Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Wiseguys, Goodfellas and Godfathers: Gangsters in Fact and Fiction

I watched the first season of Wiseguy on DVD this past week with my wife.

I enjoyed the TV crime drama during its original run from 1987 to 1990. Produced by television veterans Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, the program was about an undercover FBI special agent, Vinnie Terranova, played by actor Ken Wahl.

Wiseguy offered “story arcs,” which extended a storyline across 10 to 12 hourly episodes. I found this to be clever and interesting. I especially liked the first story arc, which involved organized crime in Atlantic City.

Terranova, trained by the FBI’s fictional Organized Crime Bureau (OCB), and imprisoned for 18 months to establish his cover as a criminal, befriends the local crime boss in Atlantic City, Sonny Steelgrave. Steelgrave is played with verve and style by actor Ray Sharkey.

Although it was not stated or explained, Wiseguy's Steelgrave must be half-Italian, like the actor himself, as Sharkey played the character with East Coast Italian-American mannerisms. Sharkey, in my view, nailed the young and cocky gangster. He whole-heartedly captured the attitude and swagger of wiseguys.

Being half-Italian and having grown up in South Philly — the hub and breeding ground of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra — I know wiseguys.

As a kid I went to school with them, hung on the corners with them, and later drank in bars and clubs with them. These days I have far more cop friends than crooks, but I still see a few of the hoods from time to time.

I felt that Sharkey could have come straight from a South Philly corner. Tragically, Sharkey died of AIDS from an intravenous drug habit. I believe he would have matured into an exceptionally fine actor.

Wahl holds his own against Sharkey’s more flamboyant character and Wiseguy also featured several fine supporting actors, including Jonathan Banks as Frank McPike, Terranova’s OCB supervisor and handler. McPike was a disagreeable and cold former undercover officer who often clashed with Terranova.

McPike’s saving grace is his droll and sarcastic sense of humor and his obvious concern for Terranova’s safety. I also like his barely concealed contempt for his bureaucratic bosses.

Terranova’s lifeline while undercover is a character called “Lifeguard,” a wheelchair-bound agent who mans the phones and the recording devices. Lifeguard was portrayed by country singer and actor Jim Byrnes, who lost his legs in an accident.

There were many other fine supporting actors that portrayed interesting characters in the series, including two gangster characters from South Philly. Wiseguy was a gripping and suspenseful drama and Sharkey’s Steelgrave character went out in homage to Jimmy Cagney’s final moment in White Heat.

But what I truly liked about Wiseguy was the fact that the program, unlike The Sopranoes and many other shows about organized crime, had a protagonist who was a law enforcement officer.

Terranova grows close to Steelgrave. Terranova debated the evils of organized crime with his elderly Italian mother, who explained that there was good in all people, but he should remember that Steelgrave was a criminal and a murderer. Terranova’s brother, a Catholic priest, also gave a speech about the evils of organized crime.

I interviewed legendary FBI Special Agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, who went undercover with the Bonanno crime family in New York for six years. Wiseguy was clearly influenced by Pistone, so I asked Pistone if he watched the TV show and if he felt similar mixed feelings for the mob guys he brought down. Pistone told me that he had watched Wiseguy and he understood the Terranova character’s feelings.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” Pistone said. “I felt that way with Sonny Black Napolitano and even Lefty Ruggiero, who was a hardcore mobster.”

Pistone went on to say that he spent more than 10 hours every day with mob guys and he saw the good side of them, including their love for their children and grandchildren.

“But a half hour later he goes out and whacks a guy he has known for 15 or 20 years,” Pistone added.

Wiseguy, like Donnie Brasco, the film about Pistone’s years undercover in the mob, portrays the FBI special agent as the good guy and the mob guys, despite their human qualities, as the bad guys.

Good and bad are somewhat less defined in The Godfather and other novels, films and TV programs about the mob.

Over the years I’ve heard from a good number of law enforcement officers who complain that books, movies and TV programs glamorize criminals. From The Godfather to The Sopranos, gangsters in fiction are often presented as romantic, tragic and even sympathetic. Told from the criminal’s point of view, the stories are accurate in the sense that many gangsters see themselves in this manner.

Although Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and director Francis Coppola’s film trilogy based on Puzo’s novel are highly romanticized, the novel and films offer a very good fictional study of organized crime history in America. Nearly all of the major events in the novel and film trilogy were based on actual events in history.

Puzo admitted freely that he never knew any mob guys and said he based his novel on research. It is perhaps a testimony to Puzo’s skill as a writer that real mob guys didn’t believe him. They were convinced that Puzo had a highly placed mob source.

Very few Italian-Americans are involved in organized crime, but despite the fact that the novel and films portray criminals, The Godfather is perhaps the best fictional account of the early Italian-American experience. The films are classics, with great acting, writing, music and direction. They can be viewed time and time again, which I and many people do.

On the other hand, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas offers a far less romanticized view of organized crime. There is little honor or family loyalty in this true crime story. The criminals portrayed here are venal and vicious. Goodfellas is also a classic crime film.

A few years back I interviewed the assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of organized crime in the Philadelphia area. He did not agree with my assessment of Goodfellas, which I described as the most realistic film portrayal of organized crime.

He felt that movie audiences liked actor Joe Pesci, as he was funny and charming, and they failed to realize that he was portraying a psychotic murderer. I countered by saying that in my time I’ve found some of the real mob guys to be funny, charming and even generous. I’ve also seen some of them turn vicious, cold and heartless — just as Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro portrayed them in Goodfellas.

Goodfellas is a stylistic cinematic powerhouse. Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s true crime book, Wiseguy (not to be confused with the TV program), the film chronicles Henry Hill’s low-level, low-life, crime story.

Hill, played by Ray Liotta in the film, was part of a New York crime crew under the leadership of James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, a notorious thief, hijacker and mob murderer. Burke organized the $6 million dollar robbery of the Lufthansa Air Cargo Terminal at Kennedy Airport in 1978, which at the time was one of the largest robberies in American history.

Burke later murdered many of his cohorts. Robert De Niro’s character Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas is based on Burke.

Hill testified against Burke and another of his crime mentors, Paul Vario, a Lucchesse crime family captain. Paul Sorvino’s character Paulie Cicero in Goodfellas is based on Vario.

Although Wiseguy is not as authentic or as well made as Goodfellas, I enjoyed watching Ken Wahl and Ray Sharkey mix it up again. And in Wiseguy, the good guys win.  

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