After watching Kill the Irishman, I was flipping through the bonus features on the DVD and was shocked to discover the person who wrote the book is Rick Porrello and he lives in the next town over from mine. If you read my blog you know how much I love that movie as I wrote about it for a St. Patrick’s Day post. I contacted Rick and he graciously agreed to an interview. I was shocked again to discover that not only is Rick an expert on American crime families and mafia history, but that he was also in law enforcement and he spent years traveling the world as the drummer in Sammy David Jr.’s band. Rick is a fascinating guy and a superb storyteller. I’d recommend you read his book about Danny Greene and see the movie as both are well done. But before you do that, allow me to introduce you to Rick Porrello.
Are you originally from Cleveland?
I’m from Cleveland Heights. I grew up across from the high school on Washington Boulevard and I was about 45 seconds late to class every day.
What was your high school experience like?
I was in the music department so a lot of it was music-related. My brother, Ray Jr., played drums. My father, Ray Sr., also played drums. We were a music family, a jazz family, drummers. I was in the big band, the jazz ensemble and I had to be in marching band. Marching band is not among my most fond memories of high school. [laughing] But I had to do it.
What’s your favorite Sammy Davis, Jr. story?
There were five musicians in his band in addition to a music director, a rhythm section, lead trumpeter and five staff members. Sammy had security, an executive secretary, a road manager, a stage manager and roughly five crew members—about a fifteen piece entourage total. I was Sammy Davis, Jr.’s drummer. I followed in my brother’s footsteps—Ray Porrello, Jr. was Sammy’s drummer for about seven years. When he left, I took over. It was an easy, gentle transition. I’d already met Sammy and knew a lot of his musicians from my brother’s experience. I loved working with them and I miss it to this day. Working those theatres, those clubs, Caesars Palace, Harrah’s, The Lido in Paris. I saw London and Australia. I was at the top of an industry. I enjoyed working with the traveling comedians, too. When we worked with a comedian, I was in the wings watching his act every night, laughing over and over again at the same jokes. Guys like Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal and Rip Taylor. Sammy and Count Basie did a show together. The Basie band opened then Sammy came out and did two songs with the Count before he went off. I got to play those first two songs and that was quite a treat be sitting in with Count Basie and his great rhythm section. I was a bit of a shutterbug so I took a lot of pictures. I hope to write a book about it. The first book that I ever thought about writing was about my time on the road with Sammy Davis, Jr. because I’d come home and tell everyone my stories. Many times I heard someone say, “Gosh, you should write a book about that.” [laughing] I started putting together all of my itineraries, some of the souvenir paperwork and the programs from certain concerts and so forth, and I started writing. That book remains on the back burner to this day and I hope to eventually finish it and tell some of those stories about working for Sammy Davis, Jr.
I can thank my father and brother for that experience as well as my drum teacher, Ed Bobick. When I got the call from George Rhodes, Sammy’s music director, I wanted to get into law enforcement college. My parents knew I had an interest in electronics. They nudged me toward electronics. I finished high school and I got into Lakeland Community College. Electronics is all about math. I was not a real good math student so I started flunking out of the classes. Ray had recommended me as his replacement when he became tired of traveling and put in his notice. I think my father might have had something to do with that, too, because he was a drummer. He was in the musicians’ union—he was the head business agent for Local 4—and was a close friend of the great drummer Louie Bellson. I think my father had a dream in earlier years for us to move to California where my brother and I would be star drummers and he would manage us. George called me one afternoon when I was eighteen years old and he said they wanted to audition me at a gig in Minneapolis at the Carlton Dinner Theatre. I said, “How’s it going to work? Am I gonna sit in during a rehearsal?” He said, “No, babe. You got the gig for three nights.” I was thinking, “Oh, my God. I’m going to be playing the shows.” And to make a long story short, I went out there and played the rehearsal. Sammy came out on stage and I was cool with that because I’d met him before. I knew some of the charts because my brother brought the recordings home. I did the rehearsal and then we did the first show. After the first show, Sammy called the five musicians and George, the music director, back to his dressing room. Sammy said that I was a “bitch.” I understood what that meant. It was musician lingo for “you played your ass off.”
“Bitch” in today’s lingo means something different.
