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THIEF! character, Vince Eli

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Mob Speak Interview: Rick Porrello, Crime Expert

As a special new feature here on Mob Speak, we’re interviewing true crime writers, crime experts, relatives of gangsters, gambling experts and maybe even a reformed mobster or two plus anyone of interest I can track down. I promise you there won’t be any duds!

To kick off the series, I’ve asked Rick Porrello [pictured at right], multi-published author and respected true crime expert, to answer a few questions. I hope this will spur our savvy readers to ask Rick a few questions of their own.
A little background on Rick first, quoted directly from his famous Website,

Rick Porrello’s Background

Rick Porrello wears many hats. He is a veteran Cleveland-area police lieutenant with Mafia roots and author of
The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia. Porrello began writing his first book during research into the murders of his grandfather and three uncles, who were mob leaders killed in Prohibition-era violence. Read the Preface. The book, published in 1995 by Barricade Books of New York City, quickly became a regional favorite, went through several hardcover printings, then was republished in paperback.

Porrello is an accomplished jazz musician and soloist. In 1981, he began his greatest musical achievement at age eighteen when he took over the drum throne from his brother
Ray Porrello , then stickman for Sammy Davis Jr. for seven years. That fortunate break started Rick on a two-and-a-half year stint involving extensive traveling including Europe, South America, Australia and of course the regular venues of Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City. Accompanying Mr. Davis, Rick also had the honor of working with the great Count Basie Orchestra and, has appeared on several television shows including Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show", understandably Rick's most memorable career highlight.

Despite the excitement and promise of such early success, a second career interest eventually pulled Rick from the Davis gig and he returned to Cleveland to begin college studies. In 1986, despite opposition from family and friends, Rick traded his sticks for a badge and .38 special when he joined the police force. Since childhood, Rick had an increasing interest in police work and despite a skyrocketing music career, he decided that protecting the public was more important to him then entertaining them.

Rick Porrello continues to perform in the N.E. Ohio area.

In 1998 Rick’s second book was published. Titled
To Kill The Irishman: The War that Crippled the Mafia, it is the definitive story of Danny Greene, a fiercely proud Irish-American racketeer who took on La Cosa Nostra, sparking events that led to the fall of several Mafia families. Porrello won a national Non-Fiction award for the book which has since been optioned for a movie The Irishman and is currently going to a sixth printing.

Rick's current title is
Superthief - A Master Burglar, the Mafia and the Biggest Bank Heist in U.S. History. The title won second place in ForeWord Magazine's 2005 Book of the Year Awards true crime category, and was a finalist in the 2006 Independent Publisher Awards.

Rick Porrello is a frequent commentator on the general history of the Mafia in the United States and was recently interviewed by Chris Jansing on MSNBC about the last episode of the Sopranos.
Email Rick at

Mobwriter: Gee Rick. I’m curious about your previous career traveling the world as Sammy Davis, Jr’s. drummer. What was it like being around Sammy? Do you have any special memories of your time on the road?

Rick: Cherie, my time on the road with “Mr. D” was the most exciting and educational time of my life. I mean, here I was, an 18-year-old kid from Cleveland, and I was traveling the world first class and working for the greatest entertainer in the world. It had been my dream to take over that spot from my brother, Ray, Sammy’s drummer for seven years, if he ever left the show. And it came true. When Ray got tired of life on the road, he told Sammy’s conductor, George Rhodes, that I was a good big band player and show reader. George telephoned me and gave me a 3-night audition gig at the Carlton Dinner Theater in Minneapolis. I thought I’d only be sitting in at a rehearsal, but then George explained that I had the job for 3 nights. When I called my father to tell him, I think he was more excited than I was.

I’ll never forget when Sammy called me, George, and his musicians to his dressing room after my first show. He said to me, “You’re a bitch. You’ve got the gig.” Then he gave each of us a red silk handkerchief to welcome me to his musical family.

There were many highlights. My appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, including one in which Sammy changed the music and I had to sight read a tune, were as stressful as they were exciting. It was always a treat when I was featured during the overture. And then there were the times Mr. D would revisit a medley he used to do with his first drummer – just voice and drums.

Mobwriter: Do you ever miss that life? What about plans to write your own story, Rick?

Rick: I miss it often, Cherie. I don’t so much miss the traveling. Though I did enjoy my overseas travels, it did get a bit old after the first year. I miss the friends I made. I miss the wonderful music—Sammy’s performances, of course, and the many talented musicians I was privileged to work with at such a young age. I have wonderful memories of working on the same bills with stars like Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby and Dean Martin. I remember playing softball with Billy Crystal and a hilarious dinner with a very funny Billy Eckstine, who often opened for Mr. D.

And boy do I miss standing in the wings laughing at the comedians who warmed up Sammy’s crowds—guys like Rip Taylor, Tom Dreesen, George Wallace and Willie Tyler and Lester. When I left Sammy’s show, people at home would ask me about my experiences. They’d listen then say, “you should write a book.” I actually started writing a book about my time on the road, but it went to the back burner. I’m sure I’ll get back to it eventually.

