Sopranos Based on Which Crime Family? Not DeCavalcantes...

David Chase: "90 percent of [The Sopranos] is made up (and the rest is) patterned after this [crime family]..."

If you’ve ever wondered where David Chase got all those fantastical ideas for “The Sopranos,” maybe he, like the feds, had his own mob informants. Or maybe the feds were his informants.

Tonight’s special episode of “American Greed,” titled “Mob Money,” is the story of the rise and fall of New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family, New Jersey gangsters who bear more than a passing resemblance to “The Sops.”

The DeCavalcantes were always, by mob standards anyway, minor players in the estimated $50 to 90-billion-a-year, ah (what the hell do you call it?), industry. In fact, the five families of New York called them “the farmers” and thought of them as country bumpkins.....

The DeCavalcante crime family is not the source of HBO's The Sopranos

The Sopranos is based on New Jersey's DeCavalcante crime family has been written so many times, most viewers would probably agree. We've written things like: "Many crime families and crews were said to have inspired Chase's HBO series. But New Jersey's only homegrown Mafia family seems to best fill the bill."

Fictional New York mob boss Carmine Lupertazzi once described the Sopranos crime family (technically, the DiMeo crime family, after Domenico Ercole DiMeo) like this:  "They are not a family; they're a glorified crew."

Watchers of real life mobsters know that such charges were actually levied against New Jersey's only homegrown Mafia family, the DeCavalcantes, although the founder, Sam the Plumber, was regarded as a well-respected Cosa Nostra statesman.

There is a logical assumption behind this notion: The DeCavalcante crime family is based in New Jersey as is the fictional Sopranos crime family...

But then again so many crime families had outposts in the Garden State, it could be said that New Jersey had a Mafia infestation.

New Jersey's State Commission of Investigation issued a report, The Changing Face of Organized Crime in New Jersey: A Status Report, that noted:

Seven LCN organizations – typically called the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, DeCavalcante, Bruno, Bonanno and Colombo groups after their most significant historical bosses – function in New Jersey with varying degrees of success...

And of course it's not just the New York Post (or, for the matter, the producers of American Greed) who claimed -- incorrectly -- that the HBO series was based on the family of "Sam the Plumber" (who, in a "Sopranosian" twist, preferred "The Count" moniker).

The story has been so widely spread in newspapers and books that tabulating the extent of this error will take far too much time.

Exception to the Rule
Even the expert himself, Gangland News's Jerry Capeci, ever-reiterates that the DeCavalcantes were the inspiration for The Sopranos.

However, careful readers will note that he does this ironically....

The DeCavalcantes themselves, you see, invited the comparison with David Chase's creation by first seeing themselves in the show.

At least, that's what can be inferred from wiretap transcripts.

In December 1999, 21 DeCavalcante made men and associates --- including Vincent "Vinny Ocean" Palermo -- faced federal racketeering and murder charges. In all, the indicted mobsters faced multiple counts related to murders, extortion, loansharking, bookmaking, robbery, mail fraud, as well as trafficking in stolen property, counterfeit goods and stolen U.S. savings bonds.

Turncoat capo Anthony Rotondo is "the first DeCavalcante to be questioned about his family’s thoughts on Tony Soprano and his fictional exploits," the New York Post reported in May 2003.

Testifying against a trio alleged mobsters in Manhattan federal court, Rotondo was heard on a wiretap recording played in open court joking with other wiseguys about perceived similarities between the HBO series and the DeCavalcante crime family.

In March 1999, he was recorded saying: "Every show you watch, every show you watch, more and more you pick somebody."

He noted how The Soprano's acting boss, Jackie Aprile, died from stomach cancer and how a former DeCavalcante acting boss, Gioacchino "Jake" Amari, suffered the same fate.

During the preceding probe of the crime family, four members were secretly taped by the Feds in 1999 while driving to a mob sit-down. As Capeci wrote in a New York magazine article, the guys were feeling big, bad and strong, and believed they had cause to puff out their chests.

