Why Was Mob Boss Tommy Eboli Really Killed?

The real Mafia played a significant—if hidden—role in the creation of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather,
From left, Al Pacino, Genovese capo Patsy Eboli and Al Lettieri.

I found the following while researching where in Sicily Al Lettieri's family arrived from.

Lettieri, the great character actor of the 1970s, was noticed for his infamous turn in the Godfather; my next personal favorite Lettieri character after Virgil (The Turk) Sollozzo has to be the villian in the Steve McQueen flick The Getaway (based on the excellent novel of the same name by Jim Thompson, the blackhearted writer of criminal fictional masterpieces.)

I couldn't find a reference regarding from where the actor's family hailed, but I did find interesting information about a former Genovese acting boss murdered gangland style in 1972. (His brother disappeared a few years later.)

I got the chills after finding a story that seems to substantiate a claim I'd heard from one of my sources. The source is from Manhattan's Greenwich Village and lived about one block away from the Triangle social club.

This source once told me that Thomas "Tommy Ryan" Eboli was whacked because of The Godfather film.
"I'm telling you he got killed because of Sollozzo," the source told me several times.

"That actor who played him," he'd clarify. Now, the one thing I couldn't forget was that the source is highly credible. He'd been right about every thing else he'd told me.

Having no frame of reference with which to even approach such a nugget of information, I found his story difficult to believe. But still.... I knew the timing certainly was interesting. The Godfather film was released nationally on March 24, 1972. Eboli was hit that summer while departing the Crowne Heights, Brooklyn apartment of one of his many mistresses.
Interestingly, according to Eboli's FBI files, on March 28, 1972, four "well-placed informants" were passing Intel that the "most powerful figures in organized crime, including Thomas Eboli, Santos Trafficante, Vincent Aloi (all La Cosa Nostra 'bosses') and others are to meet in Miami in the next few days."

So the very week of the Godfather's release, a Commission meeting is being planned. The FBI is chomping at the bit to infiltrate the gathering.

The FBI was granted the authority to utilize electronic surveillance to monitor oral communications in several rooms in Miami's Playboy Plaza Hotel and another nearby hotel.

The agenda was believed to be the loansharking business and "other matters of great importance to their racket groups."

In a later memo, it's noted that "this advance information presents a unique opportunity to strike a crippling blow against the hoodlum hierarchy."

In the same memo it's noted that two upper-echelon informants -- "our most valuable" -- were going to travel to Florida for the meeting; permission was sought for their FBI handlers (one from New York; the other, Newark) to follow them. The period of time in question was March 30 to April 2, 1972.

Thomas "Tommy Ryan" Eboli
Thomas "Tommy Ryan" Eboli

Nothing further is noted about the meeting in the Eboli files released to the public, other than it seemed April 2 was the night on which it was to take place.

Next, a 1987 memo notes a list of hits spanning from Eboli's 1972 murder to a gangland hit in 1986. The FBI was criticizing its own lab for improperly handling evidence related to those homicides, which the FBI believed were carried out by the same Genovese hit team.

Two vehicles, at least, were used, a Ford truck and a 1965 Plymouth, according to Eboli's FBI files. (The Fed's even had license plate numbers for both vehicles.) "Eboli was shot with various weapons," the file noted, "including a .32 caliber pistol and a 7.65 millimeter." Also an M-3 machine gun with clip and a silencer was used and later recovered from one of the vehicles.

Latent prints were obtained from the truck's odometer; a spent shell was found in Eboli's car.

In 1987, the FBI was taking a hard look at the Eboli case, as well as many other hits, a long list of murders leading up to the 1986 murder of an NYPD detective. Apparently, the FBI was working under the thesis that one Genovese family crew had committed all the murders. The FBI files indicate the Fed's wanted all the evidence from these murders (such as fingerprints, shell casings, hair and fiber etc.) to be compared. But lab handlers screwed up the evidence and apparently the whole effort ended on that ignoble note.

Carlo Gambino
Carlo Gambino

So the Fed's believe a Genovese crew whacked Eboli. (And we now have good reason to believe that Philip "Benny Squint" Lombardo held the true power, for the time period between Vito Genovese and Vincent "The Chin" Gigante.)

