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PISTONE, JOE : Donnie Brasco

DONNIE’S DOUBLE LIFE
Paul Fischer meets Joe Pistone, the man who lived a Mob-busting lie as Donnie Brasco.

Movies about the mob have been around since the movies themselves, and most have painted a romantic picture of underworld life, even films as violent as the likes of The Godfather and Good Fellas. But the newest of the genre, the acclaimed Donnie Brasco, gives movie audiences a realistic inside perspective on underworld life and violence, as seen through the eyes of FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone, who spent years infiltrating the Mafia bringing it to its knees. The real-life Pistone may now be a successful author, but the mob still wants him dead.

Whether it was the movies or his idealised view of the world, cop-turned-writer Joe Pistone always wanted to be a cop. "I liked the idea of being a policeman: the adventure, excitement of being a cop." He went to college on a basketball scholarship [" I was a real basketball fanatic"], and his final year, he took entrance exams to become a policeman in his New Jersey town of Patterson, which he passed.

"I thought I had it worked out that when I finished the police academy I could go on a steady nightshift so I could finish my last year of college." But when the time came they wouldn't let him do it, so he declined the appointment, finished college and joined naval intelligence for the next few years. "It was then that I decided to apply for the FBI, because I still wanted to be a police officer, and if you're going to do that, you might as well be with the best there is."

Tens of thousands apply for such a position, but Pistone made it. It was 1969 when Pistone began working for the FBI, and his knack of undercover work led to what would be his most time consuming and dangerous operation thus far, less than 10 years after joining. He enjoyed undercover work, and this was not his first case. "It's something you have a knack for. You have to be able to blend in whatever you're working." By 1977, at the commencement of his Mafia operation, Pistone was equipped for the task in more ways than one. "I grew up in a very Italian neighbourhood, and so I'd grown up knowing Mafia guys. Guys that I went to school with became Mafia guys, and when I went to school with them, their fathers were Mafia guys, so I grew up with a pretty good working knowledge of the Mafia." And forget what you've seen in the movies about the Mafia. The reality, says Pistone, is different. "If you've lived in those ethnic Italian neighbourhoods, you realise that the Mafia is not a glamorous organisation that looks out for everybody."

His task, as an undercover operator, was to infiltrate the Mafia, latching on to a particular member of the organisation, through whom he would ultimately be able to break its power base. To help achieve that, he posed as a jewel thief, "then we had locations in New York targeted, such as restaurants and bars, that we knew these individuals hung round in, and my job was to frequent these places and attempt to converse with certain individuals that we knew of, gain their confidence and hopefully become involved with them." It was a painstaking operation, and it was his ultimate relationship with a low level hitman, played by Al Pacino, that cemented the operation. While it was ultimately successful, the film points to the dangerous closeness of the relationship between undercover cop and mobster. "When you spend so much time with these guys, you become not only involved with the mobster but with his family, because you're with them for so many hours in the day." It is no surprise, that his marriage almost crumbled as a result. "There were times when she wanted to leave." But they’re still married today.

The operation was a success, and led to indictments of numerous high profile Mafia soldiers and high-level 'godfathers'. Pistone became a marked man, but he has no regrets, and refuses to think about the price that to this day, remains on his head. "I can't afford to think in those terms. I take necessary precautions and that's all you can do." He documented his experiences in the book Donnie Brasco but his writing career is far from over. "I'm currently working on a novel about undercover work."

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Pictures of everyone - except the real Donnie (Joe) who remains in hiding

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