TV Club

How Vicious Are Real Gangsters?

Dear Jeff,

Ah, you bring back fond memories of some of my travels and travails on Staten Island, as I looked for, and—yikes—sometimes found, guys like Fat Pete and Fat Dom, Wild Bill, and Sammy Bull. Thank you for those kind words about my work covering the mob, but if the truth be known, it also took this reporter, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn born-and-raised, a while to find Paul Castellano’s big “White House” on Todt Hill the first time I looked for it.

I agree with you that TheSopranos has, as you put it, “the ring of truth.” (Interesting that this is also the phrase federal mob prosecutors use to describe the testimony of turncoat wiseguys they employ as witnesses at racketeering and murder trials.) This season’s opening show was masterfully done, especially since it had to set up some of the continuing intrigue that we will see in the coming weeks.

My favorite subplot was the escalating fury between Paulie Walnuts and Chris. There were several wonderful scenes showing how cheap, petty, and vicious real wiseguys really can be. (And yet, at the same time, able to use words like knives, the way John Gotti often did.) Paulie Walnuts ordering lobsters and steaks and potatoes he didn’t eat AND sending over a bottle of Cristal champagne to several women dining at a nearby table to fatten up the tab was priceless. And his rubbing in the fact that Chris would be paying a huge bill, by looking at the check and saying he would play the number 1184, the cost of the dinner, was also a nice touch.

And the aftermath of the dinner in the parking lot could have been a scene out of Goodfellas, Nick Pileggi’s classic film about Jimmy Burke’s band of wanton killers (or even Murder Machine, the book I did with Gene Mustain about the Roy DeMeo crew of Gambino gangsters that killed scores of people two decades ago, if I’m allowed a blatant plug). It was a perfect portrayal of how real gangsters would react in a similar situation. After Chris stiffed the waiter with a $16 tip for a $1,200 tab and the waiter chased after him, Chris hit him in the head with a rock, sending the hapless waiter into an epileptic seizure. Paulie, who seconds earlier could have killed Chris, immediately recognizes the big-picture problem for both of them and solves it. “He’ll say we hit him in the head,” he says, as he pulls out his piece and puts him away forever with one shot in the chest, then reaches down and picks up the $1,200 as they both dart to their cars to get away. “That’s my money Paulie,” shouts Chris, giving the viewers a sense that these two guys are going to continue their feud even after it led to them having to whack a guy for no good reason.

Later, they have a warm and fuzzy conversation as they bury the hatchet for the time being. But this viewer, who hasn’t had the advantage of many reviewers who got copies of the first four shows, is waiting for this feud to blow sky-high again. We’ll see.

I’m curious what you though of Dr. Mefli’s put-down of Tony’s amorous advances. Did you think she handled it well?