Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Just When He thought He was Out.....

Friends of mine: Donnie Brasco

Joe Pistone is buttressed by drywall in a corner of a mostly empty upstairs dining area at Gene & Georgetti Italian Steakhouse on North Franklin. He likes it here, feels safe. And well he should. Not only does the tucked-away nook offer fine protection from sneak attacks, but his thespian pal Leo Rossi, seated in harm's way near the room's entrance, is sure to get popped first in the event that some Frank Nitti wannabe shows up with heat a-blazin' and itchy digits. This is a comforting thought.

"I learned this a long time ago when I palled around with Joe," says Rossi, a veteran of more than 60 films, several of them (such as "Analyze This") mob-centric. "We went into a restaurant, about six people. So I sit down and [Joe] goes, 'Get up.' I go, 'What?' He says, 'Get up.' He's gotta have the seat by the wall."

That's what happens when the Mafia wants you whacked. After six years of brilliant undercover work for the FBI, after infiltrating New York's Bonanno crime family as jewel thief Donnie Brasco and almost becoming a made man, Pistone revealed his true identity, testified at trial after trial and helped send scores of his former associates (some of whom treated him like kin) to the joint. His adventures became a best-selling book, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, which became a hit movie starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Pistone's heroics, revealed like never before, made him famous. And infamous. The sorest of sore losers, La Cosa Nostra types marked him for death -- the lousy, lying, rat-bastard fink. The price on his head, half a mil, still stands.

Pistone, however, doesn't sweat it. A trim and amiable man in his 60s, he sometimes wears sunglasses and a hat indoors. He lives in an undisclosed location and guards his privacy when not engaged in show-biz PR, as he is today. But that's about all. Paranoia serves no purpose. Besides, he says between bites of lip-slicingly crusty bread dunked in olive oil, "They got other things they're worrying about. They ain't worrying about me, believe me. They may worry about him" -- he points at Rossi -- "because he's playing me, but that's not my problem! That's not my problem!" They laugh. If Rossi is nervous, he masks it well. Acting!

"You know what you worry about?" says Pistone, whose middle initial 'D' does not stand for 'Danger' but could, given his extensive record of nabbing bad guys (the baddest) in America and abroad. "You worry about a cowboy, somebody that thinks they're gonna make a name for himself. That's what you worry about. You don't worry about, you know, the professional."

In town with Rossi and Oscar-nominated screenwriter-director Bobby Moresco ("Crash") to stage a one-man, one-act play called "The Way of the Wiseguy," Pistone is on hand for script-tweaking and to make sure Rossi, who plays him more broadly than Depp (partly because live theater demands it), stays true to character. The multimedia experience, sculpted in Burbank and New York throughout much of last year, premieres on Valentine's Day at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. Adapted from Pistone's 2004 book of the same name, it is brimming with Mafia wit and wisdom gleaned during Pistone's Brasco stint in the '70s and early '80s.

Between bites of penne pasta and chicken parm, they talk up their venture and bust each other's chops. Rossi yaps the most (he's very good at it), followed by Moresco and then Pistone, who probably wouldn't yap much at all if these two, his creative cohorts, his paisans, didn't goad him into elocuting. Then again, that's part of the reason he's wearing comfy kicks instead of cement shoes -- he doesn't run off at the mouth.

When Pistone was Brasco, organized crime had already begun to spiral downward. These days, some experts say, it's more like disorganized crime or reorganized crime -- a shadowy shadow of its former self. "They don't have the power and the control they had," says Casino author Nicholas Pileggi. "The bad guys have pretty much been done away with on different levels, and the newer guys, they just don't have the ability to corrupt the way [their predecessors] did. I don't mean there [aren't] any. They just don't look long-term."

Pistone agrees. "The younger generation [of mobsters] is just like the citizen generation. 'Me.' 'I want it now, and I don't wanna wait.' What's the best way you make money now? Drugs. And it all caved in."

In Chicago, land of Capone, Accardo and Giancana, ruthless thugs all, the mob (better known locally as the "Outfit") is still kicking, if more figuratively than literally. Wayne Johnson, a retired policeman and chief investigator for the Chicago Crime Commission, knows this better than most. "It's not the 'Mafia,'" he explains, careful to draw a distinction between New York's mostly Italian "patrimonial" system and Chicago's more diverse bureaucratic one, "but they still do what they do. They still have their gambling, they still have their social clubs, and they're embedded in legitimate business. They're just not having the shooting war they used to have. They got smarter." Dearth of tommy guns and broad daylight slayings aside, "I think it's more dangerous than it ever was because of the political inner workings," Johnson says. "And it costs people millions of dollars. But when it's in the shadows, nobody knows about it."