Historically, "Tommy Ryan" was supposedly killed by order of the Commission, which basically meant Carlo Gambino, the most powerful member at the time on the Commission.

Eboli basically put his head on the chopping block, and Carlo Gambino, boss of his crime family and senior Mafia Commission member, gave the executioner the nod. During the 1960s Carlo Gambino was the official power because Joseph Bonanno imploded, was "kidnapped" and then exiled; Tommy Lucchese was dying of the cancer that finally killed him in 1967; and "Don Vitone" was arrested in 1959 and died of natural causes in 1969.

The official story is that Eboli was killed because he owed Gambino $4 million. It's also been said that Gambino wanted Eboli out of the way to pave a path for Funzi Tieri, who assumed the acting boss slot once Eboli was gone.

(One thing I haven't been able to find is the primary source for Gambino's loan to fund Eboli's planned drug trafficking operation. Supposedly Tommy Ryan wanted to bolster his position in the hierarchy by unearthing a major new revenue stream for the crime family.)
But as a commenter noted, no matter what the Commission decided Benny Squint must have approved -- if only tacitly. Otherwise, he let Tommy Ryan go solely to preserve his relative anonymity within New York's organized crime landscape.

No one, not even Gambino, supposedly knew Lombardo's true stature in the Genovese hierarchy. (And we still don't, though there are two sources that back up claims about Lombardo being boss; Joseph Valachi and Vincent "Fish" Cafaro.)

It seems likely that Eboli, "acting underboss" on the Commission was only a figure head for the Genovese family's true bosses, a person to expose himself to other mob bosses. The Genovese family always seemed to operate to a certain degree on its own in the shadows, not even involving itself with other crime families in many instances. Yet that's not entirely true, either, as we know The Chin and Castellano were business partners.

Tommy's brother Pasquale "Patsy Ryan" Eboli disappeared -- as in, forever -- in 1976. The only motive for his disappearance was his relationship to the acting boss.

According to my source, Eboli and his brother were killed because of The Godfather film. He heard that on the street, in 1972. So it it must have been well known within the New York Mafia that Tommy Eboli''s brother had held dinner parties with The Godfather cast.

I look at that picture of Patsy Eboli sitting between Pacino and Lettieri and I try to imagine how Carlo Gambino or Vincent Gigante would've reacted if viewing that same photograph back in 1972 when the Mafia truly was a shadow government in the US.

All things considered, "Sollozzo" may very well have whacked the Eboli brothers....

The following story was meant for inclusion in “The Godfather Wars" story Mark Seal wrote for Vanity Fair's 2009 Hollywood issue. However, he had the lead but not enough to go to print with. Then, once the magazine was published and distributed, the writer got a phone call from a source and was able to eventually write the followup story, which the magazine later posted online titled Meadow Soprano on Line One!

It noted:

"The real Mafia played a significant—if hidden—role in the creation of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather, and Mark Seal’s story in the 2009 Hollywood Issue... detailed most of it. But one of the most remarkable anecdotes came to light only after the magazine was published, when the daughter of a reputed mobster told V.F. how her family befriended, tutored, and overfed the Corleones."

In his initial story, Seal "wrote briefly" how Al Lettieri had a relative who was a certified member of the Mafia. He'd also heard, from the actor’s ex-wife, that Lettieri had "brought Marlon Brando to dinner at this relative’s house in New Jersey so that Brando, in preparation for his role as Don Corleone, could “get the flavor.”

Seal tried like hell to locate this Lettieri relation but was unable to. When the magazine with his Godfather story was available nationwide, he got a phone call from a woman who said she had a friend who knew all about the alleged dinner.

Ultimately he was speaking on the phone with Giovannina Bellino, the daughter of Lettieri’s relative, who wanted to tell Seal the story of "how, on one incredible night in 1971, her family and the Corleones bonded over eggplant parmigiana and gallons of good red wine."

“I was 15, going on 16,” said Giovannina, who goes by Gio. Her father, Pasquale “Patsy Ryan” Eboli—“a reputed capo in the Genovese crime family,” according toThe New York Times—got a call from his brother-in-law Al Lettieri. “How about if I bring some of the cast over for a nice dinner?,” Lettieri asked. Eboli said sure; after all, his brother, Thomas “Tommy Ryan” Eboli, the head of the Genovese family, had granted permission for Lettieri to get involved with the film in the first place. So Gio’s mother, Jean (Lettieri’s sister), prepared some of her Italian specialties, set the table, and put on some music.

