Before Tony Soprano or Don Corleone or Tony Montana there was Lucky Luciano -- the real-life patriarch of modern organized crime.
Luciano was the Sicilian immigrant who rose to power in the Mafia in the U.S. in the 1920s and transformed it into a flourishing enterprise based on legitimate economic models. He ordered gangland killings, consolidated warring crime factions and began laundering profits from narcotics and prostitution through lawful businesses.
Criminals paid attention. So did the cops. Even the White House deferred to Luciano during World War II, imploring him to marshal the Mafia to help the Allies crush the enemy -- a covert intervention that earned him a presidential pardon. Major studios struggled for decades to secure the rights to the mobster's life story but failed because Luciano's family was reluctant to bring his crime-filled saga to the screen.
Finally, a movie about Luciano is in the works, and the driving force behind the project is Joseph Isgro, a producer once branded a Mafia soldier by the FBI. Isgro was a producer on the 1992 film "Hoffa" while under indictment on racketeering charges.
How Isgro secured the rights remains a mystery -- one he will not discuss except to say that he got them legitimately. Isgro says he was dogged by the same type of skepticism decades ago when he beat out Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and the studios to lock down the Jimmy Hoffa life-story rights.
"Listen, I was 15 years old when Luciano died," the 60-year-old Isgro said in a recent interview. "If someone wants to try to associate me with Luciano, then so be it. The government has wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money chasing me. You know what those guys say about me, right?"
Here's what they say: In a 2000 affidavit, the FBI singled out Isgro as one of 192 identifiable members of the Gambino crime family -- a mob soldier who has been under federal investigation for many years.
Isgro scoffs at those charges.
"I'm a soldier all right," Isgro said. "A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, and a proud member of the Isgro family."
Isgro broke into Hollywood 15 years ago, producing "Hoffa," a 20th Century Fox film about the mobbed-up union leader, which starred Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito. He and Gary Arnold are co-executive producing "Baby-O," a movie starring Theresa Russell and David Proval that began shooting recently in Las Vegas.
For "Luciano," Isgro has approached a specific A-list actor to play the lead role (whom he cannot yet publicly identify) and is wooing several actors from "The Sopranos" to join the cast. Isgro and his associate Dan Michaels, chief of Full Force Films, have also interviewed a number of writers and directors, including Charles Matthau, son of the late actor Walter Matthau. Isgro already signed hit music producer Scott Storch to score the soundtrack and is in talks with New Line Cinema to distribute the movie, according to New Line's Joseph Khouri.
Charles "Lucky" Luciano was born on Nov. 24, 1897, in a tiny, sulfur-mining town in Sicily called Lercara Friddi. His family immigrated to the U.S. in 1906.
Before he was 21, Luciano had established himself as a deft criminal, helping to consolidate the mob's bootlegging operation on New York's Lower East Side. He worked his way up into the inner circles of the nation's biggest mobsters, Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano -- and then orchestrated the assassinations of both men.
Taking over with the help of childhood friend Meyer Lansky and strong arm Bugsy Siegel, Luciano set out to restructure organized crime in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Detroit. He installed a corporate-like board of directors called "the Commission" and started washing illicit mob earnings through legitimate companies.
During his reign, Luciano attended operas with politicians and partied at nightclubs with the Hollywood elite, including Frank Sinatra and George Raft. He was a well-known figure in New York City's Little Italy, where his word was law, according to John "Cha Cha" Ciarcia, who played one of Phil Leotardo's crime gang in "The Sopranos" and is talking to Isgro about a role in the Luciano film.
"Luciano lived right here on Mulberry Street when I was growing up," Ciarcia said in a phone interview from New York. "I remember who he hung out with, what they looked like, how they acted. This project is perfect for Joe. He was just out here in Little Italy, soaking it all up."
The high life caught up with Luciano in 1936, when he was busted for running a prostitution ring. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 50 years behind bars -- the longest prison term ever handed out for such an offense.
Power behind bars
Incarceration, however, did not diminish Luciano's power. During World II, U.S. military leaders sought out the mobster's assistance while he was behind bars. Under a secret plan called Operation Underworld, Luciano agreed to enlist the Mafia to counter Axis infiltration on U.S. waterfronts and to ensure quick passage for U.S. forces moving through the Italian peninsula.
In return, the government allowed Luciano to run his criminal empire from his prison cell with a promise to parole him in 1946 under the condition that he would return to Italy.
Isgro says his film will follow Luciano's entire life but is likely to focus more on his later years in jail and in exile. Luciano was a young man, 39, when he was incarcerated, and he lived to be 64 before dying of a heart attack in Naples, Italy, on Jan. 26, 1962. (There is speculation that his death might have been caused by poisoning).
Isgro says the movie will detail the "crucial" role that Luciano played in the U.S. war effort. The film will also show how Luciano was able to build the American syndicate from behind bars and control it later from Cuba and Italy.
"We're going to show another side of Luciano," Isgro said. "Did the man deserve to be canonized as a saint? Probably not. But he wasn't 100% bad either. Nobody is -- no matter what the government would lead you to believe."
Before entering the film world, Isgro was the nation's most powerful record promoter during the 1980s, pitching songs to radio stations for stars including Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson. He is currently developing a movie about the inner workings of the music business.
Isgro spent the 1990s fending off a 51-count payola and racketeering indictment filed by the Department of Justice. The U.S attorney's office spent 10 years and $10 million to pursue Isgro, but the case against him was thrown out because of government misconduct. In 1999, the FBI investigated Isgro for possible ties to a Los Angeles-based international prostitution ring but determined that he had no involvement in the operation.
One year later, Isgro was busted for loan sharking in Beverly Hills. Prosecutors alleged that proceeds from a tiny loan sharking operation run by Isgro fed the coffers of the Gambino crime family. The government never proved any mob ties during Isgro's trial. He was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to 50 months in prison for extortion and loan sharking.
The lesson he learned behind bars, Isgro says, can be summed up in three words: "The food stinks."
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