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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Inside a Major Hollywood Mob Flick

Photos left: Book cover To Kill the Irishman; bottom: Ray Stevenson as Danny Greene; right: Danny Greene.

In my last blog I mentioned a story that appeared on the Website, New Criminologist. I've posted it here in its entirety with express permission of editor Steve Morris at New Criminologist. Hope you enjoy it.

The Irishman: Inside an Upcoming Major Hollywood Mob Flick: Special to New Criminologist UP AGAINST THE BOOK SHELF COLUMN
- Ron Chepesiuk

What is it that attracts us to Mafia movies like steel clips to a magnet? Most of us have seen The Godfather, a movie considered by many to be the greatest ever made. But it’s just one of a long line of great Mob flicks that extend back to Hollywood’s early years where we had such classics as Public Enemy Number 1 and Little Caesar. Just in past two decades or so Hollywood has released such great flicks as Casino, Donnie Brasco, GoodFellas, Jackie Brown, A History of Violence and The Departed, among others.

With so many superb mafia flicks around, we might ask: Has Hollywood seen its best days when it comes to this genre of movie? The quick answer is, no way.

Consider that that this coming spring (2010) an explosive and highly original mob flick is scheduled for release. Titled simply The Irishman, the movie depicts the story of Danny Greene, an Irish-American mobster who takes on the La Cosa Nostra in a vicious and violent gang war that had the bodies piling up on the streets of Cleveland in the 1970s.

Greene is on record as making this bold challenge to the powerful La Cosa Nostra: “I have no axe to grind, but if those maggots in this so-called Mafia want to come after me, I’m over here by the Celtic club. I’m not hard to find.”

That’s great dialogue from the book upon which the movie is based. Written by true crime writer, Rick Porrello, and published in 1998 as To Kill an Irishman, the book has sold more than 20,000 copies. Not bad for a self-published book.

The Midwest Book Review described To Kill an Irishman as “must reading…a true life story more dramatic than anything ever to come out of Hollywood.”

Another review by the Book Reader predicted great things for Porrello’s book when it concluded that it was “a terrific read about powerful losers and mob stuff just a few years ago. We see a Hollywood script soon.”

Porrello is no literary flash in the pan. He had initial success with his first book, The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia: Corn, Sugar and Blood, which Barricade Books published and included Porrello’s research into the murder of his grandfather and three uncles. The book was also a regional favorite and went through several hard cover printings before being re-published in paperback.

But Porrello could not come to terms with Barricade over what literary rights he was willing to sell to the publisher.

“In today’s publishing marketplace, it’s tough to strike a fair deal on your own,” Porrello explained. “You really need a literary agent, but when I queried several literary agents to see if they would represent me, they said it’s hard to sell a book written by an unknown author.”

Porrello, however, didn’t need to publish books to survive. In 1981 the 18-year old talented musician became the drummer for Sammy Davis Jr., the super star entertainer who hung out with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as a member of the famous Rat Pack.

As a stickman for Davis, Porrello traveled the world, appeared in television show, including the Johnny Carson Show, and performed regularly at venues in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

"It was a great life and a great career, but I’ve always wanted to write," Porrello revealed. "Writing is tough, but there is no greater feeling than seeing your book in print."

And that feeling is magnified when the writer becomes one of the chosen few in his profession whose book is transformed into a Hollywood movie. A remarkable achievement considering Porrello has a time-consuming day job. He’s a Cleveland area police chief.

The Irishman movie brings together an award-winning all-star cast and an award-winning all-star production crew. Noted actors Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino, and Vincent D’Onofrio (Law and Order’s Criminal Intent) will play lead and supporting roles. Director Jonathan Hensleigh was the screenwriter for Die Hard with a Vengeance and Jumanji and wrote and co-directed The Punisher, while Jonathan Walters is the co-writer. The movie’s editor, Douglas Crise, was Oscar nominated for his work on Babel.

Writing the screenplay must have been a challenge given Greene’s complex character and the richness of his story. Porrello described Greene as “a Celtic warrior at heart, obsessed with the color green—green car, green jackets and green ink pens.”

The quirky Irishman was handsome, obsessed with physical fitness and followed a strict diet of fish, vegetables and vitamin supplements. To minimize his hair loss, Greene underwent painful hair transplants.

“Green took his personal hygiene very seriously,” Porrello explained. “He even had a nail brush in the union bathroom to keep his manicured nails scrubbed clean.”

Greene had no problem with using car bombs to blow his enemies to smithereens, but he was also known as an animal lover who put out food for birds and squirrels.

Greene got his start in racketeering in the late 1960s as president of the Cleveland branch of the International Association of Longshoreman, but was deposed after a Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper investigation revealed he had been embezzling union funds. Greene worked as an enforcer for local Cleveland mobsters, including Alex Shondor Birns. He got into a dispute with Birns over $60,000 that Greene refused to repay, and the two went to war.

Birns made several botched attempts on Greene’s life. In one incident, the Irishman found a bomb that Birns had planted in Greene’s car. Greene described his brush with death as “the luck of the Irish” and vowed to get even. “Sure enough,” Porrello explained, “a few weeks later, Birns was blown out of his car in two pieces. It was an excellent hit and Danny was proud.”

After Godfather, John Scalish, died from heart surgery in 1976, the criminally ambitious Greene allied himself with John Nardi, a corrupt teamsters official in a move to take over the Cleveland underworld. When Greene murdered the feared but respected mobster Leo “Lips” Moceri and Eugene “The Animal” Caisullo, the Italian Mafia had had enough and went all out to get Greene. What followed prompted one newspaper to describe Cleveland as the “bombing capitol of the United States.”

