This piece was written with support from the Las Vegas Mob Museum.
Movies have done more for the Mafia than dope, sex work, or gambling. “Hollywood,” says former U.S. Attorney Salvatore R. Martoche, “made the mob.”
The Godfather is arguably the greatest movie ever. Even the sequel is on AMI’s Top 100 List, so strong is the mob’s cinematic appeal. The mob has been both romanticized and vilified, sometimes at the same time. Unsurprisingly, organized crime has had a hand in the behind-the-scenes business of silver screen representation going back to the black-and-white editions of tube television.
Lenny Montana was a bodyguard for the Colombo crime family in the 1970s, which is how he found himself on the set of Coppola’s movie and cast as enforcer Luca Brasi. He could only provide so much muscle though. Francis Ford Coppola faced death threats over The Godfather.
New York boss Joe Colombo Sr. was the head of the Italian-American Civil Rights League. He used the group’s lobby power to demand consultation rights, which he got. Still, producer Al Ruddy got harassed. Some producers were threatened through anonymous phone calls. Equipment seemingly kept falling off the truck, disappearing from the filming lot. There were even two bomb threats.
Ruddy finally met with Colombo, who demanded only that the word “Mafia” not be in the script. A single line was nixed, and the film got made without further hassle. Almost 30 years later, Robert DeNiro invited notorious gangster Anthony “Fat Andy” Ruggiano to the set of Analyze This.
Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic Scarface: The Shame of a Nation got Al Capone’s attention, much to the chagrin of screenwriter Ben Hecht. Capone could not have some cut-rate character playing him. So Capone sent a crew to have a chat with Hecht, according to Hecht’s autobiography. The real Scarface gave his blessing after hearing back from Hecht.
Marilyn Monroe’s Mafia beau, Johnny Roselli, made an offer to Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn to sign her to a contract. If we’re being real, Monroe also had an affair with a mobbed-up president. Johnny Roselli insists Frank Sinatra also owed his comeback role in From Here to Eternity (1953) to the mob’s strong-arm tactics. Sinatra was known to party with Chicago’s Sam Giancana and John “Handsome Johnny” Rosselli, “the Godfather of Las Vegas in the 50s and 60s.”
Wayne Newton was pals with Guido Penosi, a reputed member of the Carlo Gambino crime family of New York. James Caan played Sonny in The Godfather. He understands the loyalty required of chosen family, defending his friend “Andrew ‘Andy Mush’ Russo, the alleged acting street boss of the Colombo family. Tony Sirico knows the life. He racked up 27 acting jobs and 28 arrests as an associate of Colombo family captain Jimmy ‘Green Eyes’ Clemenza.
The mob found good money in the early days of porn. Deep Throat, one of the most culturally significant porn flicks of all time, was a mob production. They made so much on that one that they had to launder the money through another film. The original Texas Chainsaw never gets made without Deep Throat money. The profits from that film were used to found Bryanston Distributing Company, which was run by Louis “Butchie” Peraino.
The film industry provided the Mafia another avenue to get quick money using the same intimidation and threats of violence that have worked since the Old World was the only world. The mob was extorting studios for millions back in the 1930s. Al Capone, Sam Giancana, and John Gotti have all tried to flex their muscle on studio lots to gain more control. Meanwhile, Hollywood helps shape the Mafia’s style and cultural cache. From Humphrey Bogart to Al Pacino and Tony Soprano, the Mafia has taken as many cues as they’ve given.