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
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
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