by Tony Sokol
I grew up on gangster movies. When I was a kid I scoured the TV Guide for anything starring Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft and John Garfield. The Bowery Boys was like Sunday morning cartoons for me. The gangsters reminded me of the people I knew as a kid, Mean Streets looked like a home movie to me. I was born in Bay Ridge and my family’s from Bensonhurst and my old man used to point out Albert Anastassia’s house when we passed it. I wrote a mock documentary on Crazy Joe Gallo as a rock and roll pioneer and got most of the stories from family members. I remember the Godfather theme blasted on car horns (and my aunt screaming “what are you, advertising yourself?” to her boyfriend out the window.) When I started La Commedia del Sangue: New York City’s Vampyr Theatre in 1991, I got the startup money from loan sharks. (A subsequent loan shark who funded us took his vig in a custom-made set of fangs our special effects artist fitted him with.) Crime shows on television focused on the cops, relegating the characters I waited for to minor entities. When shows did focus on the criminal, like Al Mundy in It Takes a Thief, starring Robert Wagner and Malachi Thorne, they had him working for the government.
The criminal is underrepresented on TV. It is only now coming into its own after The Sopranos made it alright for a mob family to be a TV family. Gangster movies may be part of the cultural ghetto, but the genre produced some of the greatest cinema achievements in film history. The Godfather films are consistently listed in greatest movies ever made lists. It took The Sopranos to change that, opening the door to The Riches, Magic City and the short-lived HBO racetrack series, Luck. Criminals are finally snagging their TV time. In this colum for LiveAccess TV, I will be focusing on crime shows.
Boardwalk Empire plays fast and loose with some of the characters’ historical counterparts, but I’m sure they’ll stick to most of the dates and incidents of the consolidation of the mobs. This means Johnny Torrio will outlive most of the other characters and come up with the idea for the syndicate, we’ll have another year of Dean O’Banion, who won’t need his own flowers until November 1924; the man who could dodge bullets, Joe Masseria, is going to live to the 1931season and we’ll be hearing more of Frankie Yale. (A side note about Frankie Yale, he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery on Snyder Ave. in Brooklyn, in spite of the Catholic Church, which owned the property. He was buried in a not-quite unmarked grave. If you rub dirt on the headstone, you can read his name. I know this because my grandfather was the gravedigger at Holy Cross.) Al Capone will be on the scene until he goes up in 1931. Arnold Rothstein won’t die until the 1928 season.
Nucky Thompson is based on Enoch Johnson, who boasted that Atlantic City had “Whiskey, wine, women, song and slot machines. I won’t deny it and I won’t apologize for it. If the majority of the people didn’t want them they wouldn’t be profitable and they wouldn’t exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.” The Atlantic City Conference. a meeting between the new generation of gangster that wanted to put the old guard “mustache Petes” like Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano out to pasture, was held in the city. It is alleged that it was hosted by Johnson, who footed the hotel, food and entertainment bill and who guaranteed that there be no police interference. The famous first mob meeting was attended by such underworld luminaries as John Torrio, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky. Also said to be in attendance were Frank Costello, Giuseppe “Joe Adonis” Doto and Vito Genovese, the heads of the Masseria Family; Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, Frank “Cheech” Scalise and Vincent Mangano, from Manhattan’s D’Aquila/Mineo Family’ Gaetano “Tommy Brown” Lucchese, representing for the Bronx’s Reina Family; Quarico “Willie Moore” Moretti, out of Newark’s Masseria Family; Benny “Bugsy” Siegel, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro,Dutch Schultz, Owen “Owney the Killer” Madden and Frank Erickson. Future family head Joe Bonnano didn’t attend because he was still faithful to Masseria.
Enoch Johnson didn’t serve time until 1941 when he got sent up for tax evasion charges for his take from the numbers racket. When he got out of prison he swore a debtor’s oath to get out of a $20,000 debt and became a salesman. He died in 1968 at the Atlantic County Convalescent Home. Steve Buscemi plays the politician-turned-bootlegger with a smarmy menace that’s been informed by years of moving up in the gangster movie ranks. He made his bones playing such gangsters as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs, Tony Blundetto on The Sopranos, the hit-man Carl Showalter in Fargo and Randall in Monster’s Inc.
Villains have always been some of the most interesting characters in fiction. They gleefully flout the conventions of society, their language is more colorful, their reasoning more seductive. They are constantly in motion, staying one step ahead of the law or their victims, or the families of their victims. Gangsters earn. They live big, but, in the movies or on TV they usually have to pay a big price. They might end up in the hot seat or get gunned down on the street. They might be hacked up and buried in cement in the cornerstone of an office building, or the 30 yard line at Giants’ Stadium. In the long run, as Edward G. Robinson has said “Crime doesn’t pay, unless it’s in the movies.”