This article was first published in the Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine. You can find out about that issue and everything else in it by clicking here.
Goodfellas is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The film is a classic movie in the gangster genre. It tells the story of a crew of working criminals from the working class section of East New York, Brooklyn. These wise guys pulled off the biggest haul of the Twentieth Century, the $6 million Lufthansa heist. Martin Scorsese rewrote the way the mob had been handled in film by concentrating on the button men instead of the mob patriarchs. Goodfellas was a direct descendant of The Godfather, which elevated the gangster film to its highest artistic levels. Like the younger generation, it was faster, brasher and louder. All the gangsters got louder after The Godfather, they got so loud the feds had to shut them up.
The Godfather, the 1972 film by Francis Ford Coppola, was based on the best-selling book by Mario Puzo. It told the history of the mob in America by focusing on Don Vito Corleone, the head of one of the five families. Goodfellas focused on Henry Hill, a rat. Hill dropped dime on his partners in crime when he was facing a hefty sentence, and possible execution. Hill, who was not a made man because he was half-Irish, broke the code of omertà.
America hates squealers. In my favorite movie, gangster or not, Dead End, finks were given the “mark of the squealer.” “Loose lips sink ships,” the World War II generation was taught. Americans got nothing on Sicilians. You don’t have to be in a crime family to distrust the cops. It’s part of our DNA, forged by centuries of betrayals. Fugati. Button men have kept their mouths buttoned for centuries. There’d been leaks before, Joe Valachi and Abe Reles, but they got plugged up, one way or the other. That is, until The Godfather came out and all the gangsters wanted to be Sonny Corleone. No one ever wanted to be Fredo.
My aunt was related to the Lo Cicero family, which included the consigliere to the Profaci family who got whacked by his son after ordering a hit on his grandson. When I was 10 “The Godfather Theme” blasted out of car horns all over Bensonhurst. When my aunt’s boyfriend got one she was livid. “What? Are you fucking advertising?” she screamed and you could hear his button pop.
Omertà means silence unto death, especially when talking to cops. It doesn’t matter if someone has to take the fall or do another guy’s rap, it’s better than getting a bad rep. People who break the code could end up with their brains splattered and a dead rat shoved down their throats. Cosa Nostra lasted as long as it did because Mafiosi are secretive. According to the consensus, the Mafia began in Sicily sometime between 1812, when most of the island was owned by the nobility, and 1861, when the island was annexed into the Kingdom of Italy and one fifth of the land became the private property of the peasants. But the tradition started long before that.
When I was a kid, my grandmother told me the story of “The Night of Sicilian Vespers.” It is usually a variation on this: On Easter Sunday, 1282, a French soldier in Palermo raped a virgin bride on her wedding day. The woman’s mother ran to the street yelling “my daughter, my daughter” which some versions translate to “ma fia, ma fia,” a regional dialect of figlia mia.
An outraged mob turned into an uprising, and finally a revolution that spread across Sicily. Two thousand people died as these men of honor, in my grandmother’s version, slit the throats of every French soldier on the island and on the boats offshore.
The official version says the soldier was searching the woman for weapons on March 30, 1282. The War of the Vespers started when the offense spurred a spontaneous uprising near what is now a local cemetery. The revolt spread across the island and even French monks and nuns were killed. They killed the justiciar for western Sicily, John of Saint Rémy, at the castle of Vicari. The War of Sicilian Vespers is the only recorded incident in medieval times where a monarch was removed from power by the general population. It changed the face of the Mediterranean. It ended in August 1302, with a treaty known as the “Peace of Caltabellotta.”
My grandmother’s version didn’t have the “ma fia” bit in it, but then, as far as I knew, there was no such thing as the mafia. That side of my family was from Palermo, which was under the thumb of the Camorra, who could give two shits about the mafia. But that story told the beginning of an honorable society that I would be forever barred from because of the last name I got from my grandfather. He had the same name as me and my father.
From what I heard, he was on his way to being one of the first non-Sicilians in that particular branch. But he was a thick-headed pollack who, apparently, took his job too seriously. (“People from Poland are not Pollacks, they’re Poles,” declared the Godfather himself, Marlon Brando, when he originated the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.) He was allowed to live if he steered clear of the volcano. He became a gravedigger, a real grave-digger. Not the title used by some mob guys at the time.
The night of Sicilian vespers isn’t in the movie The Godfather. I don’t remember it being in the book, but I haven’t read Mario Puzo since I binge-reread all his stuff right after he died in 1999. The Night of Sicilian Vespers story was first told publicly, as far as I know, in Joe Bonanno’s book A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno. A lot of people wanted to whack Bonanno after he let Gay Talese tell his story in Honor Thy Father.
