The Donnie Brasco Sitdown Rick Porrello: Mr. Pistone, I would like to thank you for spending some time with us at AmericanMafia.com. Before we get started I’d like to update our records. May I have your current address, phone number, description of your car and a current close-up photo. Seriously, it is a privilege to have you with us. And as police officer it is indeed a honor to interview a law enforcer whose courage, skill and success in the war against organized crime are legendary and whose movie about his life, Donnie Brasco, has a permanent place as one of the legendary mob films and of course stars Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Way of the Wiseguy. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Though it certainly doesn’t read like one, it’s like a textbook, or better yet, a field manual about the mobster mentality. And written from the inside! With a lot of tense moments, shock and humor. Definitely a lot of funny moments in your experiences. I got a real kick out of the wiseguy who visited you on the Donnie Brasco set to ask a favor for his kid, a budding actor. And it’s facscinating how, as The Way of the Wiseguy details, your law enforcement career continued with dangerous undercover roles in the Mafia despite that fact that you were in hiding from a $500,000 contract on your life as a result of Donnie Brasco. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about your life before the FBI. Where did your interest in a law enforcement career come from?
Joe Pistone: I grew up around wiseguys on the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, but I never got involved with them. I always worked all kinds of blue-collar jobs: in construction, in bars, driving tractor trailers. But for some reason, I had this idea that I could be an FBI agent. There were no cops in my family, and no role models who suggested I get into law enforcement. It was just this thing of mine. My first government job was with the Office of Naval Intelligence, investigating drug, theft, and espionage cases. Then I passed the FBI’s entrance exams and became a special agent in 1969. Very quickly, my specialty became clear: undercover.
RP: How did the assignment to infiltrate the mob happen? Was it something you were working on more yourself, as opposed to an assignment? And how was the specific Bonanno crew chosen as a target?
JP: The job to infiltrate the Bonanno crime family started out as a six-month operation and ended up lasting about six years. I talk all about the beginnings of this operation in my new book The Way of the Wiseguy.
RP: Where did the name Donnie Brasco come from? It’s got a nice ring to it but isn’t exactly dripping with algio olio. You were penetrating a La Cosa Nostra crew, mostly Italian-Americans. Why not Vinny Tagliatelle, Geno Badalamenti or Nunzio Giacolona?
JP: I heard the name in a book or movie somewhere and remembered it at the start of the operation. It sounded like a good enough name, and it worked out for me in a previous undercover operation busting up a truck hijacking ring. But most of the Bonanno wiseguys called me Donnie the Jeweler anyway.
RP: You have highly praised Johnny Depp for his portrayal of you. In the movie, Donnie Brasco’s FBI role blurs and he becomes dangerously close with Lefty Ruggiero, played of course by Al Pacino. Did the movie embellish this friendship?
JP: I was very close to Lefty and his family. If he wasn’t a killer and a complete criminal, he would have been a good guy. I spent many hours with Lefty just shooting the shit about all kinds of things. Ate dinner at his house. But in the end I was not sorry about helping put him or any of the others in jail. After all, if any of them, including Lefty, knew I was with the FBI, they would have put two in my head without thinking twice.
RP: Set straight what happened to Lefty. The movie makes it look like his murder was inevitable.
JP: We picked up Lefty on other charges the day after my identity was revealed. If we didn’t do it, he would have surely been whacked. He spent a few years in prison and after he got out he died of a heart attack.
RP: What happened when you were pulled out of the Donnie Brasco role? And talk about edge-of-the-seat suspense? Were you actually that close to having to whack someone? If so, did you have a plan B?
JP: By the time the Bureau decided to pull me out, I had been proposed to become a member of the Mafia – the only federal agent ever to infiltrate the family to that level. The Donnie Brasco Sitdown The Bonannos did want me to make a hit, and I was probably a day or two away from doing so, though I never would have carried it out, no matter what the circumstances.