By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
Ronald “Ronnie” Lorenzo was once an alleged member of the Bonanno crime family. Eventually, he was busted on drug charges, convicted of conspiracy to distribute and sentenced to 12 years in federal prison. The way Lorenzo tells it, the charges against him were trumped up because he refused to be an informant.
Having served 11 years of his sentence, the New York native is now a retired grandfather living a quite life in Southern California with his wife of 45 years. The 68-year-old spends his time doting on his grandkids and trying to stay “on the straight and narrow.” He also happens to be a huge movie buff, with a particular affinity for crime dramas. In fact, Lorenzo is developing a TV series for a major cable company involving some of his own experiences and observations involving the mob.
Proud of never being a snitch, the otherwise talkative Lorenzo recently sat down with a small group of journalists at Matteo’s, an Italian eatery for the DVD launch of the Luc Besson action comedy “The Family” to talk about what the French filmmaker got right and what he got wrong. The film stars Robert De Niro as a fictional mob boss named Giovanni Manzoni who becomes an FBI informant. He and his immediate family (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, “Glee’s” Dianna Agron and John D’Leo) are sent to France as part of a witness protection program. Instead of blending in, they revert to old habits that make them stick out in a small town in Normandy. It’s not long before Giovanni’s enemies discover his whereabouts, and send a half-dozen hitmen to the bucolic town, where all hell breaks loose.
Over Pollo alla Griglia, red wine and some tasty pastries, the former “safecracker” and nightclub owner spoke about “The Family” as well as some of his favorite Hollywood movies and filmmakers.
Q: How realistic is the plot of “The Family?”
Lorenzo: Not at all. I guess it shouldn’t be because it’s not a documentary. It’s entertainment. A lot of things I pick at other people don’t. They send six guys to kill one guy. And these six guys came with rocket-launchers and God knows how many guns and rifles. How did they get (the weapons) to France? I guess they could have had somebody in Italy bring it to France or something so I guess there’s a possibility. It was entertaining (but) in reality, that doesn’t exist.
Q: “The Family” actually depicts Manzoni’s wife and children as violent as he is. Is that typically the case?
Lorenzo: No, I don’t think so. Look, you can’t paint everybody with the same brush. From what I know, any respectful guy always has the business completely separate from his family. Sometimes the wives and kids get into trouble and the FBI will use that as a hammer. If you get your wife involved in something, they will use that as a hammer against you.
Q: De Niro was asked during “The Family” press conference whether the Feds would ever relocate an informant to France or somewhere else overseas. And he said he didn’t think so. From your experience, is it possible?
Lorenzo: You know something? It depends on what you are giving them. You can get anything you want often. But as far as I know, I don’t know of anybody or heard of anybody sent overseas. But I’m sure they do. It could be less of a hassle for them and less costly probably because once they’re there, they’re there. So I’m sure they could. It depends on what kind of information you give to them.
Q: I’m curious how accurate was the witness protection program is depicted. Tommy Lee Jones’ FBI agent character develops a close relationship with Robert De Niro’s character. They got really friendly over the years. Is that normal?
Lorenzo: Yeah, you have a handler. They call it a handler. He’s your contact. I would think you would develop some kind of relationship with him (but) I don’t know. Henry Hill got kicked out twice. He was a drug addict and a liar. He was an all-around lowlife. Informants, they’re all over. They tried to hook me up in my case. They wanted make me an informant but I was not interested.
Q: At one point in the movie, De Niro’s character is watching “Goodfellas.” Is that film the best mobster film Hollywood’s ever made?
Lorenzo: Yeah, (Martin Scorsese’s) “Goodfellas” is probably the most realistic of depicting mob life. They’re like people I’ve known in the characters they portray, especially De Niro, where they call him Jimmy Conway. In real life, it was Jimmy Burke. De Niro really had him spot on. He was a great guy, an Irish guy, and because of that he was never a “made” man but he held the respect of any “made” man.
Q: What are some of your other favorite mobster movies?
Lorenzo: Strangely enough, my favorite mob movie is (Sergio Leone’s) “Once Upon A Time in America,” because you watch those people grow up from childhood for the first hour of the movie so when they grow into adults, you really know the characters. That really stunned me. (Francis Ford Coppola’s) “The Godfather,” of course is a great movie, but I would say “Goodfellas” is (more) real. (Mike Newell’s) “Donnie Brasco” too is as real as it gets. I also have watched these documentaries and shows about the mob and they’ve got these informants on and I wanted to make sure there wasn’t going to be any here tonight. Henry Hill (the noted mobster turned informant) is dead, God not rest his soul. There’s another guy I see a lot on these shows. Those are people I don’t want to be associated with. But Henry Hill, who they made such a big deal about, was such a lowlife. He became an informant on the two people who really loved him. Paul (Vario, a mob captain) was like a father to him. He was played by Paul Sorvino in “Goodfellas.”
