Honor Thy Father (1973) Lookback/review

With the Bonnano family back in the news with new criminal charges pending, Den of Geeks looks back to a time when their family abided by a more honorable set of rules.

You’ll probably see a Bill Cosby marathon somewhere on Father’s Day. TCM might show Gregory Peck. Homer’s always on somewhere. But the father of the Bonanno family was no deadbeat dad.

It’s Father’s Day and I was reminded of a story told to me by my father’s mother when I was a kid. Her father was born in Palermo, Sicily. I later found the story was called “The Night of Sicilian Vespers.” In 1282, Sicily was under the French King and a sergeant was killed in Palermo by the husband of the bride he was molesting and it ignited the “The War of the Sicilian Vespers” which drove the occupying forces off the island. The legendary version is usually a variation on this: On Easter Sunday a French soldier raped a virgin bride on her wedding day. The young woman’s mother ran to the street yelling for help. She cried “my daughter, my daughter” which some versions translate to “ma fia, ma fia,” a regional dialect of mia figlia. Mobs rose up in outrage which turned into an uprising and finally a revolution as it spread across the island. Two thousand people died as these men of honor slit the throats, in my grandmother’s version, of every French soldier on the island and on the boats offshore. “The Night of Vespers” is a central story in “Honor Thy Father,” by Gay Talese. It only takes up about a paragraph in the book, even less in the movie, but it informs the character at the center of the story, Joseph Bonanno. Fathers protect their children. The made-for-TV CBS movie Honor Thy Father came out after The Godfather and The Don is Dead with Anthony Quinn. The Godfather focused on the Gallo wars in the Profaci family in the late fifties. Honor Thy Father was directed by Paul Wendkos and focused on “The Banana Wars.” It should be shown every Father’s Day. Joseph Bonanno is dad of the year, this year.

Joseph Bonanno was an iconic father. As iconic as Mr. C. on Happy Days or Jim Anderson on Father Knows Best or Ben Cartwright on Bonanza. Bonanno was the father of both his families. He was a father to his children and to the group of men who worked for him. They had this thing and it was broken into families. Most people believe that the head of Italian syndicate families were called “godfathers” because of The Godfather. But, to the people involved in this thing, the head of a family was a father and was called father. Don was a title of respect, but it didn’t necessarily mean someone was in their thing. My great grandfather was called Don Giuseppe, and he imported olive oil. Really, he did. There were five families that ruled crime in the early part of the Twentieth Century, the Bonanno, Profaci, Gambino, Lucchesi and Genovese families. They evolved out of the original fathers whose families were Luciano, Profaci, Gagliano, Mangano and Maranzano. When Maranzano was killed in Coney Island for insisting on being the capo di tutti capi, Bonanno succeeded him and became the youngest father of a family. The Bonanno family was somewhat apart from the other families. It was more of sovereignty within the Commission. At least, that’s the way Bonanno saw it. He was a protective father and didn’t trust the car with junior yet.

Gay Talese talked to Joseph Bonanno for seven years for the book. They both got heat for it. Talese dodged a subpoena and Bonanno was called a rat. It was part of a slow erosion of omerta that started when Joseph Valachi from the Genovese family was the first member of their thing to talk to outsiders in 1963. His mouth resulted in the book “The Valachi Papers,” which was made into a movie starring Charles Bronson. In crime circles Valachi is synonymous with rat. He was a low level operator who snitched to save his ass from a prison execution. Bonanno was a father, a boss. A boss talking to a journalist in such detail was unheard of, but times were changing. The sixties changed the landscape. The decade made a rebel out of Joe Gallo, who broke ranks in Bonanno’s good friend’s family and broke the color barrier at Attica. Joe Colombo, who took over the Profaci family, became an activist for Italian civil rights. He founded an Italian anti-defamation league to stop the negative portrayals of Italians as mobsters. It was also a good excuse to squeeze money from the studio making The Godfather. Colombo was assassinated in Columbus Circle at one of his own rallies.

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The book and the movie tell the story of the rise of the Bonanno family through the eyes of the son, Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno, a father himself. Honor Thy Father , the movie, focuses on the 60s “Banana Wars” and the time when Joe “Bananas” Bonanno disappeared. Possibly kidnapped by his cousin, possibly killed, possibly vacationing until the heat of a trial and mob squabbles played themselves out. He left his son Bill in charge of the family. This caused no small amount of agita because most of the capos thought Bill was too inexperienced for the job. He was only getting tips in a phone booth in the middle of the night from his old man for guidance. And they only came once a week and even then, intermittently. Usually he was dodging bullets on Brooklyn streets on his way to his car. Joe Bonanno in the movie is just as likely to be watching Public Enemy with James Cagney as reading “Being and Nothingness” by Satre. The book “Honor Thy Father,” of course, explored the depth of Bonanno’s reading and his love of lessons of all kinds. His favorite being Machiavelli’s the lion and the fox. You could just see him giving the same advice on a show like Father Knows Best. Worse than the pieces of work that are done by the gangsters in the movie are the depictions of cancer and a nastier heart attack than Don Corleone’s.

