“Inside the American Mob” premieres on National Geographic Channel on Sun., 28, 2013. The six part series tells the story of the Mafia in America in the words of former mobsters, mob informants, undercover FBI agents and former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani. Former mobster Michael Franzese, former Capo in the Columbo Crime Family turned motivational speaker talked about his experiences. Franzese answered questions from reporters in a Q&A session, which follows.
Michael Franzese grew up as the son of mobster Sonny Franzese, the notorious underboss of New York’s feared and violent Columbo crime family. Franzese shared his experience in becoming a made man and Capo of the notorious Colombo crime family. He became a top money earner, with an estimated $5 to $8 million per week from legal and illegal business dealings. He masterminded brilliant business scams, including the highly profitable gas-tax scheme.
Franzese was just 35 when he was named number 18 on Fortune Magazine’s listing of “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses,” five spots below Dapper Don John Gotti. Not surprisingly, Franzese drew the attention of famed federal prosecutor Rudy Guiliani, who indicted him on racketeering charges.
Franzese said that he did not have great faith when he was a mobster. He eventually went to prison where he found spiritual faith in Christianity. He renounced his life of crime and has become a motivational speaker and author.
American gangsters and mobsters fascinate the public, shown by the popularity of shows like “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Detroit’s Jimmy Hoffa disappeared 40 years ago but was recently in the headlines due to a possible lead in the four decade long search for his body, which came up empty.
Michael Franzese commented on the death of actor James Gandolfini, who played television mob boss Tony Soprano and the search for Jimmy Hoffa in the following interview.
Question: Do you think Tony Zerilli is a credible source in the search for Hoffa’s remains?
Franzese: “For years, in numerous Q&A’s I have been involved in, I was asked if I knew where Hoffa was buried. My standard answer was and STILL IS, “He’s not in the Meadowlands and I seriously doubt they will ever find his body.” That’s based upon what I heard from credible sources during my time on the street. Although Tony Zerilli was a made man and was around during Hoffa’s time, I seriously question his actual knowledge of Hoffa’s remains. First of all, he was in prison when Hoffa disappeared. And most suspicious is the fact that he has claimed for years he was flat broke. He’s now capitalizing financially on the Hoffa mystique. It doesn’t matter if they find the body or not. Irrelevant! He’s earning off of the mystique and the press it’s generating with his book and merchandise. “Whitey” Bulger and his lawyers continue to furiously deny he was an FBI informant. Instead, they say, he paid FBI agents for information that would help him and his gang, including tipoffs on investigations and indictments.”
Question: Do you think Bulger and his lawyers are appropriately handling the accusations?
Franzese: “Whitey Bugler was an FBI informant. No doubt. He gave information to the feds on many of my former associates in New England, and quite possibly in New York. He fled Boston because my former associates were going to kill him. He knew it and he went on the lam.”
Question: What are your thoughts on the recent passing of famed actor James Gandolfini? Do you think HBO’s The Sopranos is an accurate portrayal of life in the mafia?
Franzese: “From everything I heard about James, he was a nice guy, very humble and a real gentleman. He had his issues, but don’t we all have a few? I was sorry to hear of his death. He was a good actor. I enjoyed him on the Sopranos. HOWEVER, regarding the authenticity of the show, I will tell you this… if a mob boss was ever known to be visiting a psychiatrist, he would end up in the trunk of a car within a week, along with the psychiatrist. That kind of did it for me early on. Interesting devise Chase used to get into a troubled mob bosses’ head, but unrealistic. The mob stuff had its few moments of authenticity, but that’s about it. The best element of the show for me was the family relationships. That humanized Tony and despite our mob lifestyle, we were all human.”
Question: “Why do you think there is still a fascination with the mob?
Franzese: “An FBI agent I knew described this fascination with the mob best. He said, “Europe has its Royalty, America has the Mob.” No doubt both Hollywood and the news media did much to create this fascination with the mob, going way back to the days of Al Capone. It seems that this fascination extends only to La Cosa Nostra in America and not to some of the other criminal organizations. Why? In my opinion, it’s due to the way we operated – the fact that we infiltrated almost every aspect of society in America. Our presence was felt in big business, labor unions and politics at the highest levels. Wealth, power and influence are very attractive to people and the American Mafia had it all. And we carried it better then anyone else I have spoken to people about Gandolfini’s death and they talk of him as if he was a real mobster and the Soprano’s was a real mob family. Amazing! That’s how much of a fascination people have with my former life. The show only served to add to the intrigue.”
Question: What is your strongest memory of your time in the mafia?
Franzese: “Tough question. I have many memories, some very good and many not so good. But the strongest memory I have is of the camaraderie I shared with my men. Loved that. Very powerful. To be part of a brotherhood, having each other’s backs in time of trouble. I loved that part of the life. It’s too bad that in the end, that loyalty among the men eroded to the point that left the mob in the state it’s in today. Battered and bruised, but not totally broken.”
Question: What’s the scariest moment you had?
Franzese: “Getting the call. Getting “sent for” as Lefty Guns so famously described in the movie Donnie Brasco. I had that experience one night. Walked into a room by a good friend, a brother. The way it was set up, I honestly believed I was going to die. Scared the hell out of me. But I went! Walked in on shaky knees and with a heart ready to beat out of my chest. Taught me I could face death. It was a rough night, but hey, I’m still here!”
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