WOCS: How did you get interested in gangsters in general?
Telling gangster stories of the mad, mean streets of New York offers a chance to recreate a larger than life city, a dangerous place full of possibility, where you could get whacked in a barbershop chair while getting a hot shave. Nights were alive with showgirls, like Joey’s wife Jeffie, in smoky supper clubs and Village jazz joints. Even today, with American Apparel and Dolce & Gabbana a few blocks away from Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, where Joey was gunned down over a plate of scungilli, tourists still ask to see the bullet holes (not there since Umberto’s moved down the block), nostalgic for Joey’s gritty world.
WOCS: And Joe Gallo in particular?
Crazy Joe claimed “If I’d had been born at the right time and place, they’d have put my statue up in the streets.” Joey saw himself among history’s great revolutionaries, Fidel Castro and Garibaldi, whose statue watches over Washington Square Park. In the 1960s, Joey immersed himself in the counterculture and read Camus and Sartre, heroes of the beatnik coffeehouses in Greenwich Village. Turned on to revolution, Joey rallied his brothers, Larry and Kid Blast, to overthrow the Mafia in a violent, bloody coup waged on the mean streets of New York.
Voraciously consuming books and films, Joey yearned to be more than a common hood. In the months before his death, he became sought-after in a “gangster chic” second act to Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, arguing existential philosophy while hobnobbing with literary giants, socialites, and celebrities like his good pal Jerry Orbach (who played Joey in The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight). At Elaine’s on the Upper East Side, everybody who was anybody wanted to meet a real life gangster. How a small time hood became a cultural icon was a story that needed to be told, to me, a look into America’s mythologizing of gangsters.
WOCS: How did you go about your research?
People know the name Crazy Joe Gallo, but not many know his full story and the extent to which his revolt was central to the dramatizations of The Godfather. What I set out to capture in The Mad Ones was a spirit I felt was overlooked in traditional “mob books.” In the turbulent 1960s, as America was undergoing a revolution, Crazy Joe waged a revolution against the Mafia in a fight to the death. It was as important to research the time as the life of Joey himself, duly documented in 1,500 pages of FBI files (and 1,500 more pages on his brother, Larry!) As for press from the time, the Gallos craved fame and made regular headlines in the New York Post and Daily News, not to mention a feature and photo spread in Life.
WOCS: Has there been talk about turning the book into a movie?
The book has been optioned by the Weinstein Company. The film has got to kill The Godfather. Rebelling against the Father was critical to the fervor of the sixties. To that end, The Mad Ones film will revolutionize the mob movie, akin to what The Sopranos did in television. The Godfather stands its ground. But it’s time to reclaim the original material that fueled it. “Going to the mattresses” wasn’t a time honored Sicilian tradition, but a scheme original to the Gallo brothers.
Larry Gallo and brother Crazy Joe take the fifth
before the McClellan Committee on February 17, 1959.
Crazy Joe has been likened to the Joker and the Riddler in the original Batman television series, a favorite show of the Gallos. Joey relished playing a role akin to Richard Widmark’s giggling psychopath in the noir classic Kiss of Death. In black and white photos and mug shots, Joey looks like a young Robert De Niro playing Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. Crazy Joe will be one of the most challenging and anticipated roles. It’s hard not to read the book without imagining Scorsese directing and Leonardo DiCaprio playing “Joe the Blonde,” Crazy Joe’s other nickname.
WOCS: Are you a "true" New Yorker?
Absolutely. New York City has always been a haven for people who come from somewhere else, from Bob Dylan to Joey, who flocked to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s to escape their pasts and be true outlaws. Dylan made Joey into a folk hero on his album Desire, in the tradition of the film Bonnie and Clyde. As Dylan said of Joey, “I never considered him a gangster. I always thought of him as some kind of hero in some kind of way. An underdog fighting against the elements.”