From the Mob to the movies

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

NEW YORK -- It was extremely thoughtful of Bernardo Provenzano, the boss of all the bosses of the Sicilian Mafia, to have been finally captured (after 43 years) on the outskirts of Corleone, Italy. That is the town, as we all know, from whence came the Corleone family of The Godfather book and movies and which, although genuinely Sicilian, has become mythically and deeply American. When it comes to the Mafia, its not that life imitates art, its that they have become indistinguishable.

This became readily apparent during the recent trial here of Louis J. Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, two retired New York City detectives who were accused -- and convicted -- of at least eight contract killings while working both for the NYPD and for a Luchese family underboss named Anthony Gaspipe Casso. It was virtually impossible to read any account of the trial without some mention of Hollywood, mob movies and the foolish attempt of the hapless and homicidal Eppolito to break into films. He had, like apparently everyone else in the mob, a script to sell.

It was that script, Murder in Youngstown, that enabled the authorities to trap Eppolito and Caracappa by putting them in touch with fake Hollywood producers who needed a favor: some drugs. One thing led to another -- see any of the forthcoming movies for the details -- and arrests were ultimately made. Suffice it to say, though, that when an informer met with Eppolito in the garage of Eppolitos Las Vegas home, he found the walls were adorned with a multitude of pictures framed of Lou and Hollywood people.

It used to be that washed-up newspaper reporters went into the PR business, going from peddling truth to peddling spin. Now it is that washed-up mobsters try getting into the movie business, sometimes more or less successfully. I am tempted to say that its hard to know if this represents a move up or a move down, but by doing that I would fall into the very trap I am writing about: the apparent compulsion to make everything into a movie, even the gruesome murder of innocent people. From some of the coverage, you could almost forget that two sociopaths were on trial for multiple murders committed while still wearing the badge.

For instance, in some newspaper accounts, witnesses were called rats or a stool pigeon -- colorful language that adopts both the lingo and ethos of the mob and somewhat obscures that these witnesses were doing the right thing, sometimes at substantial risk to their lives. Even The New York Times could not restrain itself. It noted that Eppolito and Caracappa were arrested at a Las Vegas restaurant, adding the errant Hollywood detail, where Jerry Lewis often celebrates his birthday.

In the same story, it said that Variety had reported that three movie studios were interested in Eppolitos memoir, Mafia Cop, and that didnt count the fictional property being developed by the team of Irwin Winkler and Nicholas Pileggi, the producer and screenwriter of the best mob movie ever, Goodfellas -- yet another film based on a mobsters life. The ever-alert Times noted quaint New York accents and expressions and wrote that Eppolitos writing bears a whiff of Old World Brooklyn. I was born in Brooklyn and have no idea what that means.

The truth is that the more the real mob shrinks into oblivion, the more potential recruits realize crime does not really pay (even John Junior Gotti swears hes renounced the family business), the more it becomes mythologized. The Italian mob lends itself to this because it supposedly emphasized family and loyalty, secrecy and honor -- all qualities missing in American corporate life or, for that matter, the U.S. Congress -- and because its victims are fellow mobsters. In reality, though, the mobs true victims are usually ordinary people who can be squeezed and beaten to a pulp if they resist. This is why Sicilians cheered the arrest of Provenzano, yelling assassin! and bastard! when he was brought to the police station in Palermo. In Sicily, the Mafia is no movie.

In America, though, the rapacity of the mob, its homicidal vileness, has been thoroughly romanticized. Now, even mobsters yearn for the silver screen. Eppolito risked committing one more crime just to score some drugs for what he thought were Hollywood producers -- showing himself to be as naive as any stereotypical pretty girl thinking theres a career beyond the casting couch. This is why Edward Hayes, Caracappas lawyer, said, Nothing has hurt people more in this country than wanting to be in the movies.

Even for a mobster, its an offer you cant refuse.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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