Transcript: The Mafia in Popular Culture, w/guest Leonard Pierce

Kevin Fullam: Today on Under Surveillance: the mafia in pop culture. How has the portrayal of the mafia and organized crime in film and television evolved throughout the years? My guest is Leonard Pierce, a writer for the The Onion’s A/V club, and we’ll be discussing the origins of the mafia’s emergence as a sympathetic figure, the role of religion in the Catholic Church within mafia tales, and the impact of the landmark Godfather films.

What is it about the mafia that makes it such a compelling entity in popular culture?

Leonard Pierce: Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that. I think primarily there’s a sort of transgressive quality to it. The mafia are often portrayed as very similar to normal people. You know, in fact, Gus Russo, who wrote a fascinating book about the Chicago mob called The Outfit, talks about how, essentially, the mafia is a sort of shadow capitalism. You know, organized crime is often the product of immigrants who were sort of denied access to the normal channels of capitalism of big business, and so they sort of apply the structures and the form of business to illegal activities. And they’re sort of forming a sort of parallel to mainstream capitalism. And so when you look at things like the mob, they’re essentially doing business. They’re going about their jobs and doing what is expected of them. But when things go wrong, they have this very sexy access to violence and brutality, which formulates a sort of wish-fulfillment for a lot of people. You know, I’m sure a lot of people when they encounter frustration in their job or, you know, competition, they sort of wish they could just blow it up or shoot it into — you know, that’s, I think, a very appealing image. There are a lot of cultural aspects of the mafia that I think are also appealing to people. There are the themes of loyalty and devotion of honor. In fact, the Sicilian word for “Mafioso” means “man of honor” — ironic, of course, considering the sort of activities they engage in, but there’s that theme of honor and sort of chivalry, almost.

Another big theme in the mafia is family. You know, these are people who are working, more or less, a family business, often in miniature. That is, the people who work together are often directly related, but also in a bigger sense, they are often ethnically similar. For a very long time, the mob was restricted only to Sicilians, and even when it started to open up in the 1930s and ’40s, there was still not a lot of ethnic diversity in it. It was mostly Southern Italians and a few Jews and Irishmen. So it’s sort of in an ethnic family as well, and so it plays on those themes of family and community.

So it’s really an odd thing that something so criminal and so violent plays on things that are so close to our hearts, you know, family and duty and loyalty and operating a business and trying to make it in a competitive marketplace. The only difference is that the competition is often fatal.

Kevin Fullam: You talked about family — it’s funny that mafia has now just become a synonym for organized crime because you hear Russian mafia, Irish mafia, Japanese mafia with the Yakuza. Is it the same thing here in terms of, say, the Russians, I mean, as far as them coming much later to America, being assimilated much later into American culture, and therefore they face the same kinds of barriers?

Leonard Pierce: Yes, definitely. In fact, it’s almost boringly predictable that as new ethnic groups come into the United States, they face these same struggles, this same lack of access to social services, to economic opportunities to social integration, and a lot of them will turn to these illegal activities and form these similar sorts of organized criminal units. And you know of course now, you’re seeing it with a lot of Asian gangs. You’re seeing it with immigrants from the former Russian, or Soviet republics. You saw it as early as the mid 1800s with Chinese immigrants. And I’m sure, as more immigrants come from other countries — in fact, right now, according to the FBI, one of the biggest threats right now is Nigerian immigrants who are heroin smugglers. And they’re organized almost exactly like the mafia was in the 1950s and ’60s, even thought they have no ethnic or cultural ties to them whatsoever, the structures that these groups form pattern themselves after the mafia because they’re very efficient.

Kevin Fullam: But if you look at the mafia in terms of pop culture, in terms of stories about the mafia, it seems — especially now, over the last 30 years — that they’re almost always portrayed from the viewpoint of the criminal, from the viewpoint of the crime family, as opposed to the viewpoint of law enforcement.

Leonard Pierce: That’s true.

Kevin Fullam: And the public, basically through these stories, is encouraged to sympathize and to kind of root for these characters.

Leonard Pierce: Yeah, there’s no question about it. The sympathetic gangster, or even the, you know, sort of rebellious outlaw character is a very big one in all kinds of pop cultural depictions of organized crime. And the reason that that’s only started recently has a lot to do with censorship. You know, we’ve talked before about the Hays Code and the restrictions put on the portrayal of criminals by early motion picture or behavioral codes. So, for a very long time, you literally could not release a motion picture in which the criminal was portrayed as heroic or sympathetic or as triumphing over the police in any way. And you also could not show crooked policemen or crooked law enforcement officials of any kind, which was likewise limiting, because that’s a major factor in any kind of portrayal of organized crime is how they’re able to buy off the police.

So once that started to lapse a bit in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you started to see more of that culminating, finally, with The Godfather where — which completely set the tone for the portrayal of mob figures as sympathetic, you know, as your major characters.

Kevin Fullam: Well, let’s step back a little bit and go and rewind about 10, 15, 20 years before The Godfather. What was the first appearance of the mafia in popular culture? I’m thinking of The Untouchables TV series that started in 1959. Was there anything notable before that?

