Mad about the Mob

The first few episodes in the final round of The Sopranos sound like they’re pretty good, but I was burned too many times by the wobbly third and fourth seasons to bother with getting HBO hooked up again. That’s why God invented full-season DVD box seats. You get to watch at your own pace, and in the case of The Sopranos, you get to click through the dream sequences that are one of the show’s most irritating quirks.

This Q&A session about La Cosa Nostra at the Smithsonian site takes us back to the days when J. Edgar Hoover was still calling the Mafia an urban legend — not that “urban legend” was part of the lexicon in those days. I was just a kid when The Valachi Papers came out, so it took some time to realize that getting Joe Valachi to talk about the Mob was an event on the level of the Loch Ness Monster coming to the surface for an interview with Ted Koppel:

In the past, you’d prosecute a mobster for extortion or loan sharking. That might carry a three-year sentence. To these guys, that’s nothing. They would go away, do time, their families would be taken care of, they’d come out and do what they wanted to do again. RICO took predicate acts, certain crimes, and instead of prosecuting them for individual acts, such as extortion, you lumped them under a racketeering statute. What happens then, when you start prosecuting folks, that 3- to 5-year sentence becomes 25 years. With multiple counts, it’s 100 years in prison.

In the mid 80s, with the Commission case, the major players in the New York underworld all received 100-year sentences. These guys were in their 60s and 70s at the time. People started to make deals for themselves by cooperating. Then you had mobsters turning on other mobsters. It was an opportunity for us to exploit that situation to our advantage.

Before that time, did mobsters ever talk to the FBI?

It was rare 50 years ago. In 1963, Joe Valachi, a Genovese soldier, was doing time in a federal prison in Atlanta, as was Vito Genovese. It got back to Joe that Genovese wanted him killed. So Joe sees an inmate come up to him in prison one day. Thinking it’s Vito’s guy coming to whack him, he picked up a lead pipe and beats him to death. Turns out it was just some other inmate. Now he’s facing a death sentence, and decides to talk. He’s the first really significant cooperator to come forward.

Other than that, it was rare to have a made guy talk. In La Cosa Nostra, you have made people and associates. In order to be fully made, you have to be Italian, Sicilian and male. Associates were basically anybody else—anyone who could generate money for the enterprise. We didn’t really have made guys talking until the late 70s, early 80s, when big cases started to break. The Commission case, the Donnie Brasco case. The infiltration of the Bonanno family by Joe Pistone, an undercover FBI agent, was the first ever penetration of an organized crime family by the bureau. It became known as Donnie Brasco. That gave us inroads we hadn’t had. All those things happened in the same period of time. These guys were looking at huge terms in jail, thinking I gotta do what I can.

One of the fun things about The Sopranos was the impact it had on the image of New Jersey around the world. I speak with people in Europe and Asia on a regular basis, and when the first season of the show finally aired on BBC, I got some pretty hilarious reactions to my phone calls. One guy in London asked where my office was, and when I told him Hoboken his British reserve evaporated. “Hoboken!” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!” I then had to correct him with a brief North Jersey geography lesson, describing Tony Soprano’s stomping grounds in Kearny, Newark and various parts of Essex County. All the while I could that to this guy, it sounded about as mysterious as Sherwood Forest, the Black Country and Stonehenge sounded to me.

It’s hard to imagine another New Jersey-based television show making that kind of worldwide impact. Of course, if this upcoming book leads somebody to think of a TV show about Frank Hague, my services are available.     

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