The Chicago Syndicate: Michael Spilotro P.I.?
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Monday, June 18, 2007

Michael Spilotro P.I.?

Friends of ours: Tony Spilotro, Frank Cullotta
Friends of mine: Michael Spilotro

The Spilotro Hollywood moment is that scene in "Casino" with the cornfield and the baseball bats that the critics loved, though it really didn't happen that way.

That's how America remembers the Chicago Outfit's Anthony Spilotro and his brother Michael, whose famous murders are among 18 Outfit killings comprising the historic federal "Family Secrets" mob trial set to begin this week. But there is another Spilotro Hollywood moment, long forgotten. In this one, actors don't play the Spilotros. Rather, Michael Spilotro played a tough FBI agent on the hit TV show "Magnum, P.I.," starring Tom Selleck.

Special Agent Spilotro appeared in the 1981 episode "Thicker than Blood." And you thought only Christopher from "The Sopranos" had a Hollywood urge.

Michael was the little brother of Tony, the Chicago Outfit's overseer in Las Vegas in the 1970s and 1980s. Michael received bit parts on "Magnum" and other shows. (I've got that "Magnum" DVD, but don't ask to borrow it.)

"Magnum" was a private-eye show set in Hawaii with a fancy red Ferrari and beautiful girls, gunplay, more beautiful girls, more gunplay and beautiful girls. That was when TV was TV. In the episode, a gang of wisecracking French drug dealers try to import loads of heroin. But G-man Michael Spilotro won't stand for such shenanigans.

Rather than wear a tie, Agent Spilotro wears a sports coat and an open shirt, but no gold chains. And Agent Spilotro did an interesting thing when he met Magnum in a parking lot in broad daylight. He reached for his gun. How rude.

Did Agent Spilotro think he was in some parking lot at Grand and Harlem?

Magnum was worried about his friend, TC, who'd been set up by the evil drug lords, so Magnum approached Spilotro to find out what happened to his buddy. "He doesn't wanna talk," Spilotro informed Magnum and Rick (played by native Chicagoan and Michael's boyhood friend Larry Manetti).

Spilotro unleashed his lines in an unmistakably thick Chicago accent, about as thick as mine, with the same flat vowels.

Later, FBI Agent Spilotro is hiding outside a warehouse, peering through a window, clenching a bullhorn while watching the drug dealers unload their heroin. One of the villains, in a thick French accent, says quite sarcastically, "$10 million worth of heroin, courtesy of zee United States Coast Guard."

Just then, Agent Spilotro springs into action: "This is a federal officer! The building is surrounded!! Come out with your hands in da air!!"

"Magnum" action music—including wailing guitars—pulsates to a disco beat. Agent Spilotro charges in, cornering the evildoers by firing his pistol into the air.

They surrender, and wisely. They didn't know if "Family Secrets" prosecution witness and Outfit enforcer Frankie Cullotta might have been hiding nearby, supporting Spilotro, with a vise that would fit several French heads. The vise thing was in "Casino," but it was drawn from Chicago Outfit war stories and, no wonder, since Cullotta was a technical adviser on "Casino" and knew what a vise could do to a head.

Spilotro may have been trying to increase his Hollywood profile for business reasons, but I don't think the old guys back home who ran things were too pleased about Michael raising his profile on TV. But others disagree, including Manetti, who ran a Chicago construction company that helped build Rush Street clubs before getting into acting. Manetti says he's developing several projects, including a TV comedy about burned-out cops working the night shift and a movie about Cuban refugees.

"I didn't know Michael as a gangster, I knew him as a guy I grew up with in the neighborhood," Manetti said. "Michael wanted to be on TV, that's all. Who wouldn't? It was a top show. He had fun. He wasn't trying to be a movie star or an actor, he was having fun."

Common wisdom is that Tony was the tough guy and Michael was the innocent victim, though some law enforcement sources suggest Michael may have been more devious than his brother. But that's not how Manetti saw his friend, who visited him in Hawaii and was offered a bit part.

"I loved Michael. I don't know what the rumors are, he wasn't a bad guy. Everybody has aspirations of being a movie star. We thought about it. It was funny, you know, Spilotro, FBI agent. . . . With us, it was all fun, no bad stuff. I think we talked about him playing a guy named Zookie the Bookie once, you know, just fun stuff. He was OK as an actor, he wasn't so stiff."

Manetti, who lives in California, said he'll read the Tribune to follow the "Family Secrets" trial. "I miss him. Listen, if it's about the guys who killed Michael, let them burn."

Some who ordered the murders have already been burned, and are likely burning still. And though Michael Spilotro may have had fun on TV, I've got a feeling that a few Chicago critics who could make him or break him didn't like his performance as a crime-fighting fed.

They gave it two broken thumbs down.

Thanks to John Kass

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