"After decades as the ugly stepchildren of the New York mob," Capeci wrote, "DeCavalcante mobsters thought they had finally achieved proper respect from the vaunted Five Families. They had killed a suspected informer for John Gotti and had joint rackets with New York wiseguys. As a crew of the Garden State gangsters drove to a sit-down with New York mobsters, they were taped by the FBI talking about their newfound status—a rise in fortunes that seemed to be reflected on TV.

The men's conversation eventually turned to The Sopranos."

DeCavalcante mobsters were taped on March 3, 1999, by family associate Ralph “Ralphie O” Guarino, who flipped for the Feds. The recording was played to a Manhattan jury:

Joseph “Tin Ear” Sclafani: Hey, what’s this f****** thing, “Sopranos?” What the f*** are they . . .

Guarino: You ever watch it?

Sclafani: Is that supposed to be us?

Rotondo: You’re in there.

Guarino: (Laughs)

Rotondo: They mentioned your name in there.

Sclafani: Yeah, what did they say?

Brooklyn club owner Billy: “Watch out for that guy,” they said. “Watch that guy.”

Rotondo: Every show you watch, every show you watch, more and more you pick somebody. Every show … One week it was Corky (the nickname of DeCavalcante crime family member Gaetano Vastola). One week it, from the beginning, it was . . . Don Giacomino.

Later,Sclafani: Yeah, but where do they get this information from?

Rotondo: Ah, where?

Billy: Joey, there’s somebody close to you there, Joe.

The gangsters claimed certain places around their New Jersey base were showcased on the show.

"There's the bookstore."

"Right across from the church."

"That's the block."

"They always sit outside the.... Yeah, they do."

Rotondo ended the discussion with a thumbnail critique (he was a fan): "What characters. Great acting."

The Plumber's Nightmares & Panic Attacks

Tony Soprano suffered from nightmares and panic attacks.

Apparently so did Simone DeCavalcante.

In fact, the FBI recorded him discussing the matter with his secretary when he arrived at his office one morning in 1964: “I had a terrible dream… about a bunch of cops!”

The secretary had populated Simone's nightmares as well. He told her: "You were screaming… You had pearls on… Everything was so screwed up… Mary [his wife] woke me up…something about pearls… I don’t remember.”

When the transcripts were unsealed in court, it became apparent that the affair with his secretary was only one of the mob boss's many liaisons. Like Tony Soprano, Sam the Plumber was a ladies' man.

As for "insecurity," DeCavalcante was recorded saying that he didn't feel respected by the New York crime families. He was especially rankled when he didn't get named to the Commission, as he believed he deserved. Instead, Joe Colombo, who took over the Profaci crime family, was promoted to sit on the Mafia's board of directors.

"Vinny Ocean" some 11 years later, after flipping and testifying -- and finally starting a new life under a new name -- was still credited for being the "inspiration" for the Tony Soprano character; this was because Vinny had gotten into a legal tangle with a rival strip-club operator.

Download a PDF of that indictment here

A typical story about the former mob boss's problems:

A former New Jersey mob boss who came to Houston in the Federal Witness Protection Program - and who allegedly was an inspiration for the fictional Tony Soprano - defaulted on payments on a $1.3 million promissory note issued to buy out a partner's share in a strip club, the partner claims.

The Sopranos wasn't based on the New Jersey crime family.

It was based on a Genovese crime family crew that operated in New Jersey. Ruggerio "Richie the Boot" Boiardo was the capo who ran the crew.

Boiardo in 1969.

Crew The Sopranos Really Based On

The information came straight from David Chase in an interview that ran in a 2002 interview with New Jersey Monthly magazine. The interview is not available online today, though this Facebook posting references it. Also, the City Journal posted an article on April 4, 2007, that features many details from the original Chase interview.

There may even be a legal reason why Chase said that the Sopranos was based on Boiardo.

Chase was sued by a person who claimed he had given Chase the idea for The Sopranos television show, which ran on HBO (after it had been rejected by others) and earned some of the highest kudos a television series had won in years.