Leonard Pierce: Yes, absolutely. In fact, what you’re really asking there is, “What do we mean when we’re talking about the mafia?” Because of a lot of cultural factors and because of a lack of knowledge of the way this sort of thing works by, you know, both law enforcement, which didn’t directly address the mob for a very long time because of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover, as you know, wanted to focus the activities of the FBI on anti-communism and on fighting subversion. So, for a very long time, for that and possibly for other reasons, he essentially refused to acknowledge the existence of organized crime.

But people tend to conflate the mafia, which is a fairly specific and limited organization, you know, based out of Sicilian organized crime and organized crime in general. In fact, one of the points that Gus Russo makes in his book, The Outfit, is that the Chicago mob, which for many, many years was the most influential organized crime in the country, really wasn’t the mafia at all. Its makeup was not entirely Italian. There were a lot of Irish-Americans, a lot of Jewish-Americans, Russians and other ethnic groups in positions of power. They did not follow the sort of family structure that the New York mob did. They treated themselves much more like a business. They didn’t go through the shows, you know, of kissing the ring and swearing the loyalty oaths and everything that one associates with the New York mob, so you’re really talking about two things when you’re talking about, how has the mafia been portrayed.

It really wasn’t until The Untouchables and then later The Godfather films that the mafia was portrayed in popular culture in a big way. But, organized crime has been portrayed as long as there has been organized crime in America. And even going back into popular culture of the 1910s and ’20s, I mean, there are tons of gangster movies from the ’20s and ’30s that show Al Capone. The ’20s and ’30s, especially, were a golden age of American gangster films, and they, essentially, were all talking about the mob. You know, they showed Frank Nitti. They showed Al Capone. You know, they showed Cody Jarrett in White Heat, which was actually just a fictionalized portrayal of some of the New York Irish gangsters, especially Mad Dog Coll. You know, going as far back as the early part of the 20th century, you see lots of portrayals of organized crime and even of Italians in organized crime, but it didn’t really get the form and name of the mafia until much later.

Kevin Fullam: Now, a lot of the stories featuring the mafia revolved around the issue of prohibition. And it just seems that people would think of it as being kind of an outdated, a kind of quaint issue that people were killing each other over something as trivial as alcohol rights. Is that something that’s surprised you — that those stories have kind of held up throughout the years for that time period in American history?

Leonard Pierce: Well, it’s really interesting because the more you look into that the less surprising it becomes because, after all, I mean, alcohol in America today is a multi-billion dollar industry, so it only seems trivial until you can’t get it anymore. I mean, look at our urban landscape today, walk around and look at how many beer advertisements there are, you know, how many liquor advertisements there are, how many liquor stores there are. You know, I mean, just walk around one day and look at how many beer cans there are on the ground, and you’ll get a sense of just how huge it is a part of our economy. And if that were to vanish overnight, you know, that’s an awful lot of money floating around to be had. So it’s really not surprising that people stepped in so quickly to make money off of it.

And in addition, I think it has a lot of cultural resonance because prohibition made organized crime in America. Prior to prohibition, organized crime still existed. It’s always existed in modern societies, but it focused on more fringe activities that were less socially acceptable, like prostitution, extortion, numbers running and things like that, you know, all of which are profitable, but none of which are as socially acceptable as drinking alcohol.

When you’re talking about businesses that run things like prostitution, the number of people who solicit prostitutes versus the number of people who drink is miniscule. And so, the kind of money that Al Capone made and that all the major bootleggers made in the prohibition era was so vast and got them so much power that it made organized crime. It made the mafia into what it became. If there had never been a prohibition, there would never have been a mafia as powerful as it was in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s.

Kevin Fullam: One of the aspects of the mafia, which makes it a little bit more sympathetic in terms of the eyes of the public, is the fact that we’re dealing mostly with victimless crimes, gambling, prostitution, you said before, with alcohol. Vito Corleone mentioned it, actually, in The Godfather when they talked about his resistance to selling drugs.

Leonard Pierce: Right. You know, of course, that itself is a sort of controversial statement because any DA will tell you that the mafia’s activities are far from victimless, but the perception is, rightly or wrongly, that the only victims of organized crime are other organized criminals. In almost every portrayal of organized crime in the media, in film and television and things like that, when they kill people, they kill other gangsters. And that’s part of the appeal is that you don’t see them going around preying on innocent people. You don’t see them murdering people or kidnapping people. They’re not portrayed, generally, as psychotic. They’re sort of competing in a marketplace, and the only people who get hurt are their competitors. So it’s a lot more appealing to the popular audience when you see a Michael Corleone ordering the death of all of his competitors who we’ve already seen in prior scenes in the movie to be sort of morally reprehensible than it would be to see him going around just gunning down a bunch of cops or gunning down, you know, innocent civilians. So, yeah, rightly or wrongly, that’s the perception — is that the only people who get hurt by organized crime are organized criminals, and so that makes it a lot easier for the public to accept as a sort of romantic ideal.

Kevin Fullam: My name is Kevin Fullam, and I’m joined here by Leonard Pierce, and you’re listening to Under Surveillance, and we’re talking about the mafia and how it’s been portrayed in popular culture throughout the years. And one of the landmark events in terms of the mafia and popular culture are the Godfather movies. And the first one, which came out in 1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, made the careers of a number of stars, from Al Pacino to Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando, who won an Oscar.

