Put simply, a good actor is someone who is convincing—someone who viewers believe is actually experiencing a film’s events. So perhaps that’s why so many actors known for playing gangsters onscreen turned out to be shady characters offscreen, as well. Any film buff worth their salt loves a good mob movie, but these actors love mob movies so much that they’ve (allegedly) lived them. So if a mysterious accident should befall yours truly after this list hits the web, consider the following 10 goodfellas and their unsavory associates your primary suspects. Until then, I’ll be looking over both shoulders, investing in a bulletproof vest, and avoiding Italian restaurants, nightclubs and, for good measure, rowboats. Salud!
1. Lenny Montana, The Godfather (1972)
Lenny Montana is something of a one-hit wonder as an actor, known best (or perhaps only) for his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster classic. Yet it turns out that as the fiercely loyal but—four-decade-old spoiler alert—doomed mob enforcer Luca Brasi, Montana was all but playing himself. The six-foot-six, 300-plus-pound actor and former world-wrestling champion busied himself as muscle for New York City’s Colombo crime family in the ’70s. In fact, it was in Montana’s capacity as a bodyguard for one of the family’s young dons that he found himself on The Godfather set, where Coppola “fell in love” with the not-so-gentle giant and quickly cast him as Brasi. The director famously once asked Montana if he knew how to spin the cylinder of a revolver, to which the enforcer-turned-actor responded, “You kiddin’?”
“[Montana] used to tell us all these things, like, he was an arsonist,” associate producer Gray Frederickson told Vanity Fair. “He’d tie tampons on the tail of a mouse, dip it in kerosene, light it, and let the mouse run through a building. Or he’d put a candle in front of a cuckoo clock, and when the cuckoo would pop out, the candle would fall over and start a fire.” Bettye McCartt, assistant to producer Al Ruddy, had her own mobster moment with Montana: when she broke her watch, he noticed and asked her what kind of replacement she wanted. “I’d like an antique watch with diamonds on it, but I’ll get another $15 one,” McCartt joked. A week later, Montana gifted her an antique diamond wristwatch, placing it on her desk wrapped up in a Kleenex. “The boys sent you this,” he told her. “But don’t wear it in Florida.”
2. James Caan, The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Another famed The Godfather alum, James Caan is known for his role as the hot-headed and ill-fated Sonny Corleone, the proud owner of arguably the most iconic death scene in gangster film history. Even Sonny’s pop had to admit that “Santino was a bad Don, rest in peace.” But according to The Week, Caan himself turned out to be, if not a good don, then a good friend to one: in 2011, the actor offered to stand bail for Andrew “Andy Mush” Russo, a powerful member of the Colombo crime family, after the mobster was picked up by the FBI. Despite Caan’s offer “to put up anything of personal value that the court would accept for bail” or even “fly in and be present if the court should so request,” the presiding magistrate denied Russo’s bail, branding him “a danger to the community” after hearing the underworld figure referred to as a “representante” (or “boss”) in secret recordings.
Andy Mush was not the only member of the Colombo family whom Caan was close to—the actor also once wrote to Brooklyn’s District Attorney to thank him for investigating a corrupt FBI agent who had jailed Joseph “Jo-Jo” Russo, Andy Mush’s son. “Joseph Russo is a dear friend of mine, and I cannot express enough how pleased I am that your office has taken interest and is in pursuit of correcting this problem,” Caan wrote. Caan’s relationship with the Russos—made especially significant by the fact that Andy Mush is the godfather to Caan’s son, Scott—earned him quite a reputation in New York City. “I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I’m not Italian,” Caan, who is of Jewish descent, once said. “I was denied in a country club once. Oh, yeah, the guy sat in front of the board, and he says, ‘No, no, he’s a wiseguy, been downtown. He’s a made guy.’”
3. Anthony “Tony” Borgese, Goodfellas (1990), The Sopranos (1999)
As you see, Tony Borgese (stage name: Tony Darrow) has appeared in two of mob drama’s crowning achievements. The actor was born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of a connected “street guy,” and gravitated towards show business at a young age, getting an early break as an aspiring nightclub singer through a connection of his own. Borgese was a friend of Paul “Little Paulie” Vario Jr.—Little Paulie’s father, prominent mobster Paul Vario Sr., got Borgese a gig at the Bamboo Lounge, a well-known hot spot for local wiseguys. Art imitated life years later when Borgese was cast as Sonny Bunz, that very same nightclub’s put-upon, absurdly named owner, in Martin Scorsese’s mob classic Goodfellas. (Paul Sorvino’s character in the film, Paul Cicero, was based on Vario Sr.) Borgese also played crime family captain Lorenzo “Larry Boy” Barese in 14 episodes of HBO’s The Sopranos, a role not quite as true to his life, though not by much. “I knew John Gotti—I knew all those guys from the neighborhood,” Borgese once told the New York Post. “They always treated me well.”