The Godfather told the story of the Gallo-Profaci wars of the late fifties and early sixties. The Gallo-Profaci Wars is the Beatles of true crime stories. Because of “Crazy” Joe “The Blond” Gallo and his brothers Kid Blast and Larry, city gangsters “went to the mattresses.” In the book, when the German-Irish adopted bother Tom Hagen explains that Luca Brasi was “sleeping with the fishes,” he wasn’t reciting an old Sicilian message. That phrase only went back to 1961 when Sally D’Ambrosio iced “Joe Jelly” Gioelli. The Profaci family hitman wrapped a fish in Joe Jelly’s coat and dropped it off in front of a candy store in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn.
Gallo was made for gangster cinema by gangster cinema. Like the Sonny Corleone wannabes of the post-Godfather generation, he’d emulated Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo after seeing the 1947 classic Kiss of Death, when he was still Joe “The Blond.”
As part of the “Barbershop Quintet,” Joe Gallo popped Albert “the Lord High Executioner” Anastasia at the Park Sheridan barbershop on West 56th Street on Oct. 5, 1957. Gallo was killed on his birthday on April 7, 1972 at Umberto’s Clam House. Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran took credit for the hit, he also claimed to be the guy who disappeared Jimmy Hoffa, as according to Sheeran’s own confessions.
Gallo saw Don Rickles at the Copacabana earlier that evening with comedian David Steinberg and future Law & Order actor Jerry Orbach. Gallo and the actor had become close after Orbach played a gangster inspired by Gallo in the film version of Jimmy Breslin’s book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, which also starred Robert De Niro in a part that was originally offered to Al Pacino, who passed on it to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather. According to The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld by Tom Folsom, to the day he died, Orbach never revealed what happened on Gallo’s last night. Even when he was playing a cop. That’s a standup guy. Omertà.
Gallo believed he was in line to head the Profaci family. It became the Colombo family while “Crazy Joe” was in prison. Joe Colombo had been shot and seriously wounded on June 28, 1971, at the second Italian Unity Day rally in Columbus Square. Colombo created the Italian-American Civil Rights League to strong arm production on The Godfather. Because of Colombo’s efforts Paramount Pictures producer Albert Ruddy made sure the words “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” never appeared in the movie.
The Mafia was the face of American Crime in the 20th Century. It came to prominence because of an inside informant. The Mafia–Camorra War started after Giosue Gallucci and his son were killed on May 17, 1915. The cops got Ralph Daniello to rat on the Brooklyn Navy Street gang. He lipped off about 23 murders and that was the end of the Camorra in New York. At least publicly. President Obama recently listed the Camorra as one of the top “transnational criminal groups” in the world and leveled sanctions on it. You can’t buy that kind of advertising. I’m sure members of the Camorra wish that ad never ran.
The Mafia operates as a social unit, mixing business with pleasure and with family. Bonanno considered himself the father of his family. He didn’t call himself the don and never claimed to be the godfather, but there is a godfatherly relationship between bosses and crew. In the Mafia everything kicks up to the top. The Camorra is structured vertically.
The Mafia survived as long as it did because it was a secret organization. To fight organized crime, disorganized crimefighters built their arsenal: they got faster cars to chase John Dillinger; J. Edgar Hoover invented stereo in his attempts to bug criminals; the FBI got their biggest weapon when the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act passed. The RICO bill was named after Edward G. Robinson’s character in Little Caesar (1931). Omerta couldn’t stand against that.
Most people blame heroin for the demise of the mafia. But the movies had as much to do with it. Hollywood would know nothing about the mob if it weren’t for the rats. The first cracks in omerta came from Abe Reles, one of the most feared and respected killers in Murder Inc. Without the testimony of Reles, there would be no record of the Jewish mobs. No record of Murder Inc. The legend of Dutch Shultz would have been lost to the ages.
Abe “Kid Twist” Reles was born in Brooklyn in 1906. He was a bootlegger and an enforcer before he became one of the founding members of the Murder, Inc., assassination Borgata of the National Crime Syndicate. Reles was a master with the ice pick. He was 32 when he ratted out his hitmen brethren in 1940 to beat the death penalty. It didn’t work. Reles fell out of a hotel window in Coney Island while under the watchful eyes of the police. Some say he was pulling a prank. Others say he was pushed. Either way, he never got to trial.
Peter Falk portrayed Reles in the movie Murder Inc. Falk played dozens of memorable roles in his amazing career as an actor, but that one stands as my favorite. He was ruthless, witty and totally sociopathic in a role decades before its time. Reles came up through the Jewish mobs. He wasn’t the last to turn state’s evidence to beat a rap.
Joe Valachi is probably the best known mob informant. Everything anyone knew about the structure of the mafia in the ’60s was because of him. He was the poster child for rats even before Charles Bronson played him in The Valachi Papers. Valachi sang all sorts of tunes in 1963, including the first song about the American Mafia. Valachi was a soldier in the Lucchese and Genovese crime families. He ratted because the mob thought he was going to rat and tried to kill him in a prison execution before he got the chance. Valachi died in prison in 1971 with a $100,000 contract still out on him.
