Epix TV Series Godfather Of Harlem, With Chin Gigante Character, Debuts This Month

Vincent D’Onofrio plays onetime Genovese boss Vincent (The Chin) Gigante in the Epix cable series Godfather of Harlem, which debuts this month and has been billed as a prequel to Ridley Scott's 2007 film American Gangster, which highlighted the story of 1970s Harlem drug dealer Frank Lucas.

Godfather of Harlem

Godfather of Harlem, which takes major liberties with Mafia history, premieres on September 29 and tells the "true" story of drug lord Bumpy Johnson (played by Forest Whitaker), who in the early 1960s returned from prison to find his old neighborhood fiefdom under the thumb of the Italian Mafia, specifically, the Genovese family, whom Bumpy takes on to regain control.

He allies with radical preacher Malcolm X, “catching his political rise in the cross-hairs of social upheaval and a mob war that threatens to tear the city apart.”

The show's larger theme is the juxtaposition of the underworld against the civil rights movement during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

(Mention of civil rights and the Mafia invariably conjures the image of Joe Colombo. As far as we know, the Harlem Godfather series doesn't include a Joe Colombo character. The alleged boss of the Colombo family/founder of the Italian-American Civil Rights League was shot in the head in 1971 in Columbus Circle before a bewildered crowd of thousands in one of New York City's most highly publicized shootings. Those seeking a big-screen cinematic retelling of that story apparently have to wait for Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, which should be in theaters and on Netflix very soon.)

Gigante, a former professional boxer and protégé of Vito Genovese himself, shot Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano’s appointed successor, in his rise to the top. He feigned mental illness successfully for years to avoid prosecution.

Gigante grew to become the definition of old school, a man who ordered murders for breaches in mob etiquette. He also was a denizen of Greenwich Village, and he and his Genovese crime family crew were collectively referred to as the West Side. The family had an Uptown Crew, but Fat Tony Salerno was its main overseer from his perch at the Palma Boys social club.

As the website Infamous New York noted, "Vito Genovese and his Greenwich Village henchmen: Tony Bender Strollo and Tommy Eboli ruled Chin’s universe. Genovese’s bodyguard and top hitman, Eboli loved boxing in big way, and he brought the talented Gigante under his wing, managing both his fight career and his crime career."

Gigante's West Side tenement 

Yet the Epix show has him in Harlem?

It also posits that he and other mob bosses were quite comfortable with the notion of peddling drugs on the streets.

No way, say informed historians of the true crime sub-genre organized crime. “The Chin would disagree vociferously with that allegation … which is based on what?" Larry McShane, quite rightly told us when we asked about this. McShane covers the New York Mafia for the Daily News and has authored several books, including Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante.

"Gigante was as old-school as it gets," McShane added, "and his opposition to the drug trade was well known – (Vincent) Fish Cafaro said so before a Senate committee. So did Angelo Ruggiero on a government bug. Gigante was known to order the murder of drug dealers by tossing them off roofs. (I'm) (n)ot buying this one.”

Doomed Gambino mobster/John Gotti loyalist Ruggiero was heard on a bug saying, "It's Paul... him and Chin made a pact. Any friend of ours gets pinched for junk... they kill 'em...they're not warning nobody, not telling nobody because they feel the guy is gonna rat..."

The New York mob's historical drug hypocrisy went something like this: Mobsters at the highest levels profited off drugs, but generally via preferred family dealers, who were given the space to do their thing quietly. Rank-and-file wiseguys not operating with a boss's tacit approval faced execution if ever nabbed by law enforcement for drug dealing.

The Harlem godfather did take on organized crime but it was not Chin who Bumpy battled, and the spoils were a highly lucrative numbers racket, not the heroin trade. (They  are pitting the wrong Harlem drug kingpin against the wrong crime family.)

Bumpy inspired the character Bumpy Jonas in the 1971 cult classic “Shaft.” He was also the inspiration for characters in “The Cotton Club” and “American Gangster.” He figured most recently in Boardwalk Empire.

