I recall an old joke about mobsters caught on an FBI wiretap talking about a contract. The FBI agents leaned in with anticipation to better hear what they hoped would be incriminating evidence on the tape recorder. But sadly, they realized that the mobsters were talking about book contracts, not murder contracts.
That 25-year-old joke came from an era in which a good number of former organized crime figures were publishing their memoirs. So much for Cosa Nostra (“Our thing” in Italian) being a secret criminal society.
As I noted in my old Philadelphia Weekly Crime Beat column, organized crime stories have long interested the general public, from Jimmy Cagney mob movies from the 1930s to “The Godfather,” Goodfellas,” and the more recent “The Irishman,” which featured stories about real-life South Philly gangsters.
Bad guys are not as admirable as good guys, but in many cases, bad guys are more interesting. Mob stories offer larger than life characters, drama, black humor, violence, greed and betrayal.
Now one can more readily hear tales of Cosa Nostra, mob wars, murder, corruption and spells in prison on numerous podcasts featured on the internet.
I’ve interviewed several of the popular podcasters, some of them before they became podcasters. I’m not sure who was the first mob podcaster, but former New York Colombo Cosa Nostra crime family Captain-turned Christian public speaker and author Michael Franzese has become one to the more popular ones.
Franzese walked away from the mob life after a term in prison where he became a Christian, and on his podcast, Franzese talks about his time in “the life” and how he came to Jesus as his savior. He tells his viewers how Cosa Nostra is an evil and destructive life.
I interviewed Michael Franzese in 2022 for the Washington Times. I asked him why he walked away from Cosa Nostra life.
“I didn’t want this kind of life for my family,” Franzese replied. “I saw how destructive it was in my own personal life and to others involved, and I saw the tide changing dramatically in the 1980s. I was a major target and I had been indicted seven times. I knew it was just a matter of time before I go down, and when I do it will be forever.”
Son of the notorious former underboss of the Colombo crime family, John “Sonny” Franzese, a feared and respected mobster, Michael Franzese grew up in the criminal life. He later became a made member and a successful criminal, earning millions of dollars with various criminal scams, such as cheating the government out of gasoline taxes. In addition to traditional Cosa Nostra criminal activity, Franzese was also active in legitimate businesses, such as auto dealerships, construction and the entertainment industry.
After fighting the federal government’s many indictments against him, he pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and was sentenced to ten years in federal prison.
While in prison, Franzese became a devout Christian and announced that he was walking away from Cosa Nostra. He credits his wife Camille and his mother-in-law, as well as a prison guard who gave him a Bible when he was in solitary, with his religious conversion.
Michael Franzese is the only high-ranking member of a major crime family to walk away from the mob without being in the witness protection program. Although the Colombo family initially put out a contract on his life, he lives openly for the most part, giving speeches about mob life and Christianity.
On his podcast, he also offers his insight and experiences with the mob and street life, and he advises others to avoid it.
Another popular former mobster with a podcast is Salvator “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the former Gambino Cosa Nostra crime family underboss. Indicted with Gambino boss John Gotti, Gravano became a cooperating government witness against Gotti and others. Gravano admitted to committing nineteen murders and other crimes and after testifying, he entered the witness protection program. He was later sent to prison for a drug conspiracy in Arizona.
On his podcast, Gravano is unrepentant and speaks proudly of his criminal past. With a gravelly voice straight out of Hollywood central casting, he entertains his viewers with inside stories of mob life, crimes and other criminal personalities.
Actors, journalists and former law enforcement officers also have podcasts.
One popular podcast on the web is offered by actor and writer Chazz Palminteri.
Palminteri had his one-man stage show “A Bronx Tale” made into a popular film that was directed by Robert De Niro in 1993. De Niro portrayed Palminteri’s father, a bus driver, and Palminteri portrayed Sonny, a neighborhood mob boss.
I interviewed Chazz Palminteri for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016 when his one-man show was appearing in Atlantic City. I mentioned to Palminteri that “A Bronx Tale” was considered one of the three most realistic mob movies, along with “Donnie Brasco” and “Goodfellas.”
Palminteri replied that “A Bronx Tale” was more of a family movie than a crime movie.
“It’s really about a father and son, the workingman,” Palminteri said. “My father would say, ‘He thinks he’s a tough guy; I’m the tough guy. Let him get up in the morning and work for a living.’”
On his podcast, Chazz Palminteri talks about the stage show, movie and Broadway musical “A Bronx Tale.” He also talks about growing up with mobsters and offers inside stories about the world of entertainment. He also talks about what he calls “neighborhood logic.”
Legendary FBI undercover agent Joseph Pistone, aka “Donnie Brasco,” infiltrated the New York Bonanno crime family for six years and was responsible for putting numerous mob guys in prison.
He too has a podcast called “Deep Cover – The Real Donnie Brasco.” Pistone discusses his past and tells mob stories along with his friend, Philadelphia native and actor/writer/producer Leo Rossi.
I’ve spoken to Joe Pistone several times over the years, beginning with my interview with him in 2004 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I later interviewed him about his podcast for my Philadelphia Weekly column in 2021.
Pistone said he mentioned to Leo Rossi that everybody had a podcast and suggested they do something together.
“The podcast is about criminal activity, organized crime in the U.S. and foreign countries, and every so often we’ll have on a guest that is associated with law enforcement or a former gangster,” Pistone said. “We also offer a lot of insight into the TV, movie and literary industries.”
I did a follow-up column with Leo Rossi. Rossi, who hails from Northeast Philly, is exuberant and fast-talking and he contrasts with the more reticent Pistone.
“Joe made a living out of keeping his mouth shut, and he doesn’t give it up too easy, so a trust factor came in as we started,” Rossi said. “Joe got looser, and we have laughs, and I think we hit on some pretty big topics.”
Another popular crime podcast is “Mob Talk Sitdown.” Former Inquirer crime reporter and author George Anastasia and former Fox 29 reporter Dave Schratwieser use their extensive reporting and their historical knowledge about organized crime to tell inside stories about mobsters in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and around the country.
More recently, another local podcast debuted on the Internet. Reputed Philadelphia Cosa Nostra crime family boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino is offering a podcast called “The Skinny with Joey Merlino and Lil Snuff.”
Although not used often these days, “the skinny” is a phrase that means to be informed of true inside information, so the title of the podcast is a clever play on Merlino’s nickname.
On the podcast, Merlino handicaps sport betting and tells stories about his life on the streets of South Philly, his time in prison and his criminal trials. He also talks about his disdain for cooperating government witnesses, whom he called “rats.”
So, if after watching “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “A Bronx Tale,” “Donnie Brasco” and other mob movies, you haven’t got enough of mob stories, you can always surf the internet and listen to the popular mob-related podcasts.
Paul Davis, a Philadelphia writer and frequent contributor to Broad + Liberty, also contributes to Counterterrorism magazine and writes the “On Crime” column for the Washington Times. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime.com