The book and movie both use flashback to underscore the story as it moves forward. They give the family history, and in telling it, they tell the story of fathers everywhere, especially five renowned fathers in New York City. Joe Bonanno came to America, via Cuba and a Florida fishing boat, from Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. In New York, Bonanno came under the tutelage of another Castellammarese, Salvatore Maranzano and landed right in the middle of the Castellammarese War. Bonanno had a mixture of interests. Besides the usual trades of loansharking, gambling, drugs, sex and union kickbacks, Bonanno also scored with his legitimate businesses. He was innovative. He used his interest in a funeral home to have them build double-decker coffins, to hide bodies under bodies. He was a multimillionaire by the time he was forty.

Bonanno was the author of the “Pax Bonanno,” a pact between the families which quelled internal mob violence for a couple years. In the late fifties, the “Pax Bonanno” began to fall apart. Mainly over drugs. The Luciano family, started by Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, one of the co-authors of the Commission, was in a hierarchy struggle between Vito Genovese and Frank Costello. Frank “the Prime Minister” Costello, who was consigliere to Luciano, retired to his penthouse at the Waldorf Astoria. When Vincent Mangano went missing in 1951, the “Lord High Executioner,” Albert Anastasia, said, what you looking at me for? Anastasia got too close a shave when the “Barbershop Quintet,” led by the Profaci’s Gallo crew, shot him in his barber chair in October 1957. Upstate New York cops stumbled on the Apalachin Meeting, which was called to make order out of the mob’s chaos, the next month. Bonanno was arrested along with dozens of high ranking family businessmen. Bonanno never actually badmouths the other family heads, but he does exude a certain moral superiority.

When Joe Profaci died, Joe Magliocco (played by Joe De Santis in the movie) took over the family only to have Joe, Larry and Albert Gallo come collecting for services due. They were being pushed by Tommy Lucchese and Carlo Gambino, who were also leaning on Bonanno. Bonanno and Magliocco teamed up to retaliate, giving the job to Joseph Colombo. Colombo spilled the beans to Gambino and Lucchese, who figured Bonanno was behind the attempted hit. In October 1964 Bonanno was nabbed in front of his lawyer’s apartment on East 37th St. and disappeared for two years. When he reappeared at the Foley Square Courthouse, he said he was kidnapped by his cousins Peter and Antonino Magaddino, who were running a faction of the Bonanno family out of Buffalo.

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Honor Thy Father might be the best thing Joseph Bologna did. He was always solid, usually in comic roles. He co-wrote his first big part in Lovers and Other Strangers with his wife Renee Taylor. They collaborated again a few years later for the film Made for Each Other. He also played in The Big Bus, Blame it on Rio, which starred Michael Caine, My Favorite Year, with Peter O’Toole and Big Daddy starring Adam Sandler and Transylvania 6-5000. He does voices in Superman: The Animated Series and Ice Age: The Meltdown. Raf Vallone plays Joe “Bananas” Bonanno. Vallone was compared to Burt Lancaster because he was a soccer player before he became an actor. Vallone was an international star, mainly in Italian films, and was in the neo-realist classic Bitter Rice in 1949. Vallone played the Cardinal who takes Michael Corleone’s confession who later becomes the pope who is murdered in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III in 1990. Vallone was the mob boss Altabani in the original The Italian Job from 1969.

Richard S. Castellano plays Joseph Bonanno’s brother-in-law and Bonanno caporegime, Frank Fabruzzo. Fabruzzo was with Bonanno and when he surrendered to the feds at the Foley Square Courthouse after hiding for 19 months. He has a protracted role in his fight against lung cancer. Castellano was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Lovers and Other Strangers in 1970. He made sauce as Peter Clemenza in The Godfather and gets to say the line “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Castellano played Joe Girelli in the TV sitcom The Super and Joe Vitale in Joe and Sons. Castellano also ran a construction company. My father met him on a job site and asked him about putting sugar in tomato sauce. He said he only did that for the movie.

Joe Bonanno’s daughter-in-law Rosalie was played by Brenda Vaccaro, who is understanding but nervous until visiting mobsters expect her to cook. Vaccaro was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her part in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. She played Kay Brubaker the 1978 conspiracy classic, Capricorn One, about a Mars landing hoax. She played Bianca, Faye Dunaway’s side-kick in Supergirl in 1984. Vacarro does the voice for Johnny Bravo’s mother Bunny Bravo in the cartoon series Johnny Bravo. Frank LaBruzzo plays Joe Notaro. Marc Lawrence plays Stefano “The Undertaker” Magaddino, who was the boss of the Buffalo, N.Y. faction of the Bonanno family. He was blamed by the mob for the raid at the Apalachin meeting.

CBS-TV cleaned up the book, which was already a cleaned up version of the Bonanno story. In the movie, Bill gets a little too close to the cops for my taste. That’s Hollywood. Everyone has to sell out to the cops somehow in the movies. That’s how they make life imitate art, as the families are now all but a thing of the past after a generation of deadbeat dads and reality shows about mob wives. Cosa Nostra and Mafia no longer guarantee a great seat at Lenny’s. The book is honorable. I always thought the Bonannos cooperated with the book and the movie to provide an alibi.


“Honor Thy Father,” the book

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Den of Geek Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars


Honor Thy Father, the movie.

Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars



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3 out of 5