Joseph “The Animal” Barboza gave up New England’s Patriarca crime family in 1967. It later came out that he made up a lot of it. He was shot in 1976 in San Francisco. In 1983, Sicilian-born Tommaso Buscetta dropped dime on the Gambino crime family after he saw too much action with the Sicilian Mafia. He gave evidence on both families and disappeared into Witness Protection Program. He died in New York in 2000. In 2003, Frank Coppa, 73, was the first “made” member of the Bonanno crime family to turn stoolpigeon.
The next generation grew up on the movie and it changed the way they acted because of what was being projected. Most true crime books of the period mention mob bosses screening the film with more affection than Frank Sinatra ever gave to Puzo.
Cops were also emboldened by the film, which they saw as a glamorizing an affront to society. They circumvented due process often to get criminals to flip. The new generation wasn’t as stand up as their predecessors.
One of the best-known and highest-ranking informants was Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano. Gravano did wet work for the Colombo and Gambino families until he was promoted to Gambino underboss by John Gotti in the ’80s. Gravano and Gotti were both arrested at their own Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy. Like Reles, Gravano got word that he was on his way out and cut a deal with the feds. His testimony against the Teflon Don stuck. Gravano had his face fixed and went into the Witness Protection Program. But he got popped for dealing ecstasy and was housed in a federal pen.
Puzo always maintained that he had no inside help when he was researching the Mafia, that it was all from his imagination. Gravano always believed Puzo must have known good people. “I loved The Godfather. I thought that was the best interpretation of our life that I’ve ever seen. Godfather I and Godfather II – the other one stunk,” Gravano was quoted as saying.
Gravano was topped by Joseph “The Ear” Massino in 2004 when Massino was the first official Mafia boss to go along with the feds. Massino succeeded Carmine Galante and was credited with turning the Bonanno family around. The Bonanno family boss wore a wire to get dope on his successor Vincent Basciano. That’s as bad as it gets in the mob. Remember how Tony Soprano never forgave his sister for taping him on a Panasonic tape deck when he was a kid on The Sopranos. The indignity wasn’t enough. Massino was sentenced to life in prison in June 2005. Massino had his own personal “Luca Brasi,” Tony Aiello, also obviously influenced by the film.
Alphonse D’Arco was the acting boss of the Lucchese family when he gave up Colombo family boss Victor “Little Vic” Orena, Genovese family boss Vincent “the Chin” Gigante and Bonanno family consigliere Anthony Spero. He also gave up the “Mafia Cops” Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito.
But their stories pale in comparison to the alleged duplicity of James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger. There are stories that Whitey was giving it up to feds for years. But Bulger wasn’t exactly a rat. He maintains, to this day, that he was using the feds to do his dirty work. That would make him a genius.
The Irish-American boss of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang had the FBI on his information payroll from the mid-1970s until January 1995, when he took it on the lam to escape murder charges. He’d been tipped off by his FBI handler John Connolly. Bulger was finally caught in the early 2010s and was sentenced to two life terms in prison on Nov. 14, 2013. Johnny Depp plays him in his new movie Black Mass. Jack Nicholson played a version of him in Scorsese’s The Departed.
Goodfellas is based on the testimony of Henry Hill. The half-Irish, half-Italian gangster was born in Brooklyn in 1943 and did work for the Lucchese crime family. Hill was part of Paul Vario’s crew, which used New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport like it was their personal ATM. Hill pulled $420,000 in cash from the Air France terminal in 1967 and connected “Gentleman” Jimmy Burke to the $6 million haul from the Lufthansa terminal in 1978.
Hill also ratted as a preemptive measure. He was arrested for drug trafficking in 1980 and figured there was a contract out on him. He gave evidence that led to 50 convictions. He entered the Witness Protection Program but was kicked out for staying in the life. Hill gave further evidence to Nicholas Pillaggi for the book Wiseguy, which Scorsese turned into Goodfellas.
Hollywood celebrates the rats. Without the fink we wouldn’t know anything about the Mafia. One of the greatest mob rat films of all time is On The Waterfront. It starred mumbling Marlon Brando as a punch drunk ex-middleweight contender in a cozy “no work” job on the Jersey City docks. The movie was directed by a man who some consider one of the biggest rats in the pack, Elia Kazan. Kazan named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influences in Hollywood in 1952. On The Waterfront was his explanation. When he was given an honorary Oscar, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese stood up for him.
The Godfather emboldened criminals. It also separated the Sicilians from the Napolitan. The Sicilian curse “va Napoli” is older than any mattress holed up on President Street. Sicilians keep their traps shut at all times, like Johnny Tightlips on The Simpsons. The people of Naples are more outgoing, more fun-loving and have a tendency to show off a little bit. The families of the Dapper Don John Gotti and Al Capone came from Naples. Capone loved watching movies that depicted him. Gotti loved The Godfather.
The Godfather gave them bragging rights and led to the rat generation. Sometimes it’s best to let sleeping fishes lie.