Friday, March 11, 2011

Interview with 'To Kill the Irishman' author Rick Porrello

KILL THE IRISHMAN, opening this weekend in select cities, chronicles the life of Danny Greene, notorious union boss-turned-racketeer whose rise to power put him at odds with Cleveland Mafioso in the 1970s.  Fans of GOODFELLAS, CASINO, and THE GODFATHER will relish the film’s true-crime origins and colorful characters whose dicey relationships are marked by fierce loyalty and bloody betrayals.  Casual moviegoers will enjoy it for its symphony of shootouts and car bombs. 

But the film should be of special interest to Clevelanders.  After all, most of Greene’s surreptitious shenanigans occurred in their backyards.  He labored on the Erie docks as stevedore with the International Longshoreman’s Association in the late fifties and was president of Local 1317 by 1961.  He went into business for himself after dodging embezzling charges in the early 70s, acting as muscleman collector for loan shark Alex “Shondor” Birns.  Greene then partnered with mob boss John Nardi in ’75 to commandeer Northeast Ohio’s trash-hauling business. 

His home office was located at E. 158th and Waterloo, and his Celtic Club was just a stone’s throw from where Beachland Ballroom now hosts rock concerts.  Numerous attempts on Greene’s life were staged at the lakefront parks where he exercised—yet the fitness-conscious vegetarian emerged from most of them unscathed—to the consternation of local rivals and mafia higher-ups in La Cosa Nostra / the Gambino family back in New York.  His luck ran out in a parking lot just east of Beachwood Place, when a “Trojan Horse” car bomb detonated in a vehicle next to his.

The film takes some creative liberties, collating and condensing the facts and events reported in Rick Porrello’s 1998 book, To Kill the Irishman.  But Porrello—a Lyndhurst cop for a quarter-century—understood Hollywood’s need to streamline their adaptation of his tome. 

Cleveland Movie Blog chatted with Chief Porrello over coffee at Corky and Lenny’s in Chagrin last weekend.  The author’s choice of restaurant rendezvous probably wasn’t arbitrary; the bustling deli is reputed to have been a favorite mob hangout years ago.  Greene himself died just a stretch of highway down I-271, at the intersection of Cedar and Brainard.

“I wanted them to call it TO KILL THE IRISHMAN—like the book,” said Porrello of the new Anchor Bay feature. “It would have been good for me, plus it has a nice ring to it…like To Kill a Mockingbird.  Some people keep saying the title wrong—‘Kill an Irishman.’  But they don’t want to kill all the Irishmen, just that Irishman!”  

A jazz buff who played stickman to Sammy Davis, Jr. from 1981-1983, Porrello attended Lakeland Community College and was a Mayfield cop before relocating to Lyndhurst.  He started writing about organized crime after his own generation-old family mob ties compelled him to solve his grandfather’s murder.

“I was the kid who always wanted to be a cop,” he explains.  “I was researching…and the more I did, the more I realized, this is the story of the beginning of the mafia in Cleveland.  This is huge—it has to be a book.  And who better to write it than one of the family members?”

Porrello’s early investigations resulted in his first book, The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia.  But he felt the work wasn’t quite finished.  Greene figures so prominently in the latter half of the book that he needed his own biography.

“It just seemed like a logical starting point for a new book,” said Porrello.  “Almost like a sequel to the story—to get more in-depth about Danny Greene and learn who he really was.”

The Chief described Greene as a major “headache” for the Cleveland mafia.  Known as the “Robin Hood of Collinwood,” Greene literally wore his ancestry on his sleeve.  He was a bullied schoolyard orphan and St. Ignatius High School dropout but loved to read—especially about his heritage.  He resorted to violence when it suited his interests but respected his elders, provided “scholarships” for inner-city kids, and delivered holiday turkeys to the destitute in his neighborhood.  The broiling gangster war shown in IRISHMAN may seem familiar, but performances by veteran crime-drama stars like Christopher Walken, Paul Sorvino, and Robert Davi lend credence—if not eloquence—to the period piece.  Val Kilmer and Vince D’Onofrio play opposite Ray Stevenson (PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, THOR) as Greene’s sympathetic cop friend and devoted racketeer partner, respectively; they’re the good and bad angels on Greene’s hefty shoulders, feuding for his soul.

Kilmer’s character, Joe Manditski, is an amalgam of various law enforcement personnel who targeted Greene at one time or another, said Porrello.  Alternately interrogating Greene and coaching little league with him, he acts as both narrative device and cipher, exposing less-repugnant aspects and exploiting more sympathetic traits of the gangster’s leonine personality.

But Porrello didn’t have much input on the actual film.  He wasn’t consulted on the production or the screenplay. “Nor did I want to be,” he said.  “I’m a full-time cop, and when filming started I was in my first year as police chief. Even if I’d wanted to get ambitious and say, ‘Hey—I’d like to have a role doing this-or-that,’ it wouldn’t have worked.  The only thing my agent did was, he wrote into the contract that they were supposed to place me in the background of a scene, and have expenses paid to be on set for a week.  But when I was there it was all explosions!  That’s all they were doing, and I didn’t want to be in an explosion for my one and only scene!”

Despite the hometown source material, Irishman was filmed in Detroit. “That was a big disappointment for me and [original producer] Tommy Reid,” admits Porrello.  “He picked up the rights to the story and was a key figure in this whole thing.  His dream—mine, too—was to see this film in Cleveland.  And we proceeded that way.  Tommy brought a small crew in, like a line producer, and we’d start scoping sites.  I’d take them on a tour to where Danny Greene lived, where the other guys were killed, Little Italy…but it just didn’t work out.”

But Porrello had a chance to visit the set with his children, who were spectators during a pivotal scene wherein a flustered garbage hauler tries assassinating Greene in a park. “The producer said, ‘Here—we have these wireless headphones so you can listen in,’” Porrello recalls.  “I had my kids with me, my daughter—she was nine at the time.  We were like, let’s let her listen first.  So we put those headphones on her, and he goes into that scene, and it’s ‘You motherf**ker this,  motherf**ker that!’ So we grabbed the headphones off.  That was enough of that!”

Porello's latest book, Superthief, was just optioned for a movie, as well. “It’s the story of the biggest bank burglary in U.S. history,” he explained.  “And I emphasize burglary because it wasn’t a robbery.  Robbery is a crime against a person; I stick you up, you’re a teller—that’s robbery.  With burglary, the bank is closed.  So it’s a crime against property.  And what these guys did—guys from Cleveland and Youngstown—it was a huge thing they pulled off.  I think it’s still the highest-grossing bank burglary in U.S. history. Who knows? It could be the next big heist film,” Porrello muses. 

When not keeping Lyndhurst crime-free, the author keeps busy promoting the new film and his books (“It’s been crazy!”).  He’ll appear at M&P Books (35101 Euclid Avenue, Willoughby) on March 19th from 1:00 – 3:00 pm and at Barnes & Noble (198 Crocker Park Blvd., Westlake, OH) on March 26th  from 2:00 - 3:30 pm. 

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