You can read the book to find out what happened and watch the movie to see how Hollywood treats the story. We will reveal, though, that the subsequent Mafia war had consequences beyond Cleveland. Besides leading to the murder of dozens of gangsters, the war also created a chain reaction in which the Mob remained in perpetual war not only in Cleveland but also Milwaukee, Kansas City, Los Angeles and other cities across the country.

Meanwhile, Greene became a legend.

Porrello concludes his page turning narrative with a lyrically Irish sounding refrain from The Ballad of Danny Greene: “One day he’ll lie, as all we must, some will laugh but most will cry. His legend will live on for years, to bring his friends mixed pleasure.”

According to news reports about the movie, Actor Ray Stevenson, the star of The Punisher, looks forward to the challenge of playing the complex Danny Greene character.

In an interview with the Internet site Movie Set Stevenson said it was the exceptional script that drew him to the project. He described Green as charismatic, a loner whom the people considered a Robin Hood because he gave turkeys to them at Thanksgiving and Christmas to show “it wasn’t about the money, there was a higher goal.”

The movie project’s genesis can be traced to 1997 when Tommy Reid, then a young, ambitious entertainment entrepreneur stumbled on to the Danny Greene story and learned that Rick Porrello was writing a book about it. Thus began a long and arduous process of getting the movie made. Why did it take so long for The Irishman to reach fruition?

“First of all,” Reid explained to the New Criminologist. “Rick’s book was self- published and not a New York Times bestseller. Even if a book is a New York Times bestseller, it has one percent chance of being made into a movie.

Reid added: “So many elements are involved (in making a movie). You need a great writer to adapt the book to a screenplay. You got to have a visionary production team on board. Then you have to find the financing, so you can make reasonable offers to acting talents like Ray Stevenson and Val Kilmer to get them on board.”

Reid laughed and quipped: “That’s how a movie becomes a 12-year overnight success.”

Each year, for more than a decade, Reid had to buy an option on Porrello’s book to retain the right to make a movie based on it. As the website Wikipedia explains, the option is a “contractual agreement between a movie studio, a production company or film producer and writer, in which the producer obtains the rights to buy a screenplay from the writer, beyond a certain date.”

“Sure ,optioning the book was expensive,” Reid conceded. “My company had to put up a lot of money and it really added up. But we prevailed and never gave up. Along the way the project fell off the horse a few times, but I would get back on and ride it. I was a true believer in the project.”

During the past 12 years, Porrello got several offers from others who wanted to buy the option to To Kill an Irishman. Some of the prospective buyers were bigger names than Tommy Reid in the entertainment industry, but as Porrello explained: “Tommy’s the man. He had a vision for my book and he is ambitious…contagiously ambitious. He got me believing that the project would happen.”

Aspiring entertainment entrepreneurs cannot live by one project alone and so while The Irishman was in development, Reid was busy building his career. The film projects that he has produced and directed include The Wiffler: The Ted Whitfield Story, the true tale of the greatest wiffle ball player of all-time, and Strike, a comedy starring Tara Reid, Ross Patterson and Clayne Crawford.

As a field producer, Reid researched and prepared 120 plus interviews with retired, rookie and 2009 Super-Bowl winning NFL players. “I have to have a couple of irons in the fire to keep going,” Reid said. “But I knew The Irishman was my best project, and all it would take to be successful was timing and getting the right elements in place.”

Still, the challenges were formidable. Reid confided that at one point he got so frustrated at the lack of progress, he decided it was time to produce something tangible from all the work he had done on Danny Greene’s story.

In 2007, the producer went to Cleveland and interviewed nine individuals who had ties to Danny Greene. The interviews form the basis for the documentary, Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman, a factual portrayal of The Irishman’s life. The documentary is in post-production and will be available for distribution in 2010.

Reid plans to use the documentary to help promote the feature film which finally began production in May 2009. “Sitting there watching the production begin I had to pinch myself,” Reid recalled with smiled. “Finally it had all come together.”

The shooting went smoothly wrapped the following month. When asked what’s the movie’s cost, Reid sighed and said: “The cost is never ending. The advertising alone can eat up your budget. Post-production is another cost. That’s the important phase in which the movie is edited.”

When asked when will the movie finally be completed, Reid chuckled: “There is a saying in Hollywood. You never finish a movie; you abandon it. Otherwise, post production can go on forever.”

The movie is scheduled to debut St. Paddy’s Day, 2010. “With an Irish character like Danny Greene, that’s a fitting way to launch the movie,” Reid said. It sure is, but given the uncertainties of the film industry, it may take the luck of the Irish for that to happen.

## Based on Rick Porello’s book, “To Kill an Irishman” (Available from Simon and Schuster Publishing in 2010)
## Code Entertainment, Producer
## Executive Producers—Jonathan Dana, Rick Porrello
## Producers Tommy Reid, Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso and Tara Reid
## Co-producer—George Perez
## Director—Jonathan Hensleigh and Jeremy Walters
## Actors: Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Paul Sorvino, Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio
## Script writers—Jonathan Hensleigh and Jeremy Walters
## Editor—Douglas Crise
## Cinematographer—Karl Walter Lindenlaub
## Production Designer—Patrizia von Brandestein
## Distributor—Lightning Entertainment
## Domestic Sales—ICM and Jonathan Dana

Ron Chepesiuk ( is award winning freelance investigative journalist and documentary producer. He is a Fulbright scholar and a consultant to the History Channel's Gangland documentary series. His true crime books include Drug Lords, Black Gangsters of Chicago and Gangsters of Harlem. His three forthcoming books include "Gangsters of Miami"(November 2009), The Trafficantes (an e-book in February, 2010) and Sergeant Smack: The Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson. Kingpin, and his Band of Brother (May, 2010).

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