Feature Articles

November 2001

Televised Gangsters

By John William Tuohy

     Television, and the image it presents of mobsters as the premier evil in America, has always been a thorn in the side of organized criminals.

     The hoods' problems with television began when United States Senator Estes Kefauver introduced a resolution on January 5, 1950, calling for a sweeping examination of organized crime in America.

     That in itself was nothing for the hoods to be worried about. For decades, some politician someplace was always calling for another investigation into organized crime. But this time it would be different, these hearings, the Kefauver hearings, would be televised for the entire country to see.

     The Kefauver Committee traveled 52,000 miles to fifteen cities to hold its hearings while some 30 million Americans watched as the mobsters were grilled.

     By the time the committee ended in May of 1952, eighty-six percent of American homes were watching the hearings religiously. Overnight millions of Americans knew the names Kefauver along with Jake Guzak, Charles Fischetti, Tony Accardo and others.

     The committee called more then 600 witnesses, compiled 11,500 pages of testimony. Yet, not one of the 22 contempt of court cases stemming from the investigation held up in court. Of the 221 proposals submitted to Congress by the committee less then 10% were enacted into law.

     But, if the Kefauver committee accomplished nothing else, it dragged organized crime out of the shadows, the place where it operates the most effectively, and brought it out into the glare of television lights where the almighty hoods were, as writer William Brashler put it, "prodded and poked at by committee members like freshly captured rhinos."

     While the committee may have failed as a practical lawmaking venture, it did propel Estes Kefauver out of obscurity.

     Aside from a spectacular bid for the Presidency in 1952, he became one of the best known and most widely respected men in America. He was in constant demand on the lecture circuit, earning as much as $25,000 for personal appearances.

     A book that was ghost-written in his name made the New York Times bestseller list for three months and CBS television placed him under contract to do the narration for a CBS show called "Crime Syndicated" and Hollywood beckoned him for the introductory narration for Humphrey Bogart's film "The Enforcer."

      Television producers and politicians, especially the Kennedy brothers, watched in wonder as Kefauver's career skyrocketed and realized there was a future in televised gangsters.

      Hollywood saw the future in televised gangsters as well, and shortly after the Kefauver committee folded its tent, the TV waves were flooded with gangster epics, but none was as successful as "The Untouchables."

     Al Capone probably never knew Elliot Ness's name, since, for the Capone organization, Ness and his group of so-called "Untouchables," government agents who were supposed to be unbribable were a mere nuisance more than anything else.

     Elliot Ness died in 1957, his exploits against Capone almost unknown and forgotten. However, a few days before his death, Ness's biography "The Untouchables" was published. The book, complete with occasional embellishments, sold well and Hollywood, specifically Desi-Lu productions, which was owned by Desi Arnez and Luci Ball, decided that Ness's exploits, properly rewritten, would make a fine television show.

      They were right. In its first season, The Untouchables, starring John Kennedy's former roommate Robert Stack, was a smash hit.

     It was also an odd twist of fate that the comedian Gary Morton, who would eventually marry Luci Ball, had once been married to Judy Campbell's sister Jackie.

     But, the show didn't go over well with the Mafia, which still operated, more or less, as an unknown entity. What's more, the mob in 1960 was ruled over by men who had known Capone and Nitti and were fond of them.

      The national commission figured, correctly, that by allowing the show to air that it would set a precedent. After all, they reasoned, if the outfit were allowed to be discussed openly on television, what was next?

     "So the council had a meet about it," wrote Lucky Luciano, "and one of the guys in Profaci's outfit named Joe Colombo come up with the idea of forming a legitimate association of Americans with Italian backgrounds to start a campaign against usin' just Italian names for them gangsters in the TV shows and movies. The whole idea was to try and get The Untouchables off the fuckin' air."

     The syndicate backed Colombo's idea and put money into something called the Federation of Italian American Democratic Organizations, headed by US Congressman Alfred Santangelo, who, according to Luciano, knew from the start that the entire organization was dreamed up and manufactured by the mob.

     The federation launched a boycott against the program's sponsor, Ligget & Myers Tobacco Company, who eventually withdrew their support from the show.

     But the boycott that was supposed to take the show off the air had just the opposite effect. When word of the Mafia-backed ban made the press, the show's rating went through the roof and Chesterfield cigarettes was back as the program's sponsor.

     Exasperated, the Chicago mob's elders put Johnny Roselli, their west coast representative, on the case. Roselli recruited L.A mobster Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno to fix the problem by shooting Desi Arnez, the show's primary producer.