Leonard Pierce: And signified a major career comeback for him at the time.

Kevin Fullam: And did The Godfather single-handedly change the image of the mafia, or had it already been evolving before then?

Leonard Pierce: It had been evolving to a certain degree, but it absolutely sparked the modern cultural obsession with the mob. It marked the time at which it really became immensely fascinating to a wide range of people who ordinarily wouldn’t have anything to do with it. The previous portrayals of the mafia that were really big, you know, the gangster films of the ’20s and ’30s, The Untouchables TV series in the ’50s, those all had a sort of limited appeal, and they still operated under the old Hollywood codes where the mafia had to be generally portrayed as unsympathetic. In the ’30s gangster films, the gangsters were always very charismatic and were always the main characters, but they had to die at the end. They had to receive their comeuppance. And in The Untouchables series, of course, the main characters were the crime fighters rather than the criminals. So The Godfather marked the first moment at which we were invited to look at things from the other side where we were made intimately familiar with these sort of rituals, and these behavior patterns, the initiation of the new members, the family structure, the whole idea of the consigliere, the ties to old Italy, which were not really dealt with in previous portrayals.

And you know, above and beyond that, they were just masterfully done films. They were great movies, the first two Godfather movies. And that helped, you know. They wouldn’t have made the cultural impact that they did if they had not been such great movies. I mean, there have been plenty of films made since then dealing with the mafia and dealing with organized crime and very few of them have had that kind of impact because they generally have not been as good.

But yeah, it’s definitely not the first portrayal, or even the pinnacle of the portrayals. You know that. The story has definitely evolved since then, as we see in things like Ghost Dog and The Sopranos. But, it’s definitely the touchstone. It’s definitely the one to which everything else refers. You really almost can’t make a portrayal of the mafia without sort of referring back to The Godfather somehow.

Kevin Fullam: Was there any large amount of buzz about Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather, when it was released in ’69, or just —

Leonard Pierce: Oh, yeah, it was a bestseller. And it’s actually very interesting that Puzo, of course, also co-wrote the screenplay to the film, but the book, I mean, it’s still a huge bestseller. I mean, if you go to used bookstores, you know, you’ll find dozens of paperback copies of it, which, you know, many of which were pre-film, you know. And you know, his subsequent releases have also been pretty good sellers, you know, The Sicilian and a lot of his other books about the mafia. But the film, I think, resonated much better with the public than the books did because of the — you know, the cast was excellent. They cleaned up a lot of what I think were the — the book is far more violent. It’s an extremely gory book. But they made it a tad more palatable for people who weren’t quite as into the extremely gory details. And it’s interesting that he had a hand in both the book and the film. And, you know, that their approach was so different.

Kevin Fullam: It’s interesting that the movie studios did not think that The Godfather was going to do very well at the box office.

Leonard Pierce: That’s true.

Kevin Fullam: And they were very unhappy that they had decided to cast Al Pacino as Michael Corleone — that the original choice was Robert Redford. And so just try and imagine how different that picture would have been.

Leonard Pierce: Right. And in fact, Robert Duvall was also a controversial casting choice. And you know, of course, James Caan was originally also one of the readers for Michael, which seeing it with today’s eyes, you can’t imagine James Caan playing Michael. You know, he seems to have been born to play hotheaded Sonny, but the studios wanted him over Al Pacino as well because Al Pacino was not really a name, and Caan was at that time, so the studios were definitely caught flatfooted by the success of the first film.

Kevin Fullam: One of the things that I think The Godfather does a superb job in doing is painting societal institutions that we commonly associate with law and order as adversaries. In The Godfather, you have the crooked police officers. In Godfather II, you have the crooked senator who tries to shakedown Michael Corleone at the beginning of the movie. And then even later on in the film you have the Senate investigating committee who is seen as really the enemy in this kind of picture.

Leonard Pierce: Right. And even going into the third Godfather film, which rightly, is not considered anywhere on a par with the first two, you have the Catholic Church being portrayed as in cahoots with the organized criminals, and that really goes back to the fact that, as I was mentioning earlier, organized crime is sort of a shadow capitalism. It’s sort of a shadow society. It mirrors our own legitimate society, and it essentially could not exist without the cooperation of the authorities. When we first hear people talking about how powerful Don Vito Corleone is in The Godfather, it’s not because he’s such a fearsome fighter, or because he’s, you know, such an efficient administrator or anything, it’s because he has judges and politicians in his pocket, because he has so much money that he’s paid off all the legitimate law enforcement bodies.

And since there is that awareness that if we wanted to shut down organized crime, if there wasn’t a number of politicians on their payroll, if there weren’t a lot of judges who were lenient on them, if there wasn’t a failure of the police to go after them, presumably because they’re — have been suborned by the mafia, and again, you know, referring to Hoover, who a lot of people believe was paid off by the mob, or in cahoots with the mob, but even if that’s not the case, he certainly was reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of organized crime when he was head of the FBI. That’s simply the facts, and, you know, the film is extremely good at portraying that, but it’s portraying it from reality. The reality is that organized crime would not be as powerful as it has been if it were not for the cooperation of a number of authorities.