He hired me and gave all of his musicians red silk handkerchiefs to commemorate the occasion.
I couldn’t have been happier and everyone congratulated me. After the first show I had the gig and I still have the red handkerchief. Years ago, one of my girlfriends washed it. You don’t wash silk. It was kind of ruined after that, but I still have it.
Was he a hard guy to play for?
No, he wasn’t. He was a hard guy to follow for the house musicians because he jumped around a lot. He would set up the first three tunes for the show and after that it was up for grabs. Once you spent a couple of weeks with him you got to learn some of the cues. If he started talking about his hometown you’d know that he was going to be singing “New York, New York.” If he started talking about one of his hits he was either going to be doing “Candy Man”, “What Kind of Fool am I?”, “Mr. Bojangles”, or “I Gotta Be Me.” Those were the little cues that you would learn because he did not like to do the same show twice. He liked to jump around a bit and that’s what made it lively for him. He used to tell the audience he wanted it to be informal. He wanted his show to be like a house party. Those are the things I remember.
I also remember keeping an eye on Sammy. That was the future police officer in me. I was thirteen years old when my mother said, “What do you want for Christmas?” I wanted a police radio from RadioShack that picked up calls. I thought that was the coolest thing. So I got a police radio and started listening to the Cleveland Heights police channel. Cleveland Heights is a big suburb. It’s busy. There was a lot of activity and that thing was on from morning until night. We lived across from the high school so there was always some activity. I had a cousin that got into police work and joined the Cleveland Heights department which further interested me in police work. In high school and out on the road I hung around the security guys and the bodyguards and would talk to them about their careers. Most of them came from law enforcement.
Sammy joked around a couple of times about me hanging around more with the bodyguards than I did with the musicians. [laughing] I remember having that bodyguard mentality. One time in Mexico some drunk guy threw a glass at Sammy. He was pissed and somebody said they knew who it was. The lighting director, Dino, took off fast toward the lobby to catch the guy and I was right on his heels. I was just this skinny kid drummer and they were joking about that later, that if Dino had stopped I would have slammed into the back of him and probably knocked myself out.
They knew I had an interest in police work. In our final show together, Sammy gave me a real special farewell and wished me luck going from the music business to police work. I put that in one of my books along with a picture of me with him.
And then you have another unique event in your life. You write Kill the Irishman and it gets optioned for a movie before it gets published. Can you explain how that happened?
My interest in organized crime really stems from the fact that I had a grandfather that was killed during prohibition. I had grown up as a young teenager knowing about my grandfather being killed and it having something to do with the mob, but we really didn’t talk about it. My father didn’t know a whole lot. When I was teenager I started looking at these books he had on the shelf and I found our name in the back. I learned a little bit more and it planted the seed.
I had this period of time when I started taking police entrance exams and was not getting hired right away. So one of the things I did was research my grandfather’s murder. I started going to the newspaper archives at the wonderful public library and learned that the murder was part of a huge story. It was really the beginning of the mob in Cleveland. Again, making a very long story short, I decided that this had to be a book, and I was going to write this book about my grandfather and the Lonardo mob family and the Sugar War, the beginning of the mafia in Cleveland. I wasn’t a great English student but I just knew that I was going to write this book. It took nine years. It was a labor of love. It took me three years—some of which overlap the nine years—to get it published commercially. I was thankful that Lyle Stuart, the head of Barricade Books, a smaller but well known publisher, took a chance on me. The book did well but I swore I would never write another. I was a newlywed when the book came out and Barricade sent me a case of books. When I got the book in my hand, my wife opened a bottle of champagne and in my heart I thought, “I gotta do this again.” It was so cool to see my name on that book. I was published commercially.
I had a friend with the Mayfield Village Police Department, an Irishman named Pat Dearden, and he said from the beginning that I should be writing the Danny Greene story. I said, “No, I want to write about my grandfather.” But the natural progression was the Danny Greene story because the last chapters of The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia were about Danny Greene. So I went back and then took that whole thing and started over and a lot of the research overlapped. I decided then that I wanted to self-publish. I went to Lyle Stuart and I said I’d like to increase my royalty rate by a quarter of a percent. He said, “Absolutely not. That’s not the terms of our contract. We can’t increase it…”
He wouldn’t give you a quarter of a percent?