Unfortunately, the long arm of the law did not treat Borgese quite so well. In 2011, the actor faced a multi-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to extortion—Borgese had a hand in a debt collection turned savage assault, perpetrated by heavies from the Gambino family. “I used extortionate means to collect a debt from a person,” Borgese admitted in Brooklyn Federal Court. The unidentified victim, whose jaw and ribs were broken in the beating, allegedly owed money to a car dealership in upstate New York—the dealer reportedly asked Borgese to help him collect the debt. Borgese then turned around and mentioned the debt to a wiseguy friend of his during a round of golf. “I asked him for a favor,” he later explained. A Gambino goon would implicate Borgese in a recording obtained by the FBI: “So Tony meets them. Shows them where the house is. They go to the house, the guy answers the door, they beat the living shit out of him.” Per The Daily Mail:, Borgese, in true gangster fashion, “showed no emotion and refused to comment as he left the courtroom putting on a pair of mirrored sunglasses.”
4. Jerry Orbach, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971)
Jerry Orbach, who passed away in 2004, is famous for having played Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order for more than a decade. But regardless of his having portrayed a lawman for most of his career, Orbach makes his way onto this list by virtue of one simple, astounding fact: the actor once infamously upheld the time-honored Mafioso practice of omertà, quite literally taking a mob assassin’s lethal secret to his grave. Orbach was an eyewitness to the 1972 murder of Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo, a New York City mob boss and personal friend of his. Their association began when Orbach played a character based on Gallo in 1971’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Members of Gallo’s crew were rumored to have sought revenge against the film’s writers, while Crazy Joe himself, back on the New York City streets after a decade-long prison term, was so furious that he demanded to meet the man who had portrayed him on the big screen—a local cop reportedly helped to set up the sit-down. But instead of coming to blows or bullets, Gallo and Orbach, who was a big name on Broadway at the time, became fast friends.
Legend has it Orbach was eating dinner with Crazy Joe when he was gunned down—the mob boss, killed on his 43rd birthday, Apr. 7, 1972, was a high-ranking member of the Profaci family, who were then at war with the Colombos. Orbach and his wife were reported to have joined Gallo at the Copacabana, where they took in a Don Rickles midnight show and “had a marvelous time.”
Although the Orbachs later contended they went home after the show, it’s believed they actually joined Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy, where Crazy Joe was whacked by a group of Colombo triggermen in the wee hours of the morning. Despite his friendship with Gallo, Orbach refused to cooperate with investigators—homicide detective Joseph Coffey has insisted he was unable to close the Gallo case because of Orbach’s refusal to name the shooters. “You’d think he would have wanted to help us solve it,” Coffey told tabloid The National Enquirer. “However, when I brought him in for questioning Orbach dummied up.” Despite his penchant for roles on the right side of the law, it turns out Jerry Orbach was a standup guy, keeping quiet about the hit until he, too, breathed his last.
5. Robert De Niro, The Godfather: Part II, Goodfellas, A Bronx Tale (1993), Analyze This (1999)
We kid you not—even a movie star as massive as Robert De Niro, who handily transcends the mob drama category, has been unafraid to rub elbows with true-blue wiseguys. De Niro worked closely with late Gambino family heavy Anthony “Fat Andy” Ruggiano in preparation for his role in—of all films—Harold Ramis’ screwball comedy Analyze This. Apparently De Niro, who is well-known for his intense approach to role research, felt he needed to first sit down with a murderous mobster before he could properly portray neurotic, fictitious gangster Paul Vitti. Ruggiano’s reputation as a gangland killer is well-documented, mostly thanks to his own son: Anthony Jr. turned on his father during the trial of a Gambino hitman, testifying that Fat Andy “did a lot of work for the family.” “He killed somebody with a fellow named Joe,” Anthony Jr. explained, per the NY Daily News. “He killed a florist in Brooklyn. He killed three people in a warehouse that was robbing crap games. He killed somebody with me … and they had this guy Irish Danny killed behind the Skyway Motel on Conduit Boulevard.” For those of you keeping score at home, that’s seven murders Ruggiano, who died in 1999, was allegedly involved in—he’s also infamous for having OK’d the killing of his own son-in-law.
Though De Niro’s association with a tough customer like Ruggiano is easily explained away as an exceptional actor’s innocent (if overzealous) due diligence, the secrecy surrounding their now-infamous meeting is not. De Niro and Ruggiano were introduced by actor Anthony Corozzo, who was an uncredited extra on Analyze This and a bit player in A Bronx Tale, De Niro’s directorial debut. Corozzo also happens to be an alleged Gambino associate whose brothers are Nicholas “Little Nick” Corozzo, a high-ranking capo, and Joseph Corozzo, a consigliere of much repute. Corozzo himself has a notable reputation: “Anthony is like a liaison with the acting community,” a knowledgeable source told the NY Daily News. However, his nephew, attorney Joseph Corozzo Jr., denied that Corozzo brought Ruggiano to the Analyze This set, while De Niro claimed—through spokesperson Stan Rosenfeld—that the movie was made so long ago, he didn’t recall meeting with Ruggiano at all. “Bob seldom, if ever, discusses his research techniques,” said Rosenfeld. All we’re left with is the mystery, and of course the legendary De Niro’s mile-long mob filmography.