My interview with Joseph Pistone is going to be a bit more complicated than most: I'll be sending my questions to a publicist, who will forward them to Pistone's publisher, who will send them along to Pistone. Then his responses will make their way back to me in the same way. This security is part of Mr. Pistone's way of life, because of the $500,000 bounty Organized Crime placed on his head after they learned he'd been living among them for six years as a small-time thief calling himself Donnie Brasco.
Pistone -- who lives today under yet another name -- was an FBI agent who, in 1976, began what was supposed to be a 6-month undercover assignment to infiltrate the New York Mafia and take down some high-level fences. By the time he "came in out of the cold", he had enough evidence to convict over 100 mobsters. Pistone writes in his first book, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, "Ultimately ... [t]he boss of every single Mafia family would be indicted and/or in prison and/or dead."
Donnie Brasco and The Way of the Wiseguy approach Pistone's experiences very differently: The first book, which was the basis of the 1997 movie starring Johnny Depp as Pistone and Al Pacino as Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggerio, is Pistone's story: how he came to become an undercover agent, the dangers he faced, the information he gathered, and the nuts-and-bolts of his five-year stretch as Brasco, including how he managed to see his family (rarely) and how his lifestyle was funded (not very lavishly; and in fact, since he wasn't allowed to keep any of Brasco's ill-gotten gains, he was often turning money over to the FBI). The Way of the Wiseguy is essentially a guidebook for being a mobster in the late 20th century: How to do business (and how not to), how to relate to the men above and below you, when you're expected to spend time with your wife and when you're expected to spend time with your girlfriend, and what the world owes you -- because once you're "connected", it's inconceivable that you'll ever again have to bother with restaurant reservations or pay for much of anything, and if a civilian offends you either deliberately or accidentally, it's only logical that he take a physical beating.
A few years ago, after interviewing former mob boss Bill Bonanno, I noted that he seems to live in alternate universe "where 'honor' is defined by putting a knife through somebody's back, and 'family values' means staying closeknit while teaching each new generation to achieve power and success by any means necessary -- and nobody is capable of taking a step back and seeing the contradictions". Pistone's book, oddly enough, opens with an almost identical "alternate universe" metaphor. I had the right idea, it seems, but I was wrong about it being a product of Bonanno's perspective. This is the reality of a wiseguy's life.
CJ&A: Given the number of hands these questions are passing through before they get to you, how do I actually know you ARE Mr. Pistone?
Pistone: You could call my agent, Frank Weimann, to get proof that I am who I say I am or to my publicist, Sam Caggiula. I don't have any recent photos to send you since I don't get them taken anymore. My publisher has my finger prints.
CJ&A: If you didn't have a wife and three daughters waiting for
you, do you think you might have been more likely to become what you were
pretending to be? Was the fact that you did have strong family ties a consideration
when the FBI allowed you to stay undercover for so long? And what would
the FBI have
done if they suspected you'd gone over to the dark side?
Pistone: I grew up around wiseguys on the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, but I never got involved with them. I always worked all kinds of blue-collar jobs: in construction, in bars, driving tractor trailers so I did see and hear a lot that helped me portray one later. For some reason, I always had this idea that I could be an FBI agent. There were no cops in my family, and no role models who suggested I get into law enforcement. It was just this thing of mine. My first government job was with the in the Office of Naval Intelligence, investigating drug, theft, and espionage cases. Then I passed the FBI's entrance exams and became a special agent in 1969. Very quickly, my specialty became clear: undercover. The FBI wasn't concerned about my family life. In fact, most undercover agents end up divorced because you are never home, and you are living two lives and neither fully involved in either one.
The FBI kept me going for so long because I was continually making significant progress and was in so deep without any back up. Over time, I had made guys vouching for me. Guys putting their name and reputation on the line to say the Donnie the Jeweler Brasco was okay. It cost a few of them their lives after everything went down.
