From "The Godfather" to "The Sopranos": What Mob Stories Get Right--and Wrong
From novels like "The Godfather," by Mario Puzo, and "Casino," by Nicholas Pileggi, to award-winning shows like HBO's "The Sopranos," we sure do love a good gangster yarn. But are the hard-hearted hitmen on-screen accurate reflections of real-life bad guys? Fuhgeddaboudit, says 25-year veteran New Jersey state trooper Mike Russell, author of the action-packed memoir, “Undercover Cop.” Russell’s bio reads like something out of a Scorsese script: In the ’80s, by playing the part of an ex-cop with mobster aspirations, Russell penetrated the Genovese crime family and brought dozens of members down. Most Hollywood portrayals of the mafia—such as “The Family,” the new film starring Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer—wildly exaggerate, says Russell. Here, Russell and his co-author, retired NYPD cop Patrick W. Picciarelli, separate fact from fiction in nine memorable mob stories.
The story: Based on the book by Pileggi, "Casino" tells the tale of Sam Rothstein (played by Robert DeNiro), a thug sent to Las Vegas to manage a casino on behalf of the midwest-based "Chicago Outfit."
The reality: From 1971 to 1980, Anthony “Big Tuna” Accardo, a very old-school mob boss, ran the Chicago Outfit. In real life, there’s no way Accardo would have permitted a Jewish person to be anything but a figurehead in Vegas.
There also wasn’t a Kansas City drop, as indicated in the film—everything went straight to Chicago. And, let’s face it: You’re not going to pull a gambler off the gaming floor and cut off his fingers with a circular saw for cheating at blackjack. The purpose of all this creative writing is entertainment, so you’re not left watching a boring documentary.
The story: The true-life tale of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington) and his monopoly over New York City’s heroin trade in the 1980s. Based by an article (and later, a book) by writer Mark Jacobson.
The reality: Very far-fetched. There were no corrupt NYPD cops on Frank Lucas's payroll, only cops from New Jersey. Lucas also didn’t do business with the Italian mob: His dope came from Vietnam connections made during the war. And, he didn’t have a mansion like the one in the movie: he ran his Country Boys operation out of a one-family home on Springdale Avenue in East Orange, N.J. Lucas was barely literate. No way was he the smooth operator portrayed by Denzel Washington.
The story: Martin’s Scorsese’s remake of the Chinese mafia movie “Internal Affairs,” based on the exploits of notorious south Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. (See Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen's "Whitey Bulger" for more about him.)
The reality: Bulger, who was politically connected (his brother Billy Bulger was the president of the Massachusetts state senate), headed up the usual big city rackets (gambling and drugs) as a member of south Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. Because of his connections, he was permitted to run wild—and with the help of the FBI, allowed to eliminate the Italian mob guys in north Boston and move in on their business. A lot of creative writing went into this: One scene shows Bulger moving a shipment of defense department microprocessors, which wouldn’t have been possible because Bulger was a street thug who only knew how to take bets and cut drugs. The film also featured corrupt cops in the Massachusetts State Police but, in reality, Bulger corrupted the Boston FBI and the state police kept their squeaky-clean reputation.
The story: Francis Ford Coppola’s saga of the Corleone mob family, based on Mario Puzo's book.
The reality: Coppola depicts the members of the Corleone family as men of honor who eschewed dealing in drugs because they corrupted children. In truth, the Mafia forbade dealing in drugs for practical reasons, not altruistic ones. Mafia members caught dealing drugs received harsh sentences, which sometimes led them to “flip” and testify against their brethren. While it was forbidden for family members to sell drugs, the bosses never questioned where the cash came from and often turned a blind eye. The death sentence only kicked in if dealers got busted. In the mob, it’s all about money.
The story: A 1996 made-for-TV movie about the Gambino crime family starring Armand Assante as Gambino boss John Gotti. Former New York Daily News writer Jerry Capeci tells his story in "Gotti."
The reality: In this story, Gotti is depicted as a family man--a decent sort revered by his men, only compelled to be a bad guy because of his career choice. However, the real John Gotti was a womanizing, degenerate gambler despised by his fellow mobsters. In fact, Gotti’s megalomaniacal thirst for publicity was instrumental in drawing law enforcement scrutiny to what was supposed to be a secret criminal enterprise.
"King of New York"
The story: After his release from New York’s Sing Sing prison, drug lord Frank White (played by Christopher Walken) finds trouble again.
The reality: This far-fetched 1990 film features very stupid scenes of people getting whacked in restaurants. Mob hits in restaurants are rare and done on the spur of the moment, i.e. the 1972 killing of gangster Joey Gallo in Manhattan. The Mafia is a secret organization. Members mostly clean house in private, and rarely where there can be civilian collateral damage.
The story: A group of thugs from Boston go on a robbing spree. Directed by Ben Affleck and adapted from Chuck Hogan's novel "Prince of Thieves," which is based, in part, on a true story.
The reality: In the 1990s, Boston gangster Anthony Shea pulled off some of the largest armored car robberies in history. Shea’s crimes were well planned: His guys beat all the bank alarm systems, the weapons Shea’s team used were of military quality. (Shea’s guys were also well-trained: They trained with their guns all the time and were excellent marksmen.) Even Shea’s get-away drivers were professional. This movie based on Shea’s life was very well written--as close to real as it gets.