Mobwriter: OK…let’s move on to your police and writing careers. What was it like when you started learning about your infamous mob relatives? And how does becoming a policeman figure in the picture?

Rick: I became interested in police work at age twelve when I received a police radio for Christmas. A few years later, a cousin joined the Cleveland Heights Police Dept. and I did a junior high school project about him. I think I was hooked then.

By that time, I had known for several years that my father’s father had been killed in the 1930s. I didn’t know anything about it other than that it had to do with the mob.

In 1984, after I had left the Sammy Davis Jr. Show, and prior to entering college to pursue a Criminal Justice degree, I started researching my grandfather’s 1932 murder. I was simply curious about my family history. I was startled to see that his killing was the headline story in all the Cleveland newspapers, and that it was part of a much bigger story that had begun in 1927.

Mobwriter: Was The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia a direct product of learning about your relatives?

Rick: It sure was. Once I had a good idea of the whole story – the battles involving two sets of Sicilian immigrant brothers, the Porrello and Lonardo families, I knew it had to be a book. [Pictured at right: Joe Porrello, 2nd mob boss of Cleveland rackets, murdered.]

Mobwriter: I recently rented a Netflix movie, a documentary on Danny Greene. Gee, the guy sure had balls. How did you get interested in Danny Greene, the Irish-American racketeer who took on the Mafia?

Rick: Danny Greene is a fascinating character—a fearless Irishman who went up against the mob and who survived numerous attempts on his life until James Licavoli’s Cleveland Mafia crew finally got him with a car bomb in Greater Cleveland parking lot. Coincidentally, that suburb would be the city whose police force I would join 10 years after the murder.

After 9 years—yes, 9 years of work resulted in the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia, I vowed to my wife never to write another book. But when I got the first copy in my hands, I knew I couldn’t stop there. Rise and Fall ended with a chapter about Danny Greene [pictured at right], so it was a logical starting point for a new book.

Mobwriter: I know one of your books has been optioned for a movie and another is further along in the process, Rick. It’s a tricky business pitching book projects to producers. I hear that only about 1 in 10 book projects actually make it to the screen. How did your deals come about and where are they at now?

Rick: In 1997, a few months before To Kill the Irishman hit the shelves, I was contacted by not one, but two persons interested in the film rights to the book. Both had seen a newspaper article about the upcoming title. I was fortunate to retain the services of a tenacious and savvy book and film manager and producer named Peter Miller, president of PMA Literary and Film Management, and a man I now consider a close friend.

Peter hammered out the details with one of the interested parties, Tommy Reid, a graduate of the New York Film Academy and Ohio State University. That was 1998. Tommy has always believed in this project and his ambition has been ceaseless. Eventually he brought partners on board and in the past two years, the project has picked up a lot of steam. Between the efforts of the production team partners and Peter, almost all of the elements are in place for the film to be made.

Mobwriter: Phil Christopher, the character known as “Superthief” in your third book Superthief - A Master Burglar, the Mafia and the Biggest Bank Heist in U.S. History. is still behind bars. What’s the news from Phil these days? Any chance on that we’ll see Superthief on the big screen?

Rick: Phil should be out in the fall. I don’t have much contact with him like I did when I was researching and writing Superthief. I do speak with his wife, Mary Ann, my collaborator on the project, on occasion. Superthief won Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards’ second place spot for their true crime category. I’m hopeful that a producer will recognize the story as the next great heist film.

Mobwriter: At the end of the famous TV series The Sopranos, MSNBC’s Chris Jansing asked you to comment on the unorthodox finale. Perhaps you could give those of us who missed it a brief recap of your take, Rick.

Rick: I was disappointed that there was no resolution to the character of Tony Soprano. I’m used to real life Mafia stories in which someone in as deep as Tony is either killed outright or as I say, “BNF’ed” (body never found), deported, goes to prison, or winds up in Witness Protection as a cooperating witness.

Mobwriter: What other projects do you have in the works, Rick?

Rick: The most powerful and successful mobster ever, Meyer Lansky, escaped all of the scenarios I mentioned above. A couple of years ago, I was contacted by his daughter, Sandi Lansky Lombardo, about writing a book. Sandi, her husband Vince and I, have become friends as we work to write a book about new Meyer Lansky material, and Sandi’s life as a mob princess.

Mobwriter: Thanks, Rick. Wow! What an interesting life so far. Can’t wait to read the book and see the movie. Wonder who will play you?


bobby said...

thank you so much, a very interesting interview with a great writer. but i had a question: what was the name of the documentary about Danny Greene that you rented?

mobwriter said...

Thenks for the feedback, Bobby. Not sure about name of the documentary. It might be the A & E series, American Justice: Mob Hitmen or possibly Crime Inc.: Part I. Sorry I can't do better, Bobby.

Good luck!


Caren said...

I loved the movie "Kill the Irishman" Now I must read the book. i am curious about your relationship with Danny Greene. It nseemed pretty amicable!