The real-life Bumpy, who was once an inmate at Alcatraz, is famous for his battle with gangster Dutch Shultz for control of the Harlem numbers racket. After standing up to Schultz and his gang, Bumpy became a Harlem hero, with a mix that was part compassion and part cutthroat.

Bumpy died of a heart attack in 1968.

Harlem's greatest drug lord.

Bumpy served long prison time, most of it at Alcatraz  in San Francisco Bay.  (Johnson was arrested more than 40 times and served two prison terms for narcotics-related charges.)

Satirist Joe Queenan, American journalist, critic, and essayist, and Philadelphia native, hit the mark when he wrote that while Johnson was a legend of sorts who belonged in the pantheon of lovable — or likable, anyway —villains and rogues, he never rose to the big leagues where such high-profile gangsters as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, and John Gotti were immortalized. Bumpy never rose above local appeal.

“In the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s mesmerising American Gangster, the underworld legend Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson dies in the company of his protege Frank Lucas, lamenting the disappearance of the Harlem he once knew. ... the scene establishes the strong bond of affection between the godfather of uptown crime and his surrogate son - a son who would revolutionise the New York heroin trade....

“Despite his flashy attire, his hobbyist poetry and his ostentatious distribution of turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving (not to mention the fact that he informed the iconography of every blaxploitation movie and gangster rap wannabe since), Johnson never became a transcontinental celebrity like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, or other freelance, peripatetic psychopaths.

“This is at least in part because Johnson was known as a man who made people disappear, but didn’t do it in broad daylight. Johnson is more like Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s diligent sidekick, who led his life in the shadow of his far more celebrated mentor. Some people become titans. Some people become cult figures.”

Vincent “Chin” Gigante ran New York’s Genovese crime family, the most powerful Mafia clan in the country, often referred to as the Ivy League of the New York Mafia.

In a previous interview with Larry McShane, among some of the highlights he explained:

The Genovese family ran the unions, and that was a real source of power and money. When I spoke with John Pritchard, head of the FBI Genovese Squad, he said the family benefited from true loyalty to the Chin – the guys around him were often from the neighborhood, and were people he knew and trusted. The feds considered and rejected trying to put a “Donnie Brasco” in the Genovese family because they felt the members would never trust an outsider.

Chin’s animosity toward Gotti stemmed from the Castellano hit, which of course was done without his permission (or the OK of the Commission). Chin and Big Paul were close, and Castellano was one of the few Mafiosi aware of Gigante’s rise to boss when the word was kept under wraps. Gigante initially met with Tony Ducks Corallo to get approval for the murder of Gotti.

While the Castellano killing was the first strike against Gotti for Chin, the older boss also despised the Dapper Don’s high profile and embrace of the high life. Gigante believed the Mafia was a secret society, and wanted no part of any publicity in the press. Gotti appeared on the cover of Time magazine, right? One law enforcement guy described Gigante as the anti-Gotti in his approach to mob leadership. Bobby Manna was just following his boss’ instructions, although he ran a lot of the family’s New Jersey operations and there was a feeling that Gotti was trying to expand into their territory.

Gigante was installed in 1981... Fat Tony Salerno was a patient at New York University Hospital after suffering a stroke. Chin paid a visit, accompanied by Sammy Black Santora and Bobby Manna, and a deal was reached where Salerno was “pulled down” – removed from the top spot.

Chin immediately ordered Vincent (Fish) Cafaro to work as Salerno’s liaison to the new regime, and he ordered Cafaro to stay quiet about the leadership change, even to other members of the Genovese family. Salerno kept his mouth shut, too, and was indicted and convicted in the Commission trial as the Chin remained a free man. The hide-the-boss trick was, in Chin’s case, a way of steering clear of the FBI and keeping his name quiet even (within) the world of the Mafia.