Well, not nobody. But it's a good bet more of us know what Tony Soprano uttered in his last therapy session than know where and when "Big Paulie" Castellano got clipped (in case you're wondering, it was on East 46th Street in Manhattan during a pre-Christmas shopping rush). And why? Because we're steeped in fakes. On screens big and small, on the stage and on the page, make-believe mobsters abound.

And unlike their real-life counterparts, they rarely bore. From "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos" to "Donnie Brasco" and "The Godfather," mob fiction offers relentlessly snappy dialogue ("Leave the gun, take the cannoli," "Do I amuse you?"), flashy violence (Sonny Corleone murdered at the toll booth) and on occasion, insightful culinary tips (Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas": "Paulie ... had a system for doing garlic. He used a razor and he sliced it so thin, it used to liquify in the pan with a little oil.")

"We've kind of put them on a pedestal," Johnson says of Hollywoodized wiseguys. "Go sit through a couple of days of hearings on [convicted mob loan shark] Frank Calabrese [Sr.] -- you're not gonna see anything entertaining about him. He's a nasty individual who's committed some heinous crimes. They'll never be building a show around Frank Calabrese."

"It's the way they live," says Pileggi of the reasoning behind America's insatiable appetite for all things mobby. "They get up at 11 o'clock in the morning. Most of them have girlfriends, they gamble, they drink, they have a good time, they live in a period of perpetual adolescence. They have not been housebroken."

They are, in short, the raw id that most folks keep caged, the rebels to our conformists, the whoopin', ropin' ranchers to our desk-bound city slickers. "But if you hang around for the third act," Pileggi says, "you will be happy you are who you are, because it's the third act where the dues are paid."

That, in a walnut shell, describes "The Way of the Wiseguy." By building up and cutting down, by showing actions and consequences, Moresco, et al., hope to find some deeper meaning amid the wacky nicknames and the scattered F-bombs and the utterly moronic malapropisms.

"Oh, how they mangle the King's English," Rossi says, grinning. "We have a thing where we say, 'Left [Lefty Ruggiero, a mob hitman] was gonna build a club in Miami. He told me he wanted the place ornated. He told me to call an architecture.' "

"And that's legit dialogue," says Pistone, whose phone conversations with Ruggiero, his prime conduit to the underworld way back when, are re-enacted throughout the play courtesy of FBI phone tap transcripts.

"Another day," Rossi-as-Pistone resumes, "he came in all upset because a Hare Krishna tried to divert him."

"And I mean, ooh, the nicknames!" Rossi exclaims, gaining steam. "You got Sonny Red, Two-Finger White and Jimmy Blue -- very patriotic. Frankie the Nose, big one. Jimmy Legs, long ones. Willie Smokes and Joey Burns. Arsonists! Armand the Bug, Ronnie the Rat, Tony Roach and Sal the Snake -- exterminators, not bugs. Joey Half-a-Ball -- you don't wanna know. Lead Pipe Pete, Tony the Hatchet and Betty the Butcher -- you still don't wanna know."

While the play is rife with such lowbrow laugh lines, a deeper reality invariably swaggers forth and (per Pistone) "smacks ya." Evildoers get their comeuppance, one in particular via meat hook. And Pistone, the white-hatted tough guy who survives against seemingly insurmountable odds to tell his tale, finally reveals some psychic wounds he has long kept hidden.

"Part of the tragedy is that you got a guy like Pistone, who has been asked to give his life to something," Moresco says. "And he gives that life, and in giving it, something's been taken from him, and he never wants to admit it."

Even for a street-hardened Jersey boy, being one of them took its toll, a toll Pistone has hinted at in his books but never fully fleshed out for public consumption. "It's a lot of stuff that I just [didn't] wanna reveal to anybody," he says, mum on spoiler specifics, "but they [Rossi and Moresco] convinced me that this is how we're gonna make it work."

Ultimately, though, he convinced himself. Joe Pistone doesn't spill beans unless he wants to.

'THE WAY OF THE WISEGUY'
When: April 2
Where: Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green
Tickets: $34-$39
Phone: (312) 733-6000


Thanks to Mike Thomas

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