canned, staged, formulaic prosecutor crap on TV I can’t make it three minutes into. The bad guy is so bad they should put him in a striped suit with a mask on, tip-toeing with a flashlight. It’s just insulting to our profession. The Defenders is not simplified. It’s totally real.”

Being a lawyer already requires a bit of acting talent, as you’re often the focus of attention in the courtroom, and you’d damn well better be compelling. Michael and Marc don’t lack in that department, and were actually asked to audition for The Defenders. “I think there was a method to their madness, because they saw our personalities come across and used that film to give to Jerry and Jim. But I’ll never forget, [director] David Guggenheim said to Marc, ‘You’re not quite capturing the character,’ and Marc said, ‘What do you mean? I am the character!’”

Their acting careers may have to wait, but both men are incredulous at their good fortune, both in the people they’re getting to meet and the fantasies they’re getting to play out on the small screen. “I’m a big Elvis fan, but I’m an even bigger Frank Sinatra fan,” shares Marc. Frank Sinatra Jr. appeared on the premiere, and a recent episode dealt with a break-in at an Elvis Presley museum.

It’s a constant kick for Michael and Marc to see the similarities they share with their onscreen counterparts. “Jerry spent three nights in my house, followed me around to courtrooms, sat in my office and listened to client interviews. My mother called me and said, ‘You’re not quite as excitable as Jerry, but otherwise he has you down.’”

And they continue to be impressed by the level of creative control they are able to exert. “Those guys didn’t have to continue with the relationship the way they have, to keep us involved and keep our thumbprint and pulse on it,” Michael says.

In an industry where fame is fleeting, both Michael and Marc are just enjoying the ride and trying not to take it too seriously, while simultaneously taking nothing for granted.

“Michael and I have probably had 50 conversations in the last 12 years about all our struggles, sleepless nights, migraines, anxieties, fights and conflicts, where we said, ‘Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?’ We just say, ‘Wow, this is really happening, and perhaps it’s the reason we’ve gone through so much in the last 12 years.’”

“You just pinch yourself,” Michael adds. “From the documentary to the show, we’ve been trying to enjoy every step of that journey.”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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