The 'On The Waterfront' TrialsPart Three: ‘Oddfather’ Vincent "Chin" Gigante Admits to ‘Crazy Act’
By James Ridgway de Szigethy
The bizarre ‘On the Waterfront’ trials, replete with instances of ‘Life imitating Art imitating Life,’ have taken on another strange twist with the confession by convicted Genovese Family Godfather Vincent "Chin" Gigante that his displays of irrational behavior over several decades were a performance to avoid prosecution. Gigante’s odd behavior included wandering the streets of Greenwich Village dressed only in a bathrobe while mumbling to himself, and other classic stunts, which would include checking himself into mental hospitals. In the end, the Feds finally had the incontrovertible evidence that proved Gigante was not insane – tape recordings of Gigante’s horrified reaction to the defining moment of our time – the terrorists attacks on America on 9/11.
Like almost every American with relatives in New York and Washington on 9/11, Gigante’s first reaction to the tragedy was to telephone his children to determine if they were safe. So shocked and stunned was Gigante over the unprecedented loss of innocent lives that his emotions took the better of him, and he dropped the insanity façade as he spoke to one of his sons from prison, a conversation that was recorded. The tape shows that Gigante was concerned that innocent children might have been murdered, and one of his sons confirmed that there were children on the planes that were hijacked and crashed. Gigante reacted to this horrific news by stating he would pray for the children.
This tape betrayed Vincent Gigante to be a religious man who is patriotic and cares about America’s children. The tape also shows Gigante to be someone who is in contact with reality. The tape thus also suggests that Gigante was faking mental illness for many years as part of a ploy to avoid prosecution and that in doing so, Gigante was guilty of Obstruction of Justice. Facing almost certain conviction, Gigante agreed to a plea bargain in regards to those charges and other charges involving the control of the Genovese Family of the Waterfront of New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Such control was possible through the Mob’s influence in corrupt Locals of the International Longshoremen’s Union, a persistent plague on working people and their families that has been occurring for over half a Century and was the inspiration for the movie classic "On the Waterfront." That movie detailed the story of a young boxer, portrayed by Marlon Brando in an Oscar-winning performance, who could have "been a Contender" had not he taken money from the Mob to take dives in important bouts. Mirroring actor Brando in real life, a young Vincent Gigante also sought a way out from poverty by becoming a boxer, only to fall prey to the easy money offered by the Mob who fixed the fights he engaged in. Once hooked by members of Organized Crime, Gigante was theirs for life.
As Gigante rose up in the ranks of the Genovese Family throughout the ensuing years and decades, getting a handle on the ‘real’ Vincent Gigante would become a game for professionals in both law enforcement and the Media. Evidence regarding the man was often conflicting. There was ample evidence that Gigante was a devoted family man who loved his children and took measures so that they would have a better life, one not involving organized crime. There was evidence that Gigante was something of a bumbling figure, as evidence by his botched attempt in 1957 to carry out a hit on Mob associate Frank Costello. Gigante would later play on this theme as he carried out his crazy act. Gigante was regarded by many as something of a pure businessman, and the Genovese Family of which he was the alleged head of for many years was run as a sophisticated operation that ran many white-collar, non-criminal operations, including in the recording industry and motion picture industry. As Gigante’s stature grew, he became so revered, respected, and feared that most "connected" men would never dare speak his name in public, but rather refer to him by stroking their chin, a reference that goes back to his days as a boxer when he sported a prominent and defiant chin to his opponents.
One member of the Gigante family has conceded to reporters that Gigante was in fact a "gambler" and was thus "connected" but was adamant in that he was not the Godfather of the Genovese Family. Gigante’s brother Ralph, also said to have been involved in gambling, died a tragic death several years ago. Another brother, Louis, a Catholic Priest, has served New York’s minority communities for many years as the provider of quality low-income housing to the working poor of the Bronx. Father Gigante had seized upon the opportunity that presented itself when decades of failed Social policy in New York resulted in the literal destruction by arson of Housing projects in the Bronx, a phenomenon that created the ‘war-zone’ backdrop of motion pictures such as ‘Fort Apache, the Bronx.’ Much of the bleak landscape depicted in that movie is now a thing of the past.