Kevin Fullam: You mentioned the Catholic Church, which I think is a really interesting point to hit on — that in most of these mafia-style stories, the main characters are seen as being religious figures. They go to church regularly. They have baptism ceremonies for their kids. They make a big show of being outwardly religious. And at the same time, obviously, they’re involved in all these activities that are very unchristian in nature. Has there ever been a response from the Catholic Church to all of this? Have they kind of just tried to ignore this as much as possible? Or even going back into, you know, the history of the relationship with the church, in Godfather Part II, they portray 1920s, 1930s a Little Italy. And the Don makes a big show of placing a huge contribution at the Church’s — in the Church’s coffers. And they accept the money. What has been their take on this?

Leonard Pierce: Well, you know, I haven’t looked into that a great deal. I’m not Catholic, but I would imagine that the official view of the Church is that the mafia is a bad organization, that one should have nothing to do with it, and that the things that they do are completely unacceptable. But, you know, the Church, while it is an organization, is also comprised of individuals, and a lot of those individuals will make decisions that are not consistent with their dogma, you know, so I’m sure you get lots of people, you know, a lot of priests, a lot of Church figures, engaging in mafia activities and taking money from the mafia. And of course, the Church is still based in Italy, and that means they have to play real politic. They have to recognize that in a lot of parts of the country today, of Italy today, the mafia is still a very major player. It’s a very major political and economic player, and it still wields a lot of power. And you know, the Church has historically made compromises with state powers that they, I’m sure, find morally unacceptable. I’m sure they will continue to do so.

As far as the portrayal of the mobsters themselves as very religious, I don’t think they’re even cognizant of their hypocrisy. I don’t doubt that they really are genuinely devout. They’re just very good at compartmentalizing. You know, you see, this is hinted at even on a day-to-day scale with the relationship in The Godfather between Michael and Kay. He’s constantly warning her not to talk about business. That’s a separate thing. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not he’s a good person, or whether or not he can be a good father to his children. You know, when he talks to his mother, he says, “I worry that I’ll lose my family while trying to protect them.” I think that these guys are extremely sincere, and that goes, again, back to the fact that they’re sort of in a dark mirror of legitimate society. They don’t want to be criminals. They think of themselves as a business. They think of themselves as solid citizens. They think of themselves as providing a service that they don’t happen to be allowed to provide by the law. There’s always the move to become more legitimate.

You know, one of the Mafiosi in — actually, it’s Vito Corleone in the film talks about how he opposes drugs because they’re not socially acceptable, and when he talks about other things like prostitution and gambling, he says, “Well, these are more socially acceptable. The Church forbids them, but people want them, and the law looks favorably upon them.” So even he has his standards. I mean, he’s talking about things that he knows the Church is against, but he also recognizes that are generally accepted.

And so I think they’re very sincere. I think that they do believe in God. I think they think of themselves as devout Catholics. They just think that there is this exception that they are allowed to make because of what they do. And, you know, perhaps even their charitable behavior towards the Church and their devotion is a sort of displaced guilt at the fact that they know they’re doing wrong by the Church, so they, you know, make even more of an outward show of piety to compensate for that.

Kevin Fullam: You’re listening to Under Surveillance, and my name is Kevin Fullam. And I’m joined here by Leonard Pierce of The Onion’s A/V club, and we’re talking about the mafia in popular culture — how it’s been portrayed in film and television throughout the years from movies such as The Godfather to The Sopranos.

And one of the things that you just mentioned about the fact that Kay, in the film, The Godfather, is kind of, is the moral conscience of the movie. And in many ways, she represents what the audience is thinking, as basically the inner policeman of the show in reminding Michael that he’s not actually a good person, that he’s actually a criminal engaged in all these evil types of activities. And eventually, she tells Michael that she aborted one of his children because she didn’t want the kid to grow up and become another heir and further the criminal empire, and then he completely snaps, and shuts her out of his life.

Leonard Pierce: And that’s very odd too because in the films, Kay is sort of — she’s a downer. She’s not a particularly sympathetic character. And when you’re watching the films, this is certainly the reaction that I have, you see Kay as sort of naive and self-serving. She cannot be unaware of what she was getting into. I mean, the first time that we see them at the wedding, Michael talks about how his father threatened that band leader at gunpoint to get him to release Johnny Fontaine from his contract. And Kay acts shocked and, you know, appropriately is in her role as the moral center of the film that Michael’s father is this sort of brute. And yet, she marries him. She marries him after he’s been forced to leave the country after murdering a policeman. So she is herself sort of compromised, and she does come across sort of as a nag, and she gets in the way of all the neat shoot ’em ups, you know.

And she’s always miserable. But once the film is over, and once you find yourself thinking about it on an intellectual level, you go, “Well, Kay is completely right.” You know, she’s trying to show Michael, you know, what a monster he has become because, certainly, by the end of the second Godfather film, he’s murdered his own brother. He will just kill anyone who even slightly crosses him. You know, he’s turned from the Michael of the first film where he’s just sort of defending his father’s honor, and you know, trying to become legitimate to a character far worse than his father ever was.

