15 Things You Didn't Know About Donnie Brasco Production

 In 1976, Pistone was chosen to go undercover as purported jewel thief Donnie Brasco partly because he spoke fluent Italian,

"Donnie Brasco" [is] based on a true story, that of FBI undercover agent Joseph D. Pistone, who spent years infiltrating New York's Bonnano crime family... Its hero, who never fires a gun except on the FBI firing range, was played by Johnny Depp (then best known for quirky, vulnerable man-child roles) and his mentor was played by Al Pacino (as a tired, rumpled mafioso, about a million miles from his Michael Corleone or Tony Montana).

As the film marks its 15th anniversary (it was released on February 28, 1997), here are true tales of what went on behind the scenes, including one star's impulsive wedding, and how the real Pistone braved a contract on his head to ensure that the movie portrayed accurately the mob world he uncovered.

1. In 1976, Pistone was chosen to go undercover as purported jewel thief Donnie Brasco because he spoke fluent Italian, was familiar with the mob (having grown up in Paterson, N.J.), and because he claimed the ability not to perspire under pressure. The undercover operation was supposed to last six months; it lasted almost six years.

2. Pistone's undercover work resulted in 200 indictments and 100 convictions. It also led the Mafia Commission (the body that oversees all the New York organized crime families) to kick out the Bonnano family over the security breach.

This scene from the film is actually based on one of the last acts of Bonanno capo Sonny "Black" Napolitano before going off to get whacked. Certain that Donnie Brasco was his doom, he left his wallet, jewelry and keys with a bartender before heading off to a supposed "damage-control meeting," telling the bartender that he didn't expect to return. Ever. Lefty, also with eyes wide open, was walking to his own fate when the

Feds literally grabbed him and threw him in a car. His arrest saved his life. He didn't say "I'm glad it was him" of Donnie Brasco but instead sought permission from boss Joe Massino to whack him. Permission denied.

3. Paradoxically, being booted from the Mafia Commission actually helped the Bonnano family. While the Mafia Commission Trial of 1985-86 put much of the mob hierarchy behind bars, the Bonnanos were exempt from prosecution and were able to consolidate power.

4. A $500,000 bounty was placed on Pistone's head. To this day, he travels in disguise and with a concealed firearm. He generally avoids cities with a large Mafia presence, though he did spend time in New York as a paid consultant on the "Donnie Brasco" movie. And he appeared, undisguised, in one of the featurettes among the extras of the "Donnie Brasco" Extended Cut DVD released a few years ago.

5. Louis DiGiaimo, who was a childhood acquaintance of Joseph Pistone and who helped him as a consultant on his book, was also a casting director for Barry Levinson. So it was the "Rain Man" director who got the first crack at the film rights to "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia"

6. At first, Stephen Frears ("The Grifters") was to direct, and Tom Cruise was to star. But the project was postponed because of the 1990 release of "Goodfellas." The producers felt the film would be seen as a knock-off of Martin Scorsese's based-in-fact gangster drama.

7. Paul Attanasio had been a go-to screenwriter for Levinson, working with him on TV crime drama "Homicide: Life on the Street." He'd written Levinson's "Disclosure" as well as the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Robert Redford's "Quiz Show." So he was a natural to adapt Pistone's book.

8. By the time the film was shot in 1996, the director was now Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), making his Hollywood debut. Levinson and DiGiaimo were producers. Johnny Depp had replaced Cruise. Al Pacino, always the only choice for Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero, was still aboard.

9. Pacino and Bruno Kirby (as fellow mob soldier Nicky Santora) had both appeared in 1974's "The Godfather Part II," though not together. In the sections set in early 20th century Manhattan, Kirby had played the young Peter Clemenza, who helps the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) rise to power and becomes one of his closest associates. Pacino, of course, played Vito's son, latter-day godfather Michael Corleone, in the sections set in the late 1950s.

10. Newell went to Brooklyn social clubs to meet and drink with real wiseguys. In one club, he saw a huge jukebox with nothing but Sinatra records. There was a hand-lettered sign below the payphone warning that the phone is bugged. "I saw how they never trust each other," the Englishman recalled. "They didn't trust me. I talked funny. I looked funny."

11. Attanasio learned how to capture mobsters in conversation by listening to FBI wiretap tapes.

12. For Depp, the role of Pistone/Brasco marked his transition out of the precious man-child roles (in movies like "Edward Scissorhands" and "Benny & Joon") that had been his trademark. "He was becoming a man, not a boy," Attanasio said. "We captured that on film. It was incredibly exciting."

13. Pistone praised Depp for his mimicry. Watching the film with his eyes closed, he said, "I could not tell if it was his voice or mine. He was right on the money."

14. Pacino never got to meet the real Lefty, and much of the character is his own creation, including the rumpled jogging suits and the sad little hat. Newell and Pistone both hated the hat, but Pacino insisted on it as a way into the character. According to Pistone, the real Lefty was a sharp dresser who never wore a hat.

15. As in the film, Lefty really did have a pet lion and could be spotted walking him on the streets of Brooklyn.