As Father Gigante developed his career as a community activist his brother continued his undoubted rise within the Genovese Family. By the 1970s Gigante’s behavior had become so bizarre that some psychiatrists had become convinced that Gigante was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Gigante, after all, was exhibiting classic symptoms of the illness, which included his rantings that members of law enforcement were plotting against him and following his every move. On the other hand, some could make the case that such behavior on Gigante’s part was an indication of his contact with reality, as it was a fact that members of law enforcement were indeed plotting against him and following his every move. Whether this was a case of self-fulfilling prophecies, the fact is that Gigante’s interaction with law enforcement became increasingly surreal; in one instance, when approached by FBI agents on a Greenwich Village sidewalk, Gigante fell to his knees and started praying; in another legendary instance, FBI agents armed with subpoenas found Gigante standing naked in the shower of his bathroom, holding an umbrella over his head to keep him dry. Such antics both amused and infuriated those in law enforcement determined to bring down the "Oddfather" of Greenwich Village.
Gigante’s crazy act succeeded for years in preventing him from standing trial. Finally, by 1997 Court proceedings and rulings had at long last allowed the Feds to pursue a case against him. During Gigante’s racketeering trial in Brooklyn, opinion was divided among those reporters covering the trial as to Gigante’s mental status; some believed Gigante was a sane person pretending to be insane; some believed Gigante was an insane person pretending to be insane; some believed Gigante’s mental condition was actually harmed by the many drugs his doctors were giving to him, which included Valium. This theory would later be supported when Gigante’s mental condition improved dramatically once he was incarcerated by the Feds and no longer medicated by his former physicians. Gigante's improved mental capacity proved to be his downfall once the Feds had the incriminating conversations made on 9/11.
In addition to the tape-recorded evidence against Gigante in the new trial, the ‘Oddfather’ would have faced the testimony of George Barone, a Genovese Family associate. Barone grew up on Manhattan’s West Side and in his youth joined a gang known as the "Jets," which were the inspiration for the Broadway Musical "West Side Story," later adapted into an acclaimed motion picture. In the first Waterfront trial Barone admitted to his role in several murders. Despite such admissions, Barone’s testimony in that trial helped secure the convictions of all the defendants, including two brothers of the late Gambino Family Godfather John Gotti. In the second trial, Barone was prepared to testify as to his dealings with Longshoremen’s Union operations along the East Coast, some of which put him at odds with one of Gigante’s sons.
Facing what would be for someone of Gigante’s age and health a life sentence if convicted in the latest trial, Vincent Gigante made what would seem to those familiar with this case a rational decision; a guilty plea to the Obstruction of Justice charge in exchange for leniency in sentencing both himself and his son, who also pleaded guilty. The deal with Federal Prosecutors was hammered out with the help of Gigante’s criminal attorney Benjamin Brafman, who previously has represented clients including Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and nightclub owner Peter Gatien.
With this second trial now concluded, the Feds have one more remaining ‘On the Waterfront’ trial to pursue this year; that of Julius Nasso, the former Producer of the Steven Seagal films ‘Marked for Death,’ ‘Out for Justice,’ ‘Under Siege 2,’ and ‘Fire Down Below.’ Seagal, who appeared as a Prosecution Witness in the first trial, alleges that Nasso and some Associates of the Gambino Family attempted to extort money from him. Prior to his indictment in this case, Nasso had filed a $60 million lawsuit against his former partner Seagal alleging Seagal backed out of a deal to Produce 4 more movies with him.
Some who believe in Free Will are likely to have no sympathy for Vincent Gigante, believing that he made choices early in his life that led him on the road to a lifetime of involvement in organized crime. Still, others may view Gigante the actor in the light of the character portrayed by Marlon Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT, as someone whom life offered few choices or options. Gigante the boxer and later actor, like Brando, the actor portraying a boxer, saw their one opportunity out of poverty as their skills as a fighter. In both the real world and the motion picture that represented that world, both men found themselves drawn into a profession that was completely controlled by the Mafia. With the fights Vincent Gigante participated in being fixed by the Mob, young Vinnie never really was presented with the opportunity to show to the world his true fighting skills. Had he been given a level playing field, Gigante may in fact have failed in his boxing career. On the other hand, if the boxing profession had been a clean one, who knows how far Vincent Gigante could have gone? Perhaps he could have been a Contender.
...To be continued
Related Stories: THE ‘ON THE WATERFRONT’ TRIALS
Part One: The First Trial Begins in Brooklyn Federal Court
THE ‘ON THE WATERFRONT TRIALS
Part Two: Three Members of the Gotti Family are Convicted
Reporter’s note: This series referenced information published by Tim Dirks of Greatest Films, (www.filmsite.org) which is regarded by numerous movie critics and members of the Media as the best source of Motion Picture reviews, information, and film history. Three movies mentioned in this series, ‘On the Waterfront,’ The Godfather,’ and ‘West Side Story’ appear on Dirks’ list of the 100 Greatest Films ever made.
J. R. de Szigethy
James Ridgway de Szigethy can be reached at JAMESDE@prodigy.net.
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