And so, you know, from the light of analysis, of course you know that Kay is correct that she’s supposed to be and appropriately is the voice of conscience in the film, but when you let yourself get swept up into the view of the film, you know, she’s just a drag. You know, you almost hope that she’s banished sooner because you want to get back to the neat stuff, and that’s the sinister appeal of the mafia films is that they put you into that extremely seductive position of being part of this culture in which murder and crime and violence are part of your everyday life, and that’s powerfully seductive. It’s really transgressive, and when you’re in that position, even for the few moments of watching it portrayed in film, you realize how seductive it must be in real life. You know, that here are guys who — they don’t have to work for a living, and yet, they make a lot of money. They’re part of this whole sort of alternate culture. They can rise based on how tough and determined they are. Of course, you can see why that’s so appealing to the people who marry into that family, and why there are so few characters probably who really are like Kay, who are willing to call them on it because from the inside, you know, it’s very seductive.

Kevin Fullam: We ended the last show with a look at the morality clash between Kay and Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies, and we’ll pickup the discussion with a film that portrayed a conflict of a similar sort, A Bronx Tale.

There’s another movie that kind of portrayed this conflict in a way that it put the side of law in order in a more positive light. And it’s called, A Bronx Tale, which came out with Robert De Niro and Chazz Palminteri in the early ’90s where Robert De Niro plays a bus driver who is trying to keep his son from being involved with mafia activities. But meanwhile, he and his family are in a very shabby apartment, obviously, because he’s a bus driver and not making much money, and his son sees the lure of Chazz Palminteri’s character and sees the money and the power and the wealth that he has. So it’s basically a seesaw battle between those two forces. But in a case much unlike The Godfather, here you have Robert De Niro who’s a much more sympathetic character than Diane Keaton. I don’t know if you’ve ever — have you see that movie at all?

Leonard Pierce: I have not, but you know, that sort of parallels, and this is one of the reasons that — I know you wanted to talk about how mafia films and the portrayal of the mob in pop culture have been a huge influence on rap. And I think one of the reasons for that sort of plays into what you’re saying is that Italian immigrants, even Italian-Americans today who live in poorer neighborhoods, and by extension, underclass societies and of which urban African-Americans are a paragon. They’re poor. They don’t have a lot of access to mainstream culture; they’re not generally accepted into the economic and social fabric of society. They tend to not have a lot of access to the economic opportunities that other people do. That’s a huge draw for them, you know, the idea of easy money. You know, there are tons and tons of rap songs in which the gangsta lifestyle is defended by saying, “Well, look, I could go and work at McDonald’s; I could work odd jobs and make chump change, or you know, I could make $300 delivering a bag of crack to somebody in half an hour.” You know, it’s a tremendous appeal culturally is this idea that you have access to economic opportunity and respect and social mobility that is otherwise denied to you if you’re willing to engage in criminal activity, so there are tons of gangsta films that almost directly parallel the structure of mafia films because the activities are essentially the same. You know, there’s this tempting access to money and to respect that only comes if you’re willing to break the law.

Kevin Fullam: See, the thing is, the difference is that I don’t think we’ve seen films that portray the whole gangster drug dealer inner city criminal enterprise in as positive of a light as we see in mafia organizations. I’m thinking of New Jack City, which is a film that came out in ’91 with Wesley Snipes as a drug overlord.

Leonard Pierce: Right.

Kevin Fullam: But told mostly from the point of the view also of the police officers trying to track him down.

Leonard Pierce: There hasn’t been, for lack of a better term, a Godfather moment. And that may have something to do with the fact that “well, there are racial factors involved. I think that there’s much more willingness in our culture to condemn inner city gangs than there is organized crime there. And I don’t think they’re entirely free of racial elements. I think that, you know, racism plays a part in that. You know, you often hear, you know, inner city gangs as referred to as animals and savages and things like that, you know, the sort of terminology that only seems to be applied to blacks, you know where it might also have something to do with the fact that the mafia is on the decline in America, whereas urban gangs are on the rise, and so there’s more of a moral panic about them because there’s more of a going concern. In fact, even when The Godfather came out, it didn’t portray modern day mafia activities. It portrayed mafia activities in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s. And, you know, that may have served to protect it somewhat, to make it more acceptable, that its portrayal of these evil characters was mitigated somewhat by the fact that it was taking place in the past. You didn’t see mob figures doing things like they’re, you know, in the current day, even though, of course, the mafia was still very active in the early ’70s.

Kevin Fullam: I think it’s fascinating that you see so many gangster rappers talk about how they love the Godfather movies. And they really make a big show of being very attracted to that kind of lifestyle. But meanwhile, if you read the book, The Godfather, you see that the mafia characters actually looked down upon African-Americans as a whole.

Leonard Pierce: Oh, yes, and still do. I mean, there’s still a huge amount of racism in the mafia organizations. You know, go back to The Godfather films where one of the Mafiosi says that he’s willing to sell drugs in the black neighborhoods because they’re animals, so let them lose their souls. And in today’s mafia, they’re sort of farming out really violent activities like hits, you know, assassinations, to inner city gangsters because they think of them as more suited to that sort of behavior.