They ended up pulling me out because a war was starting and they didn't want me getting killed. There were a couple close calls while I was undercover, but I knew the rules - which I explain in my new book, The Way of the Wiseguy, which helped my survive. For example, as a soldier, I could argue with a made guy, but I couldn't show him disrespect or mouth off in front of other guys without getting slapped. If a made guy did hit me, I could only cover up and take it. If I fought back, I'd probably get whacked.
While I was undercover, there were times when I had to go along with illegal activities -- some of this is in the book. I had to beat a guy up - that's assault. But by me beating him up, I saved him from being shot twice in the head. So I had to appear to be wiseguy at all times, I accepted contracts to kill people, knowing they were hiding out somewhere where no one would find them. If I did happen to find them, the FBI would have captured them and I would have provided proof to my boss that I did the job.
If I had started doing anything funny, I would've been pulled off the case and depending on the severity of the crime possibly arrested. That wouldn't have been good for a dismissed FBI agent to be in prison.
CJ&A: As great a job as Johnny Depp did playing you, is there another actor you would have envisioned for the role?
Pistone: No. We spent months and months together. He took on the role to such a depth. Unlike most authors who sign a movie deal and are forced to let Hollywood do whatever they want with the material, I got to stay on as a technical adviser. I was on the set during the filming. If Johnny had a question about a line or if a scene was accurate, I was there to offer my advice. Like I've said in interviews before, the movie is about 80 - 85% right on. Some of the stuff between me and Lefty at the end of the movie and the scene between me and my wife arguing are not how things actually went down. That was Hollywood adding "dramatic tension."
I'm sure there are other actors who would have been excellent, like Sean Penn or John Turturro.
CJ&A: What finally happened to Lefty Ruggiero?
Pistone: We picked up Lefty on other charges the day after my identity was revealed. If we didn't do it, he would have surely been whacked. He spent a few years in prison and after he got out he died of a heart attack.
CJ&A: In The Way of the Wiseguy, you describe how any money a wiseguy makes has to be shared with the men above him in the food chain, leaving you with a small percentage. According to Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life, any money you were left with had to be given over to the FBI, who left you with a per diem. Did you see any irony in this?
Pistone: Yeah, the money was still leaving my hands- just to a different boss.
CJ&A: Could another agent ever again do what "Donnie Brasco" did?
Pistone: With modern technology, it would be much harder to accomplish. So much information about people is available right at your fingertips. But with today's wiseguys, you don't need it. As soon as you catch one and offer him a deal, the whole operation is revealed. These guys don't live by the old code of silence.
CJ&A: In The Way of the Wiseguy, you describe how wiseguys could beat or even kill a civilian he'd never met, over some minor offense like a fender-bender or a spilled drink, and wouldn't see anything wrong with it. I find this kind of scary, and I'm thinking I should be more afraid of a wiseguy than of al-Qaida. Is this justified?
Pistone: No, I don't think you can compare these two groups. One wants to operate outside the law and the other wants to destroy our laws, government, and way of life. Wiseguys want to be left alone and al-Qaida wants to be known to become the thing we fear most. Though it's true as I describe, you run into the back of a wiseguy's car, you'll probably get slapped around and your windshield smashed but you crash into the other and a city block blows up.
CJ&A: You've said that you have no regrets -- but if somebody had gone to Joe Pistone in 1976 and said "You will make it through this operation alive and it will succeed beyond your wildest expectations, putting over 100 gangsters in prison; but you'll be a stranger to your family for six years, you and your wife and daughters will lose your name and your family history forever, and you'll have a price on your head for the rest of your life"... Would he have done it?
Pistone: Not when you say it that way... which is not how I look at it. I've had an exciting life. I've done a lot of good work. I've gone from being a successful undercover agent to being law enforcement speaker, mob expert, and movie and television producer. I've been all around the world. My wife, kids, and grandkids are good, and everyone is doing well. Not everybody can say that these days.
(c) 2004 by Bill Bickel
Appears in the Winter 2004/5 issue of Crime Justice & America
Questions or comments? firstname.lastname@example.org
The Way of the Wiseguy is published by Running
Press Book Publishers, and is available through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com,
or at your local bookstore.