“We don’t do that,” he said. They didn’t want to hear anything about that. They’re charging $22 a book retail and I figured I’m making a quarter or fifty cents per copy. But that’s the way commercial publishing works.
So then I looked into self-publishing. It started with getting a self-education in self-publishing and I started a small press, Next Hat Press. “Next Hat” came from, “Writing this book is going to be my next hat.” I had music, I had police work and now my next hat is writing. My website partner, Thom Basie, helped me come up with the cover design for To Kill the Irishman and he also does all the technical work for AmericanMafia.com. The hat that he came up with was a fedora, like a mobster’s hat, hanging on a hat rack. So I did that and there was a newspaper article about me that came out in the News Herald. Well, Tommy Reid, the filmmaker, had friends from Cleveland because he went to Ohio State. They sent him that article. He got in touch with me. He wanted his first movie to be something about the Italians and the Irish because that’s his ethnic heritage. And amazingly, at the same time, I received another letter of interest from a former Clevelander who moved to L.A. and wanted to make movies. He was also interested in optioning To Kill the Irishman. So I sent out some query letters and found Peter Miller, a literary and film agent who had turned me down for The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia, my first book. Of course, now I’m bringing him two movie deals on the table and he took that and really hammered out an agreement with Tommy Reid that was worth much more than the original proposals had been. I did very well with Peter at the helm. He’s a real bulldog of an agent. He’s a literary lion—that’s his nickname. He loves lions. He’s really been in my corner over the years, making sure I got a good deal when the option was renewed.
And then the years went by. Tommy Reid did a hell of a job. I give him all the credit in the world. He brought in an independent production company, Code Entertainment, and once they got on board, things started picking up. In 2009,I got promoted to the chief’s position and that was an extremely busy year for me. Peter Miller called me in January and told me my film had been green-lighted and they were going to start filming. Ray Stevenson was going to play Danny Greene. Val Kilmer was going to play a policeman and Vincent D’Onofrio was going to play John. Paul Sorvino was going to have a role, too. At that point I didn’t even know if it was going to be a made for TV film or made for cable or an HBO special like Jim Neff’s Mobbed Up which was one of my resources for writing both of my books. Tommy Reid’s goal from the beginning was that this was going to be a big screen movie and it was going to have a theatrical release. It played in a lot of theatres across the country. It was incredible that a book that was self-published would not only get optioned for film but would get made. And then would not only get made but would get released nationally. I have been blessed. I’ve been very fortunate.
As I read the book and watched the movie, I couldn’t imagine this kind of thing happening today. The violence and number of bombs that exploded in a major American city was almost surreal.
I think they did a great job with the film and their ten million dollar budget, but I had almost no creative input in the whole process. I didn’t push for that and I wouldn’t have known what to do at the time. However, I did feel that there were too many bombs going off in the film. The director, Jonathan Hensleigh, when I was on set in Detroit, said he was going to blow up a police car and kill two policemen. I told him, “You can’t do that. It’s going to change the whole tone of the story. That didn’t happen.” In the end, they kept the scene in but it was part of a montage and goes by quickly so it doesn’t really change the tone of the story. There weren’t really that many bombs going off and every one of them wasn’t a huge bomb where somebody got killed. Some of them were storefront bombings or a car bombing where nobody was hurt.
There was a car bombing death at Mayfield and Coventry in Cleveland Heights, right?
Yeah, the bomber died. The bomb went off prematurely. There were people that were killed in the bombings, but the film—and this is my take—is the Hollywood version of the Danny Greene story.
There is heightened drama to it. It’s melodramatic. I don’t consider myself a filmmaker. I’m learning about the process but the tone that they took, the angle—it’s like an action film.
But there were bombs going off. I can’t imagine that going on today. I think that with Homeland Security, the federal government and the way agencies are collaborating—the intelligence community—I don’t think you’d see it today. I don’t think you would have bombings, at least to that intensity.
Were you on the set for any of the filming?