     "Millions of people all over the world see this show every fucking week," Roselli told Fratianno. "It's even popular in Italy. And what they see is a bunch of Italian lunatics running around with machine guns, talking out of the corner of their mouths, slopping spaghetti like a bunch of fucking pigs. They make Capone and Nitti look like bloodthirsty maniacs. The top guys have voted a hit. We're going to clip Desi Arnez the producer of the show."

     Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and it was decided that killing Arnez, who was one of the world's most popular entertainment personalities, would only cause more problems than it would solve, but, still, the boys still wanted the show taken off the air.

     Since Arnez was leasing space to Frank Sinatra's production company at Desilu studios, where Arnez was also filming The Untouchables, Tony Accardo told Sam Giancana to contact Frank Sinatra and have him talk some sense into Arnez.

     While a direct order from the Godfather himself would have scared most Americans, for a wanna-be gangster like Sinatra, it was almost an orgasmic experience.

     In late April of 1961, Sinatra, actress Dorothy Provine and Jimmy Van Heusen drove to the Indian Wells Country Club and waited in the restaurant, where Arnez ended most evenings at the bar, when Arnez walked in flanked by two massive bodyguards.

     Almost on schedule, Arnez strolled into the club, dwarfed by his bodyguards. Spotting Sinatra, Arnez yelled across the room,"Hi Ya Dago!" and then walked over to Sinatra's table.

      Sinatra was all business and got right to the point. He told Arnez that his Italian gangster friends didn't like the Untouchable program and that it made all Italians look like killers.

      Arnez, slurred with whiskey, replied: "What do you want me to do Frank, make them all Jews?" Except in his thick Cuban accent it came out "U's."

     "You want them all to be U's, Frankie? Huh? Let me tell you something, I remember you when jew couldn't get a yob Frankie, couldn't get a yob! So why don't you forget all this bullshit and just have your drinks and enjoy yourself? Stop getting your nose in where it doesn't belong you and your so-called friends," and then walked away leaving a castrated Sinatra to say "I couldn't hit him, we've been friends for too long."

     At around 4:00 A.M. Sinatra's group, boozed up, left the bar and went to Van Heusen's house in Palm Desert, with Sinatra still fuming over the humiliation he had taken from Arnez.

     Once inside Van Heusen's house, Sinatra exploded and attacked an original painting by Norman Rockwell, carving it up with a kitchen knife. "If you try to fix that or put it back," he told Van Heusen, "I will come and blow the fucking house up."

     The Untouchables not only stayed on the air, it became a classic and spawned a film and started television's love affair with gangsters.

     When Bobby Kennedy decided to turn on the mob, the most effective move he made against them was to focus attention on it, by calling press conferences to discuss the Justice Department's progress against the outfit, by referring to the Dons by their full names.

     That was bad enough, until finally, to the mob's horror, Kennedy damaged them the most by putting a made member of the New York Mafia, a hood named Joe Valachi, on nationwide television to tell what he knew about the mob in America.

     The Bureau of Narcotics had nailed Valachi and had him put away in a Federal Prison in Atlanta for fifteen years on a dope peddling charge.

     Normally, a career hood like Valachi would have done time and suffered quietly, but Valachi heard that the mob suspected him of being an informant and intended to kill him as he walked through the prison yard.

     Understandably paranoid, Valachi mistook an otherwise innocent con for a mob assassin and cracked open his skull with an iron bar, killing him instantly.

     Now facing a murder rap and with mob killers still lurking in the shadows, Valachi set a precedent for hundreds of other mobsters; he turned informant.

     Valachi's flip and the justification this would give to the Department of Justice was so important that Robert Kennedy flew down to Atlanta to interview the gangster himself.

     Valachi later told the FBI that Kennedy had promised him freedom and a new life if he cooperated and testified before Congress. When it looked like Kennedy intended to renege on the deal, Valachi set fire to his jail cell in protest. When the matter was reported to Attorney General Kennedy he said, "Tell Valachi to knock it off´┐Żor we'll set him free."

     Valachi's riveting testimony before Congress, covered live on national television, confirmed that there was a national crime syndicate in operation in every major city in the country. Furthermore, Valachi named 289 suspected Mob members and outlined the five major mob families and their inner workings.

     Most of the testimony Valachi gave to Congress was unusable in court for one reason or another, but that didn't matter. Valachi had served his purpose because what Robert Kennedy wanted the most out of Valachi's testimony was to shake up Congress.

     After Valachi appeared before the House, Congress passed a series of laws, suggested by RFK, that would allow legal wiretapping on a massive scale and for the Justice Department to be able to offer immunity to witnesses against the mob.

     Valachi's last words to Congress before he stepped down from his testimony, were prophetic. Perhaps referring to John Kennedy, the gangster looked slowly across the members of the panel and said, "Gentlemen, I'll say this. Some day the mob is going to put a man in the White House, and he's not going to know it until they present him with the bill."

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