Did The Godfather Whack the Mafia?

Goodfellas was a direct descendant of The Godfather, which elevated the gangster film to its highest artistic levels.

This article was first published in the Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine; you can find the online version here
It's written by Tony Sokol, the admitted "Gangster Geek" at Den of Geek, for which he writes. Tony is a quite talented writer, in fact (in addition to being a playwright and musician). Aside from writing for Den of Geek, he also writes for The Chiseler, KpopStarz.com, and hypnocloud.com. Previously, he wrote for Altvariety, Coed.com, Daily Offbeat, Dark Media Press, Wicked Mystic and other magazines. He has had over 20 plays produced in NYC, including Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera “AssassiNation: We Killed JFK.” He appeared on the Joan Rivers (TV) Show, Strange Universe and Britain’s “The Girlie Show.”

Goodfellas is a classic movie in the gangster genre. It tells the story of a crew of working criminals from the working class section of East New York, Brooklyn. These wise guys pulled off the biggest haul of the Twentieth Century, the $6 million Lufthansa heist. Martin Scorsese rewrote the way the mob had been handled in film by concentrating on the button men instead of the mob patriarchs. Goodfellas was a direct descendant of The Godfather, which elevated the gangster film to its highest artistic levels. Like the younger generation, it was faster, brasher and louder. All the gangsters got louder after The Godfather, they got so loud the feds had to shut them up.

The Godfather, the 1972 film by Francis Ford Coppola, was based on the best-selling book by Mario Puzo. It told the history of the mob in America by focusing on Don Vito Corleone, the head of one of the five families. Goodfellas focused on Henry Hill, a rat. Hill dropped dime on his partners in crime when he was facing a hefty sentence, and possible execution. Hill, who was not a made man because he was half-Irish, broke the code of omertà. 

America hates squealers. In my favorite movie, gangster or not, Dead End, finks were given the “mark of the squealer.” “Loose lips sink ships,” the World War II generation was taught. Americans got nothing on Sicilians. You don’t have to be in a crime family to distrust the cops. It’s part of our DNA, forged by centuries of betrayals. Fugati. Button men have kept their mouths buttoned for centuries. There’d been leaks before, Joe Valachi and Abe Reles, but they got plugged up, one way or the other. That is, until The Godfather came out and all the gangsters wanted to be Sonny Corleone. No one ever wanted to be Fredo.

My aunt was related to the Lo Cicero family, which included the consigliere to the Profaci family who got whacked by his son after ordering a hit on his grandson. When I was 10 "The Godfather Theme" blasted out of car horns all over Bensonhurst. When my aunt’s boyfriend got one she was livid. “What? Are you fucking advertising?” she screamed and you could hear his button pop.

Omertà means silence unto death, especially when talking to cops. It doesn’t matter if someone has to take the fall or do another guy’s rap, it’s better than getting a bad rep. People who break the code could end up with their brains splattered and a dead rat shoved down their throats. Cosa Nostra lasted as long as it did because Mafiosi are secretive. According to the consensus, the Mafia began in Sicily sometime between 1812, when most of the island was owned by the nobility, and 1861, when the island was annexed into the Kingdom of Italy and one fifth of the land became the private property of the peasants. But the tradition started long before that.

Ralph "The Barber" Daniello

When I was a kid, my grandmother told me the story of “The Night of Sicilian Vespers.” It is usually a variation on this: On Easter Sunday, 1282, a French soldier in Palermo raped a virgin bride on her wedding day. The woman’s mother ran to the street yelling “my daughter, my daughter” which some versions translate to “ma fia, ma fia,” a regional dialect of figlia mia.

An outraged mob turned into an uprising, and finally a revolution that spread across Sicily. Two thousand people died as these men of honor, in my grandmother’s version, slit the throats of every French soldier on the island and on the boats offshore.

The official version says the soldier was searching the woman for weapons on March 30, 1282. The War of the Vespers started when the offense spurred a spontaneous uprising near what is now a local cemetery. The revolt spread across the island and even French monks and nuns were killed. They killed the justiciar for western Sicily, John of Saint Rémy, at the castle of Vicari. The War of Sicilian Vespers is the only recorded incident in medieval times where a monarch was removed from power by the general population. It changed the face of the Mediterranean. It ended in August 1302, with a treaty known as the "Peace of Caltabellotta.”

