You know what they say about life in the mob. Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s no getting out. So when I was offered an interview with Michael Franzese, a former Mafia mobster turned author, motivational speaker and YouTuber I was… confused. How does someone who used to be a big deal within the mob leave the lifestyle and manage to make a living by revealing the scintillating details that people like me – who are clearly too soft for a life of organised crime – are desperate to know?
Well, without getting his feet encased in concrete, that is.
Before we get into how he’s even alive to tell his story, let’s look at the context, shall we?
Michael is a member of the Colombo crime family which is known as one of the five main syndicates behind organised crime in New York City. His father, John “Sonny” Franzese Sr. was the notorious Underboss of the clan, meaning that he was the deputy to the big boss.
Originally, Sonny didn’t want Michael to become wrapped up in a life of organised crime but when Sonny was sentenced to 50 years in prison for bank robbery in 1967, Michael decided to join the ranks.
By the time he was in his 20s, he was ranked as a caporegime, a position below an underboss who is in charge of a whole heap of mob members.
According to Michael, he was raking in an estimated $5 to $8 million per week from legal and illegal businesses. While he was involved in all sorts of successful ventures, it was his fuel tax fraud operation in the 1980s that gave him notoriety and status. In 1985, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being charged with counterfeiting, extortion and racketeering.
In 1986, he was even named as one of Fortune Magazine’s 50 Most Wealthy And Powerful Mafia Bosses. But by the time he was released from prison on parole in 1989, he’d decided to say “forget about it” to the mob. For good.
So, how did Michael leave his post without finding himself sleeping with the fishes?
“Well, I was a target for quite some time when I initially walked away. I had issues to deal with with my former associates for many years. But the bottom line is, I never put anybody in prison and I didn’t testify against my former associates.
“To make a very long story short, I just outlasted everybody. Everybody in our life is either dead or in prison for the rest of their lives. I got fortunate to outlast everybody,” he told me.
After his stint in prison, Michael started a new chapter. He found faith, moved to California with his wife and family and publicly renounced the life of organised crime. Since then, he’s made a career from using his insights about mob life and his transformation to inspire others. And as he travels to Australia to speak about his experiences, he’s thankful that the international fascination with the Mafia lives on.
“The guys back in the days of Al Capone were larger than life. You look at him, Paul Castellano, Joe Colombo, all of these guys, and myself to a degree, that people are fascinated by the lifestyle, by the way people carried themselves, by the control that we had, and then you’ve got to look at the movies and television, and the way they’ve romanticised the life,” he said.
“I mean, after The Godfather came out, which was back in my era back then, guys on the street were walking differently. They were holding themselves differently because it brought a certain integrity to the mobster life that you hadn’t seen before and it stuck.
“It hasn’t gone away. There’s a fascination and I don’t know how long it will continue, but it’s certainly there now.”
As someone who has always loved The Sopranos, I wondered how accurate the displays of mob life in pop culture really were. Michael says it’s a mixed bag.
“Well, it’s accurate to a degree,” he began.
“Regarding The Sopranos, I always say that if a mob guy was ever visiting a psychiatrist, he’d be in the trunk of the car by the end of the week along with the psychiatrist. You’d never have that happen. Other than that, it was very well done.”
Michael reckons that there are some movies that truly encapsulate what the experience was like such as The Godfather films, Goodfellas, Casino, and Donnie Brasco.
“They’re all movies that give a fairly accurate depiction of the life,” he said, adding that they do add a sprinkle of dramatic liberty.
“Look, the money and power is alluring, very alluring. Young guys on the street see guys driving in the best cars, wearing the best suits, having people suck up to them. It’s alluring, it’s intoxicating and people want to be part of that. I understand that. I mean, I lived it.”
But for every excellent portrayal of mob life, there are even more misconceptions. The biggest Michael sees in depictions of Mafia life is that all blokes in the mob are just “murderous thugs”.
“People think the guys on the street are just a bunch of murderous thugs going around with a baseball bat killing people, robbing and stealing but that’s not the case,” he explains.
“This was a highly efficient, organised operation. It’s why we survived and prospered for over 100 years in the United States, had power to the White House to control the unions in the country.
“You don’t do that by being a thug and a dummy. You have to have a degree of intelligence. You gotta have charisma. You’ve got to know how to deal with people. You got to know how to make money, and we had all that.
“I think the mistake people make is selling the guys in that life short. It’s a mistake because a lot of those guys if they weren’t in organised crime, they’d still be a success in any other life.”
And what about the common mafia-turned-pop-culture phrases I’ve been sprinkling throughout this entire article?
“Sleep with the fishes is a common term. That’s real,” he said.
“‘Forget about it’ is absolutely real. I cracked up when I saw that scene in Donnie Brasco because it’s so real. ‘Forget about it’ was the tongue we used for everything. You know, you’re going to dinner, ‘forget about it’. We gotta go to this place, ‘forget about it’. It’s such a common term.
“A lot of the things you see in the movies are fairly accurate with respect to the sayings that we had and the things that we did.”
While it’s fascinating to pick Michael’s brain about his former life, his transformation is equally as engrossing. And thankfully, Michael is more fulfilled than ever knowing that his story of transformation inspires others.
“At one point in my life, I had my own jet plane. My own helicopter houses are in three places in the country. I had 300 guys under me and I was pulling in over $5 million a week. I had everything that you could want at that point. But I’ve learned that it really is a lot more satisfying to give back than it is to achieve,” he said.
“It’s very satisfying, and I’ve experienced that over the years. It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t know that it was going to turn out to be this way. I don’t realise people are going to be so inspired by a comeback story, but they are and it’s what motivates me.”
If you’re as enthralled by Michael’s absolutely bonkers life story as I am, he is currently in Australia for In Conversation With Michael Franzese hosted by Gary Jubelin. He will be speaking at Melbourne’s Palais Theatre on October 6 and in Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on October 8.
I’ll be the one eating gabagool in the audience.