Being strangled was arguably the best thing that ever happened to Gianni Russo. The “hit” occurred when the native New Yorker made his film debut in The Godfather and his character Carlo Rizzi, who betrayed the Corleone family, met a grisly end via piano wire.
The memorable debut set the stage for a tough-guy acting career that’s lasted a half-century and includes films such as Seabiscuit and TV shows like A&E’s “Growing Up Gotti.” At the same time, Russo has straddled a line, associating with—and sometimes working for—a murderer’s row of Mafia big shots.
He cops to one real-life murder: After slaying a Pablo Escobar henchman, he found himself face-to-face with the Medellín drug lord, and only got out of Bogotá when Escobar proved to be a fan of the Francis Ford Coppola mob epic: “Every maniac in the world loves that movie,” Russo says. (The prosecutor declared the murder a justifiable homicide and Russo was never charged, but the family of the victim wanted revenge, he has said, and put a hit on him.)
Russo, 76, spoke to A&E Real Crime as he releases Hollywood Godfather, a memoir—co-authored with a one-time NYPD lieutenant, Patrick Picciarelli—that moves from his polio-afflicted childhood in the Little Italy section of New York City to friendships and feuds with legendary mob figures like Frank Costello and John Gotti.
Tell us about being taken under the wing of Mafia boss Frank Costello during your childhood.
Being raised on Mulberry Street [in New York City], at 5, 6, 7 years old, the mob image was there every day. They drove the best cars. They dressed the best. They never went to work.… [They were] really bad role [models] for me, because who’d want to go to work and do hard labor if I could stand around a cafe and drink coffee all day?
Does Hollywood glamorize the mob?
Hollywood has always glamorized the mob, as far back as I can remember. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft—those guys all made careers out of playing mobsters. All we could do as an audience is hope they got it right, because unless you knew Al Capone personally… Well, you just don’t know.
Watch: In Part One of two videos, Alison Becker talks about Pablo Escobar’s early life and rise to power.
Why did you decide to release the book now?
I got this idea in ’95—that’s how long I wanted to write it. And then I was told I had to wait for some people to die before I could.
Maybe 10 or 15 people? I didn’t want to write about Nick Nitti [who operated a travel agency frequented by mobsters in Chicago, Nitti Travel] until he passed along. I knew he was gonna die—the guy was smoking two or three packs a day.
Which mobsters did you want to include stories about?
People like [crime family boss] Carlo Gambino. The old timers I knew…they would shun cameras. Not like John Gotti, who’d run up to them—he forgot they were a secret organization. But the old timers, like [Aniello] ‘Neil’ Dellacroce and Frank Costello, who passed on in ’73. Most of these guys stayed in their own neighborhoods, because that’s where their protection was. But I went through the world. I was involved in things I never should have been involved in. I loved the excitement.
Is there a time you would say you were a mobster?
I was invited into two major families: one in Chicago, one here (in New York). But I would never join a family. I used to tell them, ‘I wasn’t a Boy Scout. So why would I join your club?’ Once I got out of the hospital, I wanted nobody to control me. It’s a funny feeling…when you live through something like polio, where you really don’t have control and you lose your mobility. Once I started rebuilding and getting my strength and confidence, I vowed I’d never let anybody control me.
You often make a statement about your experiences: ‘I had an angel on my shoulder’ …
With me, it’s my faith in God. I still feel—and this is going to sound bizarre—like I’m a disciple. I take out the bad guys. I have an altar in every bedroom in my home. I never miss Mass.
Watch: In Part Two of two videos, Alison Becker talks about Pablo Escobar’s close calls with the law and his death.
You’ve talked about not wanting to feel controlled. But would you agree there’s a sense that people who are associated with the mob once can never just walk away?
That’s definitely true, and it’s one reason I did not want the association. If you look at it in a certain light, I was a ‘freelance contractor.’ Bring me in for a special job and I’ll do it. It was well known from Sicily to here, that you couldn’t touch ‘The Kid.’ And that was me. I was known that way for many years, and that was Costello’s genius—that never should [anybody] know your name. That worked until 9/11, when I started having to fly under my own name. We had never done that. We had connections at [virtually] every airline in the world [through] Nitti Travel. We’d write tickets as ‘John Doe’s’ all day long. But with that said, I had a freedom like nobody did, because I had cash. I don’t have a credit card, even now. I don’t want one.
You got into some trouble after you killed a man who was attacking a woman in your club in Las Vegas. You said you later found out the guy worked for Escobar and when you went home, you found a “message” in your living room. You wrote: ‘A four-foot circle of blood, surrounded by three bowls filled with dead chickens and salamanders with needles through their heads … In the center of the circle were two pictures: one of me and another of my daughter, Carmen.’
[After that] I flew to New York City to see John Gotti, because I knew he could arrange [a meeting with Escobar]; there was a rumor he was dealing with [Escobar’s cartel]. And I’m not gonna get into his life, but he did arrange it. [But] John only arranged it thinking I was never gonna come back. John’s thinking: ‘This guy’s nuts. Let’s get rid of him, finally.’ I was like a rock in his shoe every day. John never liked anybody getting more attention than him. I did a movie called The Godfather, but he was the Godfather.
But with that said, I went [to meet with Escobar], knowing I may not come back… So I figured, let me go see the guy. And I’m glad I did. Because somebody didn’t tell [Escobar] the right story—and I think it was John [Gotti]. I can’t prove that. But I’m here.
The stories in your book are colorful and have some people doubting your authenticity. What do you have to say to your critics?
That’s their opinion. Everybody has one, and I can understand.
Is the mob different today than it was in the ’70s and ’80s?
Oh my God. It’s destroyed. These young kids today, they have no respect. They don’t even open doors for their wives. They’re in it for the money.
It has gotten totally out of hand the way it is now, with the drugs… The most powerful message in The Godfather was where they said, ‘Stay away from that stuff. It’ll destroy you.’
When Gambino boss Frank Cali was recently shot in front of his home on Staten Island, you said it couldn’t have been a mob hit, because no member of the Mafia would kill someone at his family house.
It’s a rule. I don’t know this…kid [current suspect Anthony Comello, 24] but…when he goes to jail, he’s gonna be a punching bag for the Gambino criminals in there. To shoot a guy like that, you have to go to The Commission to get permission. And if you’re that high up, like Cali was, you know…get him away from his house. There’s never been a mob boss killed in his house. So when they did that, I knew it wasn’t a controlled hit.
What’s another big downside of the mob life?
…I’ve pissed off a lot of known criminals. The FBI has called me in three different situations—if someone’s talking about killing you on a phone, the agency has to let you know they have a wiretap [on them] and make you aware that there’s a contract on you.
What do you think the future holds for crime families in America? Do they go away? Remain in the shadows?
I think with technology, with cameras and bugging, everything they have now…I tell people, get a legal job.