Pacino and Lettieri
Pacino and Lettieri screwing around while taking a break from reading their lines. 

The doorbell rang at seven p.m. at the family house in Fort Lee, New Jersey, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan. “I opened the front door and there was Marlon Brando, James Caan, Morgana King [who played Don Corleone’s wife], Gianni Russo [who played Don Corleone’s son-in-law, Carlo], Al Ruddy [the film’s producer], and my uncle Al [Lettieri],” recalls Gio. “We all went downstairs into the family room, where the table was set and where we had the pool table and the bar.”

Gio was shuttling between the kitchen and the family room, serving food and wine as the cast became acquainted with the family. “Marlon Brando loved my mom’s eggplant parmigiana,” Gio says. “I remember sitting with him on the basement steps and watching this little drip of olive oil going down his chin and him telling my mother, ‘Jean, this is the best eggplant I’ve ever eaten!’ [See the food page of Gio’s Web site, sexfoodrockandroll.com, for the recipe.] It was a wonderful, relaxed, and casual evening—I danced with James Caan all night.” She laughs. “I’m sure the Fed who was parked up the block­—this guy that was always tailing my father—got a big kick out of it.”

A few weeks later, Gio’s mother made linguine with clam sauce for another special guest: the impoverished young actor Al Pacino. “I remember he was very quiet, and we had to pay his cab fare,” says Gio. The role of Michael Corleone required the New York–born Pacino to speak Italian in several scenes, and he had come to the Eboli house with Lettieri to work on his Italian for the famous sequence in which Michael guns down the double-crossing Sollozzo and the crooked police captain, McCluskey, played by Sterling Hayden. “My dad and Uncle Al spoke Italian fluently,” Gio says. “They drank plenty of wine that night. My brother joked at the time, ‘How’s this kid going to get the lines down after they go through six bottles?’”

That brother, Pat Eboli, was on the set later for the pivotal scene. “Pacino was definitely struggling with the Italian,” says Pat. “I remember Hayden saying, ‘If I have to eat any more of this spaghetti, I’m going to explode.’ Eventually, they decided to rework the scene.” Michael looks over at the cop—who’s busy with his spaghetti and obviously not paying attention—before turning to Sollozzo and breaking into English to tell him: “What I want, what’s most important to me, is that I have a guarantee: no more attempts on my father’s life.”

Pacino and Lettieri (and Sterling Hayden)
Pacino and Lettieri (and Sterling Hayden) in one of filmdom's most famous scenes.

As movie audiences all across America thrilled to the saga of the Corleone family, a real-life drama unfolded in the Eboli family. At one a.m. on July 16, 1972, four months after the premiere of The Godfather, Gio’s uncle Tommy Eboli was found dead on a Brooklyn street, having been struck by five bullets to the head and neck. The police said that he had probably been shot in or near his car and that he had staggered to the sidewalk before collapsing. “When I heard about it, I pictured the scene in The Godfather when Don Corleone got shot,” Gio says.

As for her father, Patsy Eboli, he disappeared in 1976 and was never heard from again. The only trace he left behind was “a bill for long-term parking at Kennedy Airport,” where his Cadillac was found abandoned with the keys in the glove compartment. In addition to losing her father and her Uncle Tommy in the 1970s, Gio also lost her Uncle Al.

The actor died of a heart attack in 1975, at age 47. Like so many of his co-stars, he contributed to the greatness of The Godfather not only with his performance but also with his connections.

So what do you think? Could there be something in The Godfather film that one of New York's Mafiosi didn't like -- and attributed it to the Eboli brother opening his home to Pacino and Brando?

Did Tommy Ryan go around bragging about his brother's dinner guests? Would Carlo Gambino or any other mob boss, for that matter, have approved of this?

Remember this is years before the Feds learned how to use the RICO statutes, years before the formation of the Witness Protection Program.

Would Eboli have gotten away with this if it was known by his cohorts in crime.

Mark Seal is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.

He also is the author of The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor.

Follow him on Twitter @MarkPSeal

Check him out on Longform (a fine site)