I was on the set for one week in Detroit with my family. It was filmed there because of the film tax rebate. Tommy would visit Cleveland and I’d take him on a tour and show him where everything happened—Brainard Place, Collinwood, the spot where Shondor was killed, the place where John Nardi was killed. My dream was to film Kill the Irishman in Cleveland. That didn’t work out, unfortunately, but who am I to complain about that? [laughing] It would have been really cool for my hometown, the jobs, the focus on Cleveland…
It was difficult to film in Cleveland then.
It was. Things have really changed but unfortunately a little late for Kill the Irishman. I used to have these visions of the Lyndhurst police directing traffic around Brainard Place if we would have gotten permission to use the parking lot for the bombing scene.
At Brainard Place?
Yes. I think about it every time I pull in to a parking space.
It’s weird, isn’t it?
It really is odd.
I know. It’s an odd sensation.
So what’s on your horizon? Are you working on a writing project right now? Do you have anything in the works?
Superthief is my current story and it was optioned by a TV producer about four or five years ago. It was published in 2006 and it was optioned for one year but nothing happened with it. When it became available again, I told Tommy Reid about it. He was interested. We put together an agreement and it was optioned for film. Tommy now has Superthief in development.
That’s really great.
I know. Crazy for me to even think to be blessed like that again, to be that fortunate, lucky, however you want to say it—to get a second film made based on one of your books. I think it can happen. Tommy produced a documentary about Danny Greene and he also put together a documentary about Superthief. So there is a film—even though it’s a documentary—based on the Superthief story. Tommy did some additional research, too. Phillip Christopher and his wife, Mary Ann, had the film crew over at the house and were very hospitable to them, letting interviews take place there.
I am completing work on a book about Cleveland’s most notorious Jewish racketeer Shondor Birns, who was portrayed in Kill the Irishman by Christopher Walken. I’m also working on a screenplay, making notes, or at the very least a treatment for when the book is done. Then I’ll be able to go out into the Cleveland community and see if I can find financing, see if I can find people who would have money and be interested in financing a film about Cleveland’s most notorious Jewish racketeer with a backdrop of the black numbers operators—Don King, Virgil Ogletree and all those cats. What’s kind of cool about this story is it stars the Jewish racketeers like Shondor Birns, so we don’t spend too much time on the Italians. It also brings in the numbers racket which was a big part of the black community in those days. Shondor had a very, very young girlfriend. I found out recently that he also liked young black women which is another cool part to the story. I’m not sure if it was common law or if he married her in a ceremony but she ended up serving as an alibi witness for him in a murder case. It was the 1963 murder case of Mervin Gold and the case is still unsolved. She taught second grade in Garfield Heights and she was this respectable, shy, demure, young girl. She got mixed up with Shondor Birns and she stayed with him until the end.
I’m learning about that and interviewing some great people that are telling me firsthand about some of the history there. I’m hoping to incorporate that research. If I only portray the Italians in the history of organized crime, some people could accuse me of putting a stain on the Italian culture.
Every ethnicity has representation in organized crime. In the quintessential mob story of The Godfather and in films like Goodfellas, you see the beautiful Italian culture—food, the importance of family, the Roman Catholic religion, the music, opera—it serves to offset and balance the violence. It’s an irresistible marriage of these two opposing stories, the violence and the beautiful culture. Remember the baptism scene? They’re saying the Mass in Latin and Michael Corleone is whacking all these people. I think that’s one of the reasons movies have focused on the Italians. But in this story about Shondor Birns, you have the Italians, you have the Jews, you have the blacks and you have the Irish. And I just love that.
I think that diversity is going to be attractive to filmmakers, so I’m excited about it.
That sounds fascinating. Except for maybe the New York Russian mafia, people don’t think of organized crime in any other culture except for Italian.
There is that sort of perception, right?
There is no doubt about it. Joe Pistone, the FBI agent, who was Donnie Brasco, did a radio interview with me and somebody asked that question. He said, “No. Every ethnicity has been in organized crime. It’s just that the Italians did it the best.” [laughing] There’s some truth to that, I suppose. Don’t get me wrong, all organized crime is a cancer on society but there are some people that will argue that when the mafia was going strong, there were some neighborhoods that were safer than they are now. Some people wouldn’t get away with certain things, but it’s not how we want to do business. It’s not how we want our justice system to work and our policing system to work.
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