In the mafia, there’s this constant quest for legitimacy, and I think it’s a way not only of deflecting police attention because they know if they hire black gang members to commit their murders, they’re the ones who will catch the heat. But also, they think of themselves now, I think, as above that sort of thing. They’re like, “Well, let’s let them do it. You know, they’re violent. You know, they’re animals, so let’s have them to our dirty work for them.” Gus Russo, again, talks about this a lot in his book about the Chicago mob that increasingly the wet work, you know, the bloody deeds are being farmed out to, you know, inner city black gangs.

Kevin Fullam: This is Under Surveillance, and I’m joined here by Leonard Pierce. My name is Kevin Fullam. We’ve been talking about the mafia and popular culture. And before I get to how the mafia’s being portrayed today in film and television, I just want to run through a number of films that came out in the late ’70s and ’80s and just, you know, get your feedback on these pictures. One of them, Goodfellas, which is on the AFI’s top 100 as far as American films –

Leonard Pierce: A terrific film.

Kevin Fullam: Terrific film, Martin Scorsese, I believe, and starring Ray Liotta.

Leonard Pierce: Yes, Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, yep.

Kevin Fullam: As Henry Hill. And also, portraying the mob in the ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s and the rise of the drug culture in the mafia and how it begins to tear the families apart.

Leonard Pierce: Right. Because there legitimately was, historically, a big split in organized crime over whether it was appropriate to engage in drug business. And to an extent, there still is. I think that’s largely a legacy of the drug war of the 80s, that there’s so much heat on drugs that it’s not considered a safe business like prostitution traditionally has been, like numbers running and gambling, like unions traditionally have been. Again, it’s essentially the argument that Vito Corleone makes in The Godfather that this is going to bring more attention from law enforcement. This is something they won’t let us get away with. And that has generally been the case. There have been a lot of really big mob busts in the ’70s and ’80s, especially, that were involving drugs. And so I think even today, that was certainly the case in the ’70s, but even today, there is a big split over where the mobs role in drug smuggling should be.

Kevin Fullam: Another film, Casino, that came out with De Niro, also with Joe Pesci, a bit of this was foreshadowed, I guess, in Godfather Part II where the beginning of the movie, Michael Corleone is talking with the senator from Nevada about gambling licenses out in Las Vegas. And they start to shift their business out there.

Leonard Pierce: Right. In fact, Las Vegas essentially exists the way it is today because of organized crime. It’s a city that was literally built by organized crime.

Kevin Fullam: What’s the relationship today between Las Vegas and mafia?

Leonard Pierce: Ah, still quite big. In fact, it was the Chicago mob, contrary to the Godfather films, which portray it as the New York mob. It was the Chicago mob who had the biggest hand in Las Vegas, but it is one of the few areas in which organized crime has gone very legitimate. A lot of the organized crime figures who bought in Las Vegas in the ’50s and 1940s made so much money off it that they essentially got themselves out of organized crime and, you know, essentially became, you know, entertainment business figures. They now make their money entirely out of running the hotels and casinos. And of course, that maybe has less to do with the fact that they have become more legitimate then that they happen to have made gambling a legitimate concern where they happen to be. So it’s not so much that they got out of the gambling business; it’s that they turned the gambling business into a legitimate business. But while Las Vegas is very much turning into a corporate playground, you know, a lot of the bigger hotels now are the big themed hotels, you know, like the Excalibur and all that.

Kevin Fullam: MGM.

Leonard Pierce: Right, and those are all owned by big entertainment corporations. A lot of the older hotels and casinos, some of which are very well established and legitimate, are still — the people who own them still have ties to organized crime.

Kevin Fullam: And that’s something that was an issue here in Illinois, right, with Rosemont? With the proposed Rosemont casino.

Leonard Pierce: Yes, absolutely. And you know, one thing that you will find as you look into the actual history of the mafia is that they will frequently get into legitimate businesses that allow them to launder the money from criminal activities. And so that’s why you see them involved in legitimate gambling because gambling is a massive cash industry. You know, you have huge amounts of cash flow everyday, like hundreds of thousands of dollars passing through their counting houses, and so it’s very easy to launder illegal money that way. That’s also why you see the mob being involved in coin-operated vending machines. It’s why you see them involved in almost any kind of business that involves a huge amount of difficult-to-account-for cash flow.

In fact, one of really interesting things that Gus Russo talks about in The Outfit is that a lot of businesses we think of as extremely legitimate today were essentially begun and funded by the mob in order to launder money. One of them is pinball machines. Pinball machines, basically, were completely bankrolled and became popular because of the mob. Jukeboxes were, you know, a big Chicago business, completely bankrolled by the mob because it was an easy way to launder money. And oddly enough, dairy farms — when Al Capone was trying to go legitimate, he bought a whole bunch of dairy farms and consolidated them into one large dairy combine. And several of the dairy farms he bought then are still around today and are, in fact, very well respected. You can still buy their products in supermarkets. But the modern idea of the dairy combine was a product of Al Capone.

Kevin Fullam: Is this back when people had regular milkman deliveries, and they paid them with cash, basically?

Leonard Pierce: Mmm-hmm, yep.

Kevin Fullam: Very interesting. So I want to get to how the mafia, the portrayals of the mafia, have evolved from the ’70s and ’80s. And starting with the late ’90s, you had the advent of an incredibly popular television series called, The Sopranos, on HBO.

Leonard Pierce: Yes.