In a related filing to the case -- Robert V. Baer, Plaintiff ,v. David Chase, DC Enterprises, United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, Civil Action No. 02-CV-2334 (JAP), Certification of David Chase, Clause #14, 4 -- it is noted:

Plaintiff then told Chase stories involving crime in New Jersey, including stories about Plaintiff's experiences and trials as a prosecutor. ( Id.) It is undisputed that the stories Plaintiff told were true, based in fact, and not the product of Plaintiff's imagination. ( Id.) In addition to these stories, Plaintiff pitched another idea: to shoot "movies or television shows about crime in New Jersey and North Jersey mobs." ( ¶ 28). Although Plaintiff claims to have mentioned the DeCalvacante Family, the North Jersey Mafia, the City of Elizabeth and the Pulaski Skyway as locations, seeAnswer to Defs. Interrog. 10, it is undisputed that these concepts came with no "detail or drama." (Defs. 56.1 Stmt. at ¶ 28). There was no discussion of payment at The Ivy, and the parties do not dispute that they did not enter into an agreement that day. ( ¶ 30). At the time of the lunch at The Ivy, Plaintiff was unaware of Chase's previous work involving mob activity, set in New Jersey. ( Id. at ¶ 29).

Notice which crime family was not mentioned....

The City Journal story also mentions a somewhat notorious documentary film that many with an interest in the American Mafia are no doubt familiar with. The nearly deservedly forgotten and some-believe-discredited documentary -- Confessions of an Undercover Cop -- aired in 1988 --  on HBO, the Sopranos' years-later home.

We've written about the guy behind the HBO documentary previously. And we'll leave that topic there.

Young Richie "The Boot" Boiardo 

An L.A. Times review noted of the documentary:

This HBO documentary... follows burly New Jerseyite Mike Russell around as he sets up a phony business next to some suspected mobsters.

A hidden camera (when it's used, the picture on the screen is confined to a circle) spies on the suspects, but all we see of the alleged Mafia bosses and underlings are shots of them as they walk and drive around the streets of Newark. Most of the rest of the 45 minutes is filled out by shots of Russell as he packs, barbecues, chops wood, shows us around his fake office ("Here's the suntan lotion I use") and gets unaccountably excited at the sight of any possible Mafia man.

On the sound track we hear the foul-mouthed temporary undercover cop constantly deride the people he is deceiving. As if that weren't enough, the last several minutes of the program is given over to his final, gloating potshots as he watches tapes of their court hearing. Despite his joy, you're not really convinced that he played a crucial part in the bust or that he gained much from it (he's now living in another state under an alias), except for his own one-time HBO show.

The documentary offers some value in that it traces the decline and fall of the New Jersey crew that inspired The Sopranos—Boiardo's Genovese crime family crew. (Many seem to believe Boiardo ran his own crime family, which likely was just fine with the New York-based Genovese bosses).

Members of Boiardo's crew were "less introspective, even more violent, and a lot less glamorous than Tony’s fictional mob."

As the City Journal story noted:

Sopranos creator David Chase had learned about this Jersey mob as a child. Visiting relatives in Newark’s predominantly Italian-American North Ward, he met a cousin with "fuzzy connections to a prominent mob family in Livingston," an exclusive suburb where Boiardo had moved. Though Chase says in a 2002 interview in New Jersey Monthly that “90 percent of [the show] is made up. . . . it’s patterned after this [family].”
Some similarities: As in The Sopranos, the Boot joined the multitude of Italian-Americans who departed Newark for the Essex County suburbs.

Among The Boot's cohorts were mobsters named John "Big Pussy" Russo and his brother Anthony "Little Pussy" Russo. Richie the Boot's son was named Anthony "Tony Boy" Boiardo

Also, while Tony Soprano purchased what some would call a "McMansion," the Boot's domicile was likened to a castle. Life magazine described its architectural style  as "Transylvanian traditional," and noted that the domicile was replete with busts of Romans that were positioned all over the estate's grounds. (The residence also supposedly contained a rather large furnace.... speculation has it that that was where the bodies, quite literally, were burned.)

"Little Pussy"

See fourth and final video -- various members of the crew actually speak to the judge about reducing their bail...

Penthouse magazine also ran a story about Richie "The Boot" as the Sopranos' inspiration (PDF). The journalist who wrote the piece went on to co-author a book about Boiardo, called In the Godfather Garden (which contains a hint of another fictional mobster thought to have been based on Boiardo).

