The center of A&E’s Biography event, Gotti: Godfather & Son is a sad goodbye between a father and his son. They may not have known it at the time but the meeting, caught on surveillance tape at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, is the last time John Gotti and John Gotti Jr. would be in a room together. John Gotti died at 61 in 2002, after battling throat cancer. It is a hard enough thing to leave the family business, but when that business means running the biggest crime family in New York, it is an unprecedented impossibility.
The Teflon Don lost his coating on a Manhattan Supreme Court verdict of 11 tuna fish and one roast beef on charges of conspiracy and assault for the 1986 shooting of a carpenter’s union official. Gotti: Godfather & Son alternates between the story of the Gambino family, filling in a little bit of background from before Gotti’s rise, and the Gotti family.
The special interviews Peter and Angel Gotti, but also goes outside the family to talk with criminal defense lawyer Ron Kuby, FBI agents, and U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who presided over several of Gotti’s trials. But most of the information comes from John Jr., who may have saved himself from the same fate that put his dad at the head of the Gambino crime family. As much as he grew up in his father’s, sometimes literal, shadow, John Jr., could never be as “street” as his father. He was the son of the boss, and grew up in relative affluence compared to John Joseph Gotti, who was one of thirteen kids growing up in the South Bronx, the East New York section of Brooklyn and running the Fulton-Rockaway Boys out of Queens.
Carlo Gambino, who took over the family after the 1957 execution of the Lord High Executioner Albert Anastasia, died on October 15, 1976, of a heart attack. The Gambino family passed to his brother-in-law Paul Castellano, who was more of a white collar criminal than a street hustler, and less equipped to rule than underboss Aniello Dellacroce, who stuck to the code and accepted the appointment. John Jr. may have been on a similar course.
After Castellano became boss, he split the family’s take between white collar crimes like stock deals and embezzlement, which he managed, and traditional Cosa Nostra moneymakers, like loan sharking and robberies, which he gave over to Dellacroce. To keep the former underboss under control, Castellano used Anthony “Nino” Gaggi’s crew, which included the killing machine Roy DeMeo.
The Gambino family, the largest and most influential of the Five Families in New York City, went through three bosses between 1910 and 1957. The family was started by Palermo, Sicily, mobsters Ignazio Lupo and Giuseppe Morello, became the D’Aquila gang after they were sent to prison for counterfeiting in 1910, and Salvatore “Toto” D’Aquila, took over. It became a family after the Castellammarese War of 1931 and Vincent Mangano was put in charge with Albert Anastasia as underboss. Mangano disappeared in 1951, and the prime suspect was his successor. Anastasia was assassinated while sitting in a barber chair at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan in 1951. Word on the street has it that Carlo Gambino had help from Meyer Lansky to clip the boss.
John Gotti was just a caporegime when he put together the December 16, 1985 hit on Castellano with capo Frank DeCicco, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano and Robert “DiB” DiBernardo. Gotti became the Dapper Don, the most media friendly public enemy America had in the 80s and 90s, with DeCicco as underboss.
The special says Gotti earned his button in May of 1973 when he shot Jimmy McBratney, who murdered a member of the Gambino family. The execution was done in public and witnesses put Gotti on the scene. He got a four-year sentence for attempted manslaughter in 1974.
John Jr. remembers his father as a closed man, and realized this was actually extreme emotional control after the death of Frank Gotti, Gotti’s 12-year-old son, who hit and killed by a car driven by neighbor John Favara in 1980. Four months later witnesses saw Favara clubbed on the head and shoved into a van while the Gotti family was in Florida on vacation. Favara was never seen again.
The people in Howard Beach saw Gotti as a hero, splurging on block parties that became legendary. By the late 1980s the FBI was listening to everything he said from an apartment above the Bergin social club. Gotti was arrested in December 1990. Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano made the deal, flipped and testified for the prosecution. He swore that he and Gotti watched the shooting of Castellano from a parked car. Gravano said a lot of things. Gotti was convicted on charges of loan sharking, racketeering, murders, jury tampering, and gambling, and sentenced to life. Gravano got five years. Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, took the win.
When he was convicted in 1992, Gotti named his son John A. Gotti, acting boss of the Gambino family. Between 2004 and 2009, Gotti Jr. faced four racketeering trial that ended in mistrials. The video taped at the prison shows a father who does not give his son any quarter. Gotti: Godfather & Son is a family drama that breaks the code. The son doesn’t follow the father blindly off the cliff. He does the impossible, he cops a plea.
Gotti: Godfather & Son airs on A&E.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.