My grandmother’s version didn’t have the “ma fia” bit in it, but then, as far as I knew, there was no such thing as the mafia. That side of my family was from Palermo, which was under the thumb of the Camorra, who could give two shits about the mafia. But that story told the beginning of an honorable society that I would be forever barred from because of the last name I got from my grandfather. He had the same name as me and my father.

The Godfather told the story of the Gallo-Profaci wars of the late fifties and early sixties.
The Gallo-Profaci Wars is the Beatles of true crime stories.

From what I heard, he was on his way to being one of the first non-Sicilians in that particular branch. But he was a thick-headed pollack who, apparently, took his job too seriously. ("People from Poland are not Pollacks, they're Poles," declared the Godfather himself, Marlon Brando, when he originated the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.) He was allowed to live if he steered clear of the volcano. He became a gravedigger, a real grave-digger. Not the title used by some mob guys at the time.

The night of Sicilian vespers isn’t in the movie The Godfather. I don’t remember it being in the book, but I haven’t read Mario Puzo since I binge-reread all his stuff right after he died in 1999. The Night of Sicilian Vespers story was first told publicly, as far as I know, in Joe Bonanno’s book A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno. A lot of people wanted to whack Bonanno after he let Gay Talese tell his story in Honor Thy Father.

The Godfather told the story of the Gallo-Profaci wars of the late fifties and early sixties. The Gallo-Profaci Wars is the Beatles of true crime stories. Because of “Crazy” Joe “The Blond” Gallo and his brothers Kid Blast and Larry, city gangsters “went to the mattresses.” In the book, when the German-Irish adopted bother Tom Hagen explains that Luca Brasi was “sleeping with the fishes,” he wasn’t reciting an old Sicilian message. That phrase only went back to 1961 when Sally D’Ambrosio iced “Joe Jelly” Gioelli. The Profaci family hitman wrapped a fish in Joe Jelly’s coat and dropped it off in front of a candy store in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn.

When the German-Irish adopted bother Tom Hagen explains that Luca Brasi was “sleeping with the fishes,” he wasn’t reciting an old Sicilian message.

Gallo was made for gangster cinema by gangster cinema. Like the Sonny Corleone wannabes of the post-Godfather generation, he’d emulated Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo after seeing the 1947 classic Kiss of Death, when he was still Joe “The Blond.”

As part of the “Barbershop Quintet,” Joe Gallo popped Albert “the Lord High Executioner” Anastasia at the Park Sheridan barbershop on West 56th Street on Oct. 5, 1957. Gallo was killed on his birthday on April 7, 1972 at Umberto’s Clam House. Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran took credit for the hit, he also claimed to be the guy who disappeared Jimmy Hoffa, as according to Sheeran’s own confessions.

Gallo saw Don Rickles at the Copacabana earlier that evening with comedian David Steinberg and future Law & Order actor Jerry Orbach. Gallo and the actor had become close after Orbach played a gangster inspired by Gallo in the film version of Jimmy Breslin’s book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, which also starred Robert De Niro in a part that was originally offered to Al Pacino, who passed on it to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather. According to The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld by Tom Folsom, to the day he died, Orbach never revealed what happened on Gallo’s last night. Even when he was playing a cop. That’s a standup guy. Omertà.

Gallo believed he was in line to head the Profaci family. It became the Colombo family while “Crazy Joe” was in prison. Joe Colombo had been shot and seriously wounded on June 28, 1971, at the second Italian Unity Day rally in Columbus Square. Colombo created the Italian-American Civil Rights League to strong arm production on The Godfather. Because of Colombo’s efforts Paramount Pictures producer Albert Ruddy made sure the words "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" never appeared in the movie.

To the day he died, Orbach never revealed what happened on Gallo’s last night. Even when he was playing a cop. 
That’s a standup guy. Omertà.

The Mafia was the face of American Crime in the 20th Century. It came to prominence because of an inside informant. The Mafia–Camorra War started after Giosue Gallucci and his son were killed on May 17, 1915. The cops got Ralph Daniello to rat on the Brooklyn Navy Street gang. He lipped off about 23 murders and that was the end of the Camorra in New York. At least publicly. President Obama recently listed the Camorra as one of the top “transnational criminal groups” in the world and leveled sanctions on it. You can’t buy that kind of advertising. I’m sure members of the Camorra wish that ad never ran. ...



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