Feature Articles

May 2002

Extortion 101

By John William Tuohy

     When Willie Bioff, the Chicago pimp sent by the bosses to shake down the studio moguls, arrived in Hollywood, Chicago representative Johnny Roselli met him at the train station and gave the little pimp an orientation tour of the city and the industry he was about to bring to its knees.

     As they drove through Beverly Hills, Roselli stopped in front of Joan Crawford's mansion and told Bioff an interesting story.

     Roselli said that right after he had landed a job for himself as a staff investigator for the Hay's office, he was given a case to look into by MGM Studios.

     It seemed that when one of their rising stars, a real beauty named Joan Crawford, was a starving 19-year-old actress, she had appeared in several pornographic films.

     Now in 1935, some freelance extortionists said that they had a print of the film and were shaking down MGM for $100,000 to hand over the film negative.

     The bosses over at MGM considered the investment they already had in Crawford, added that with her box office appeal and potential, and decided that it would be less expensive to pay the extortionists off, but not for $100,000.

     The bosses handed the case over to Roselli and told him to contact the hoods and offer them $25,000 in cash to back off. The studio would write the money off of their taxes as a business expense.

     Roselli contacted the hoods, a group of small timers, and explained that he represented not only MGM Studios but the Mafia as well. He told them that if they ever contacted the studios or Crawford again, he'd kill them.

     Case solved. Roselli pocketed the studio's $25,000, produced the film negative and the threats stopped.

     A few years later, Roselli and Bioff met again.

     After a complicated series of federal wage laws and disputes with the movie studios over a 20% increase in salaries, the independent entertainment unions decided to strike on April 30, 1937. A strike by these unions could close down film production across California. If that happened, the syndicate would never collect on their control over the unions.

     The studios wanted the strike broken and they wanted the syndicate to break it. Frank Nitti argued against any involvement, but this time things were reversed, the studios pressured the outfit, and took their case to Lucky Luciano and Longy Zwillman in New York. Luciano and Zwillman talked to Nitti and, reluctantly, Nitti agreed to break the strike.

     Nitti handed the job to Johnny Roselli who hired a squad of twenty leg-breakers from Chicago and San Francisco and marched them to the Hollywood police station where they were given gun permits and then brought them to the studio gates where the striking union membership was gathered.

     Armed with baseball bats and steel chains, Roselli's goons threw themselves at the striking union members who took a severe beating that first day but were back on the strike line the next morning.

     The outfit goons continued to dole out beatings for several more weeks before the union brass imported its own sluggers, some hired from local gyms, others brought in from the Long Shoreman's union in New York.

     Herb Sorrell, a labor organizer for the union recalled that "there were numerous fights, and it was a rough strike. In the six weeks that it lasted, there were several killed and I didn't know how many injured. In fact it was the roughest strike I ever participated in."

     Realizing that brute force wouldn't win the strike, Roselli told George Brown and Willie Bioff to call a press conference with the studio bosses and declare the striking union's leadership as "communist infiltrated."

     Then all powerful Screen Actors Guild voted to ignore the union's picket lines and eventually the smaller unions either disbanded or became a part of the larger organizations. The Federation of Motion Picture Crafts was destroyed, the outfit's union reigned supreme.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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