LOS ANGELES — Josh Brolin is a seventh-generation Californian and a second-generation Hollywood actor, but history is not always easy to see in a city under constant renovation. Brolin's star-turn as Sgt. John O'Mara in the gangland potboiler “Gangster Squad” taught the 44-year-old actor a lot about the Los Angeles Police Department's covert war against mobster Mickey Cohen, but then he got a surprise lesson from his father, actor James Brolin, about the lost landmarks where Cohen held court.
“My dad came to visit us when we were doing the scene at O'Mara's house one day,” Brolin said during a press day for “Gangster Squad” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
“We were looking out on the street that had been recreated, and he just kind of went off on these stories about when he was 9 years old. How he used to ... peek in the back of Slapsy Maxie's, go down the street to Ciro's looking for Mickey Cohen and his goons.”
Those infamous haunts where Cohen collected a steady stream of dirty money are lost to history: the former site of Slapsy Maxie's is now an Office Depot, and Ciro's, located on Sunset Boulevard, has been the Comedy Store for 41 years.
But in “Gangster Squad,” directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), the plainclothes detectives who brought down Cohen are given a fictionalized but vivid portrayal, as is the Los Angeles they patrolled. Even the “Hollywood” sign reads as it did until 1949: “Hollywoodland.”
The film, which co-stars Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone, is based on a Los Angeles Times feature that ran in seven parts in 2008, “L.A. Noir: Tales from the Gangster Squad.”
Brolin's O'Mara returned from World War II and quickly asserted himself as a renegade in the LAPD and, as one of the leaders of the off-the-books division known as the Gangster Squad, he became known for taking mobsters into the Hollywood Hills, putting a gun to their ear and scaring the daylights out of them.
“After he got back from World War II, I think he was shocked at how much Los Angeles had changed,” Brolin said. “Instead of being narcissistic and selfish, I think he thought about the future of his kids. I think he had a lot of integrity. I like the fact that it was this old idea of someone who has the honor of not following the manual of what they say law is.
“Back then, I think law was a lot less paranoid than it is now and I think the boundaries of law were a lot more malleable then than they are now,” he said.
“Guys thought outside the box. He had to think dirty in order to snuff out these guys who were trying to create Los Angeles into the Wild West, into a cesspool.”