Click image to purchase book

As for Richie Boiardo and his influence on The Sopranos, the 2002 City Journal article noted that he'd previously been compared to another fictional mobster: The Godfather himself, Don Vito Corleone.

Boiardo, known simply as the Boot around Newark, began running numbers while working as a milkman before Prohibition, and he quickly figured out that crime paid better than dairy. He moved up the racketeering ranks and during Prohibition competed with another prominent Newark mobster, Abner “Longy” Zwillman, to smuggle booze through Newark. Working independently, the pair supplied much of the eastern half of the United States. Their contending rackets got so big that, according to FBI files, Al Capone himself journeyed to Newark to settle a feud between them when it threatened to disrupt the flow of illegal booze.

There was little mystery about the Boot’s rise. Like the fictional Vito Corleone, he was brutal and had a knack for surviving. He earned his nickname from his habit of stomping his enemies to death, and he consolidated his power in Newark after withstanding a hit by a rival gang that left him full of bullets but defiantly alive. The Boot, moreover, passed his viciousness on to his son Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo and recruited other like-minded hoods. Not only did these guys dispose of their enemies as sadistically as anyone in The Sopranos, but rather than brood over their bad deeds as some characters in the series do, the real Sopranos actually recounted their nastiest killings with relish.

In one FBI surveillance tape, for instance, Tony Boy declares, “How about the time we hit the little Jew.” An associate adds, “As little as they are, they struggle.” Then Tony Boy finishes describing the scene: “The Boot hit him with a hammer. The guy goes down and he comes up. So I got a crowbar this big. . . . Eight shots in the head. What do you think he finally did to me? He spit at me.” In another tape, the mobsters recall with equal delight locking a victim in a car trunk and setting it afire. “He must have burned like a bastard,” one mobster says.

By the time Confessions takes up this gang’s story in the mid-1980s, Boiardo had recently died, as, unexpectedly of a heart attack, had his son and heir apparent, Tony Boy, leaving what remained of the crew to their lieutenants. Most of these hoodlums had also by now decamped to Newark’s suburbs—places like North Caldwell, Roseland, and Bellville, all mentioned frequently in The Sopranos. But unlike Tony’s crew, the real Sopranos still used Newark’s decidedly unglamorous and gritty North Ward as their base of operations.

The investigation at the center of Confessions begins by chance, when a retired East Orange, New Jersey cop named Mike Russell is driving down Bloomfield Avenue in North Newark and sees two young guys attacking an older one. Russell goes to the aid of the older man, driving off the attackers. He discovers that the guy he’s helped is Andrew “Andy” Gerardo, now head of Boiardo’s old gang. Gerardo invites Russell into his hangout, a coffee shop on the avenue just a few steps from a monument to Christopher Columbus and the Italian American contribution to America. There, Russell meets other key members of the crew, who treat him like a hero and befriend him.... read rest

Aug 25, 2014: Richard Linnett, author of In the Godfather Garden, and Roger Hanos, Boiardo’s grandson; One on One with Steve Adubato.

Read more about Boiardo.

"Big Pussy," left, based on John "Big Pussy" Russo?

The Public "I" blog, in a post titled The Pope of Newark (wherein resides a wealth of material), notes that there are several theories regarding the nickname's origin.

It was his work as bootlegger that put him on the map as a major underworld figure, says one theory. According to the newspapers, he got the name from using his boots to stomp people to death.

The Boot himself allegedly told the FBI that the name derived from his extensive use of telephone booths, to conduct business or to speak with one of his many "female admirers." So the original nickname was "Richie the Booth," which, due to the region's accent, sounded more like -- and apparently evolved into -- what its presently known as.

As violent a mobster as he might have been he also had a Good Samaritan side in that he "funded some of the construction of Saint Lucy’s Church and contributed an elaborate stained-glass window."

"He distributed silver dollars to children on the street and provided much-needed loans and other favors to his neighbors and friends."

"Whole families in the First Ward fall back on him for support in their times of need,” reported the Newark Evening News.