Kevin Fullam: Which basically revolved around a character, Tony Soprano, who was the acting head of a New Jersey crime family with very close ties to the New York city mob and is the popularity of The Sopranos, the fact that it’s drawn so much acclaim, do you think that’s one reason why you don’t see as many mafia movies made today?

Leonard Pierce: Yeah, it could be. There’s also a sort of — well, starting with the introduction of the RICO Act, which is the racketeering and organized crime statutes, the mafia has been dealt a very crippling blow in America. They’re still enormous in Italy. They still wield a gigantic amount of influence, and similar laws to RICO, which have been passed in Italy are not rigorously enforced. And in fact, a lot of the population are against them. But here in the United States, the racketeering laws have made it much easier to prosecute and convict mafia figures. And so, one of the things that I think is interesting about The Sopranos and about some recent mob films is that they’re not really glamorous anymore. They’re sort of shabby and more down to earth and realistic.

You know, one of the things I’m thinking of specifically, which I think is a terrific film dealing with the mafia that came out very recently is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which is a Jim Jarmusch film starring Forest Whitaker as a black hit man who works for a New Jersey organized crime family. And the crime family is portrayed as just sad, just sort of worn down and shabby. They have their meetings in the back of a Chinese restaurant that’s just dirty and really unpleasant to look at. The main Mafiosi in the film is just laconic and pathetic-looking and old and out of touch, and you know, his lieutenants are these out of shape, wheezy-looking sleazebags in jogging suits, you know, you can’t seem to do anything right.

And The Sopranos is not quite at that level of shabbiness and deleteriousness, but Tony Soprano, he’s always working. He doesn’t have any time for leisure. He’s hustling all the time. He’s got tons of problems, you know. In fact, the big hook of the show when it first started was that he was seeing a therapist because he couldn’t handle things anymore, and his family and his friends, if you look at the portrayal of the mob in The Godfather, or Miller’s Crossing, or films like that, you know, these are sophisticated guys in huge mahogany-paneled offices who spend a lot of time hanging around with their families and going to huge banquets and entertaining heads of state and wearing these immaculately tailored suits. And on The Sopranos, you know, Tony drives around in an SUV, hangs around a strip club. You know, he wears a velour jogging suit, and it’s just shabby now, and it’s lost its appeal as this beautiful, you know, sort of elite, you know, that if you become a mafia chieftain, you’re living in the lap of luxury and wearing these beautiful suits and hanging out in these beautiful offices and not having to work anymore, and, you know, I think that definitely reflects the reality of the mafia today because it’s not as easy for them to make the vast sums of money that they made before. It’s not as easy for them to travel amongst the legitimate businessmen and the senators and the heads of state.

Kevin Fullam: Well, yeah, I mean, well, they’re still shown as doing very well, though. Tony’s got a big house.

Leonard Pierce: Oh, sure.

Kevin Fullam:
He’s got a pool in the backyard, but as far as his political friends, you’re not talking about senators. You’re talking about the local assemblymen, right?

Leonard Pierce: Right, mmm-hmm.

Kevin Fullam: And you see him there kind of putting stashes of cash in his birdfeeder, which might not be so glamorous compared to the Mafioso of old.

Leonard Pierce: Right, in fact, one of the curious things — it’s been pointed out by a number of critics — in The Godfather, you almost never see them handling money. It’s implied that they have vast, vast sums of money, but almost the only time you time you see money of any kind is when Sonny tosses money at a photographer whose camera he’s just smashed. And even then, it’s portrayed in a contemptuous way, like he thinks so little of this guy that he’s throwing cash at them like it’s dirty. You know, whereas, in The Sopranos, people are constantly handling big wads of bills and storing cash away in case something bad happens. And it seems a little bit less glamorous and a little bit more banal, although, still terribly appealing, you know, that lifestyle, as you say, he’s still doing very well. He doesn’t live in a mansion, but, you know, he’s still sort of made this reputation for himself and made this name for himself and made a lot of money. It’s just the gloss is off it a bit. And I think sort of reflects the reality of things since the RICO statutes. It’s been sort of the breaking of organized crime.

Kevin Fullam: Well, he goes out of his way to avoid attention.

Leonard Pierce: Yes.

Kevin Fullam: Whereas, with the mafia leaders of old, they held huge parties, very, very lavish celebrations.

Leonard Pierce: Traveled with Hollywood stars, hung out with politicians, you know, absolutely. I mean, there’s certainly no secret about the fact that, you know, it’s widely believed that Sam Giancana, who was the big boss of Chicago organized crime for a long time, helped Kennedy win the presidential election in 1960. And you know, you certainly don’t see anything like that now. You can’t even fathom Tony Soprano having an influence on a national election.

And that’s actually kind of an interesting thing is that in a lot of portrayals of the mob in popular culture, the one thing they’re always after is respect. That’s such a huge theme in all gangster-oriented fiction and film is that they’ve got money, and they’ve got power. And they’re feared because they surround themselves with hit men, and they’ve made it financially, but they don’t have respect. They’re not thought of as legitimate members of the community, and, you know, the only way they’re able to get that is through fear. And, you know, so you see a little bit of that in Tony Soprano, you know, that he’s still considered a sort of fringe figure. He doesn’t have the friendship of, you know, of mainstream society.

