The five mafia families were just a twinkle in Lucky Luciano’s eye in the first season of Boardwalk Empire, but even back then it was commonly accepted that the life expectancy of a mobster could be shorter than Al Capone’s temper after a night on the scotch. Very few gangsters ever walk away from the mob without being sent to sleep with the fishes, yet Michael Franzese – a former Capo in the prestigious Colombo crime family – renounced organised crime and forged a career for himself as a youth charity fundraiser and motivational speaker, and lived to tell the tale. As you can imagine, one of the first questions I had for him was: How are you still alive?
“One of the most important things to remember is that no one’s in prison because of me,” he tells me from his home in Califormia. “My boss was extremely upset with me when I walked away, he took it very personally and put the word out on me very strong for a few years. A couple of times the FBI came round my house and told me that they’d had word from informants that there were guys out here who were out to hurt me. They told me that if I didn’t leave town then I’d be dead by the end of the weekend, that happened a couple of times some years back when things were quite hot. I took it very seriously and I still do, I never underestimate anybody. Although everyone who might have been after me is either dead or in prison and the new guys don’t really care about me. But am I out of the woods? No. If I went back to New York I wouldn’t last 24 hours.”
He may not have been back to Brooklyn for over a decade, but Franzese still retains a distinctive East Coast twang from his days as a high-ranking member of one of the most powerful criminal organisations in America. He tells me that some on-screen gangsters are more accurate than others (“I enjoyed the first season of Sopranos, but if a mob boss was ever visiting a psychiatrist he’d be in the trunk of car within the week, along with the psychiatrist!”) and mentions that his old man John ‘Sonny’ Franzese (“the oldest living member of the Cosa Nostra”) knew Lucky Luciano himself.
“My dad was a young guy when Lucky went to prison, but had met him. He told me talk on the street about Lucky was always good. ‘Made’ guys looked up to him, because of the way he carried himself. He was a real tough guy. He said Lucky knew that the real money was in legitimate business, he might have learned that from Lansky. Curiously, my dad always preached that to me when I was a young guy in the life. Maybe he got it from Lucky?”
This doesn’t really tally with the young and headstrong mobster Terrence Winter gives us in the early Prohibition era, although admittedly Luciano would have been older and presumably wiser by the time he bumped into Franzese’s father some years later. “Lucky’s character in Boardwalk Empire seems a bit more reckless then Lucky would have been,” he agrees. “But that’s just my take on him. We had a high regard for a lot of them, because our lives were founded off the back of their work. Some guys they spoke well of, others not too well of. Lucky was definitely one of the architects of the whole system and he was always spoken of fairly well, my dad knew him and actually liked him.”
Franzese and his contemporaries might laud those who operated during the prohibition era as the.. *ahem* ..Godfathers of the mafia, but the truth of the matter is that if Terrence Winter & Co. had decided to make a series circa 1980, Franzese the character would have seen a fair amount of screen time and he is widely considered one of the biggest earners in modern mafia history. “I was heavily involved in the gasoline business and basically we were stealing taxes from the government on every gallon of gasoline we sold. Back then I was told that it was the most money we saw at any one time since the time of prohibition.” According to a Federal report, Franzese made more money for a crime family than anyone since Chicago Outfit boss Al Capone.
“I’m sure the mafia wish they had those days back!” he jokes.
Coincidentally, after rumours began circulating that he was deceiving bosses by skimming the profits of his gasoline racket, he was called into a meeting that “put him on his guard” about the dangers of life in the mob – as if he needed reminding.
“I was making a lot of money for my boss, maybe a couple of million dollars a week from the gas business and other things we were doing, and I got called into a meeting one day where I was told that the word on the street was that I was making billions rather than millions. It was a pretty serious meeting and I never forgot it. I thought to myself ‘for all I’m doing, to get challenged like this, this isn’t right’. After I got indicted I started to watch guys flip and turn, I remember thinking ‘this thing’s over’. But I never thought about walking away from the life until I met my wife. Something clicked and I said to myself ‘I need to plan an exit strategy’. I wanted to do it quietly, kind of drift away, that’s why I took a plea to a racketeering charge and made a deal to do my time out in California, hoping that after 10 or 12 years the guys in New York would forget about me. I’d either be dead or in prison for the rest of my life if I hadn’t left. One way or another it was going to take me down.”
“Do I miss it? Some parts. The most attractive part of the life was the camaraderie among the guys. To have this brotherhood, I don’t think there’s anything stronger than that when you’ve got guys watching your back. I miss that – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, we had a lot of good times and the money was rollong in. But the other side of it doesn’t make it worth it.”
The pre-war years may have been a golden era for the mob, but the last couple of decades have been anything but admits Franzese. “It’s in trouble there’s no doubt,” he says after explaining that he’s still in touch with people from the family. “The government have put an onslaught on it in the last 20 years, which has been very damaging. They took away a lot of the power bases the mafia had with the unions and other things, so it’s in turmoil right now.
“But the mob is pretty resilient. Over the last couple of decades the FBI may have been pounding on the mob and putting people away, but then terrorism came along and they took some agents off and the mob now has a chance to rebuild itself and grow again. I don’t think we’ll see its demise in my lifetime.”
Who knows, maybe one day a reformed mobster will be telling a journalist stories that his old man told him about Michael Franzese?