TV Club

The Sopranos Goes Back to Its Mafia Roots

Dear Jerry:

If you don’t mind, I’d like to begin this conversation about The Sopranos by telling a small but illuminating (to my mind, at least) story about you, Jerry Capeci. Ten years ago, while writing about organized crime for New York magazine, I found myself, on an unbearably cold winter’s day, in a strip bar somewhere on Staten Island. (One of my many failings as a mob reporter was that I never mastered the geography of Staten Island; it once took me three hours to locate Paul Castellano’s house, the biggest in the borough, and conspicuously situated on a hill, if memory serves.)

I was visiting the strip bar in the middle of the afternoon in order to find a semidisconnected but reputedly verbal Luchese hanger-on who might or might not have been in possession of several potentially amusing anecdotes (hope springs eternal in crime reporting) about the travails of an ostentatiously fat—540 pounds, I think—Luchese family captain named Peter Chiodo—”Fat Pete” was his highly original nickname. Fat Pete, I don’t have to tell you, turned coat on the Lucheses (as did nearly everyone in the Luchese family, yes?) after the paranoid bosses of the family at the time, Gaspipe Casso and Vittorio Amuso, decided that he was untrustworthy and tried to have him killed. Twelve bullets were fired into Chiodo’s body, but his fat kept him alive. (Take that, Dean Ornish.)

The bar was dark, of course, and depressing. (Who goes to strip bars on Staten Island at 3 in the afternoon?) The man I was told might be there was in fact there, but he was, for reasons unknown, completely uninterested in the sudden appearance in his life of a New York magazine reporter. He didn’t hit me or throw things at me or even make any pro forma threats, but he would not provide me with the necessary color. Then I asked him a question that began, Jerry Capeci said in the Daily News last week that— but before I could get the rest of the sentence out, he said, with vehemence, “Jerry Capeci? F–k Jerry Capeci! Thinks he knows everything.”

So I said something like, “Well, Jerry Capeci does know everything.” And he said, “So go ask f–king Jerry Capeci your question.” (Or, quite possibly, he said, “So go f–king ask Jerry Capeci your question,” or perhaps it was, “So go ask Jerry f–king Capeci your f–king question.” The mind plays tricks, you know. This might have also been the guy—I can’t remember anymore—who called me “Hanukkah Boy,” but that’s for another time.)

Now, the moral of the story—beside the fact that you are the dean of mob reporters—is that I didn’t call you to ask my questions, because that sort of thing is generally (and irrationally) forbidden in organized journalism. (Although I did once ask Nick Pileggi for help, which he generously gave, introducing me to a onetime Gambino family soldier who provided me with excellent information and who spent an enjoyable day with me at Walt Disney World, but who took me for $462.73—the cost of what turned out to be a nonexistent airplane ticket he said he needed in order to meet me in Orlando. Again, a story we’ll keep in reserve.)

The point is, finally, after all these years, long after I’ve left mob reporting as a vocation, I’m getting my chance to talk to Jerry Capeci, the man who—and I believe the hype—is the living, breathing Encyclopedia Britannica of organized crime.

But enough about you. There’s a lot to cover. Let me make two observations about the first episode of the fifth season of The Sopranos: First, it’s clear that David Chase is bringing mob intrigue back front and center, which is a good thing for our purposes. And second, I think it’s fair to say that The Sopranos is most definitely not jumping the shark. As a Sopranos-obsessive, I often worry about this. It is one of my two main worries in life, the other being the fear that certain Islamic fundamentalist groups may be able to successfully smuggle a Pakistani-manufactured nuclear device into Newark Harbor, which would certainly take care of North Jersey’s mob problem, along with everything else.

So it was a relief to see that The Sopranos writing remains fresh and disjointed and dread-filled, and that Lily Tomlin is not making guest appearances, and that my favorite characters are still the same sociopaths they were last season, only more so (I’m thinking here of Paulie’s radical new cure for epilepsy), and that—and this is most important—the show still has the ring of truth. These are not Analyze This mobsters or mythologized Godfather mobsters, but something close to the people I once knew and you still presumably know. Do you agree?