In The Godfather films, the senator from Nevada, you know, says, “I don’t like you people coming out here and acting like you’re –“

Kevin Fullam: ‘With your greasy hair.”

Leonard Pierce: Right. “Like you’re one of us.” And, you know, of course, he puts pain to that guy. You know, he frames him and, you know, gives him what for, but he does that through intimidation, through violence. And you know, you see that, you know. You see that constantly in The Godfather films that, you know, they so badly want to be part of mainstream society, and, you know, that’s the whole thing about their quest to get into Cuba, you know, because they want to become a legitimate governor — or government. And you know, Vito, when he’s on his deathbed, you know, when he’s, you know, when he’s been injured, and Michael is coming to visit him, he said, “Oh, I always wanted you to be Governor Corleone, or Senator Corleone.” And he knows exactly what that means. He knows that a governor or senator doesn’t have the kind of money that he has, and doesn’t have the kind of power that he has, but he has legitimacy, and he has respect that is not achievable through organized crime. And I think that’s another really dramatically appealing thing about the mafia films is that as powerful as these people are, there’s still something they can’t get, and they’re always searching for it. And I think that strikes a chord with the viewer who may be looking for any number of those things. He may be looking for the money or for the power, but he identifies with these characters because they’re not infallible. There’s this thing that they can’t have. There’s this aspect of society they can’t buy their way into, and that’s continued all the way through, you know, to The Sopranos.

Kevin Fullam: This is Under Surveillance, and you’re joined here by Leonard Pierce. My name is Kevin Fullam. We’re talking about the mafia and how the mafia has been portrayed in popular culture over the years. And just have a few minutes left, and I want to talk about the fact that the mafia today is seen as a more benign entity, perhaps, than it used to be. And I say this because of the rise of the number of parodies about mafia culture. You have Fat Tony character in The Simpsons, portrayed by Joe Mantegna.

Leonard Pierce: Sure.

Kevin Fullam: You have the Analyze This and Analyze That movies, which I don’t think were very well done, but –

Leonard Pierce: And in Mafia, which was also terrible, but you know, it was a parody of mob films, you know.

Kevin Fullam: And actually, in Analyze This, which I think, did that come out actually after The Sopranos?

Leonard Pierce: I believe it did, yeah.

Kevin Fullam: Because then it takes the whole mafia leader/therapist relationship to a whole other level and kind of makes a mockery of the whole thing. And — but I mean, no one would make a parody of drug dealers or terrorists. Like those would seen, as seen as more serious, more taboo subjects, would you say?

Leonard Pierce: Mmm-hmm. Well, it’s interesting that you would say that because there have been some parodies of gangsta culture, you know, of like inner city urban gang culture. You know, there was Don’t Be a Menace. And you know, there have been some parodies of rap culture that have played upon the violent tendencies of rappers and the gangsta backgrounds of rappers like a Fear of a Black Hat and a CB2. There is definitely a reluctance to do the same for terrorists. It’s a, you know, in the old cliche, it’s too soon.

In fact, I was just reading about a TV show that’s being pitched by two writers in Hollywood about these Al Qaeda terrorists who are incompetents, and they come to America to perform all these acts of terrorism, and the joke of the series is that they’re really seduced by American pop culture. They keep botching their jobs because they’re incompetent, but more and more they don’t want to do them because they love Burger King, and they love TV, and, you know, they watch HBO all the time, and they go to discos and everything, and they become seduced by, you know, American culture. And the way that it’s described in the articles, it actually sounds terribly funny, but no one will touch it. No one will pick it up. Comedy Central almost did, but, you know, they backed off at the last minute because, yeah, it’s too soon. You know, it’s too soon to portray that. It’s maybe a little too soon to do it for urban gangs. Although, I think that’s changing.

But, yeah, I mean, since RICO, since the back has been broken of American organized crime, you know, again, prosecutors will tell you the mafia is no joking matter. They still make hundreds of millions of dollars. They still kill people, but, you know, it’s been portrayed so heavily in popular culture. Anytime you have something that’s shown that often, if becomes rife for parody and for levity. And so, it’s going to get parodied, and it’s going to be taken less seriously. And you know, since the mafia is not the terrifying thing that is was in the — you know, especially during prohibition where, you know, literally, you could walk down the street and risk your life at being killed by the mob, you know, it was a situation back then the way it is with urban gangs now that plenty of people got killed in crossfires and by stray bullets. You know, the mafia doesn’t do that anymore. They don’t have running gun battles in the street. They don’t bomb each other’s businesses. You know, their killings tend to be, as we talked about, restricted to one another.

And so they’re, yeah, rightly or wrongly, they are considered less dangerous, and thus, you know, more rife for not being treated seriously and treated jokingly. You know, I think that will change for other types of organized crime, but not quite yet.

Kevin Fullam: Well, we’ve talked before about a show like Hogan’s Heroes, which I, looking today in 2005, I can’t believe the show was made, when it originally aired, portraying Nazis as just kind of —

Leonard Pierce: Figures of fun.

Kevin Fullam: Yeah, exactly. But on that note, we’re going to close it out here.

Leonard Pierce: 
All right. Well, thank you again for having me.

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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.
In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.
Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.