Q: Ray Liotta, who plays Hill in “Goodfellas,” is sort of respected in the early part of the movie. Is that not accurate?
Lorenzo: Maybe as a kid, but not really. Nobody really liked him especially Tommy DeSimone (called Tommy DeVito and played by Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas”). He wasn’t an animal like they portrayed him. He wasn’t that friendly with Henry Hill like they portrayed it either. But (Hill) had his own little circles: Jimmy Burke liked him and Paul Vario liked him for whatever reason.
Q: Robert De Niro has played a lot of mobsters in his career. What does he get right?
Lorenzo: He grew up in our neighborhood. We grew up together as kids. Marty (Scorsese) grew up on a street around the corner from Mulberry Street (in New York’s Little Italy). I knew Marty (Scorsese) as a kid. I didn’t know him well because he was kind of a strange guy. But De Niro hung out with us; he was a little older than I was. We used to sell him fireworks. He was from 14th Street. His nickname was Bobby 14th Street, and Bobby Irish, they used to call him. He’s still friends with a couple of my friends from back then like (actor) Clem Caserta. He puts Clem in a lot of his movies. But Bobby’s been around us. He’s from New York and from downtown. He would know it.
Q: What film or films does Martin Scorsese get right?
Lorenzo: “Mean Streets” is pretty much the way we grew up. That’s my neighborhood. Marty knows it well. When they shot it, they asked a lot of us to be in the movie. A lot of my friends took small parts. It opens up with a guy buying camera lenses under the highway. That’s a good friend of mine. I never chose to be on camera, though; I’m not an actor. Marty is the one who get the performances out of them. When you see De Niro portraying the gangster in this picture, “The Family,” as compared to the ones he was in directed by Marty—there’s a world of difference.
Q: In these movies, mob men are often depicted in a certain way. Are any of the stereotypes accurate?
Lorenzo: They’re Italian. They’re indiscreet. And they’re breaking the law. I guess that would be the stereotype.
Q: Was Scorsese’s 1995 crime drama “Casino” accurate?
Lorenzo: Yeah. It was good and so was De Niro once again.
Q: Which is better: “Casino” or “Goodfellas?”
Lorenzo: As far as (the depiction of) street life: “Goodfellas.” “Casino” was accurate as far as what was going on in Chicago and Las Vegas.
Q: Was Joe Pesci’s character realistic?
Lorenzo: Yeah. He was playing Little Tony (Spilotro, a real life mob enforcer), who was a pretty violent guy. That’s why he died the way he did.
Q: Following up on the stereotype question, these mobsters are usually depicted as foul-mouthed and cuss a lot. Is that accurate?
Lorenzo: Pretty much. (He laughs.) Obviously, not with your family, although my wife could hold her own. But, throughout my life, it’s pretty much like this. A lot of the street guys I’ve been around don’t like those guys who curse. In every business, when men get together—they curse. I’m sure when women get together and we’re not around—they curse. Take a movie like (Scorsese’s) “Raging Bull,” it’s spot on with the language.
Q: What other movies have nailed it?
Lorenzo: That scene in “Goodfellas” where they walk into the Copa(cabana) and they go through the kitchen avoiding the line outside, that’s the way we used to do it. When he walks through the corridor to the showroom, that’s where the talent used to wait. They’d be right off the kitchen. They’d wait there before they got to the stage. It brought back a lot of memories. One of the fellas that was in it was the real captain of the Copa. So that was portrayed really spot on—the whole movie. My biggest objections to depictions are Henry Hill where they made him a hero, and Jake LaMotta (the boxer De Niro played in “Raging Bull”) wasn’t much different. He wasn’t a very nice person. Marty’s father is in “Goodfellas.” He’s in the scene right after they kill Joe Pesci.
Q: Did that ever happen—where somebody thought he was getting “made” and they kill him?
Lorenzo: That I don’t know. He did get killed for killing Billy Batts (as revenge for an insult). “Mean Streets” portrayed us growing up in the neighborhood. There’s a scene where a kid gets killed in a men’s room at a urinal. That was a very emotional for me because that happened to my wife’s half-brother. That scene was a real scene. Marty showed the reality of it because he lived that life. I mean, he didn’t live that life. He was around it. Marty was going to be a priest. He was a sickly guy, I remember. I’ve never known him that well. Bobby (De Niro), I visited his (production) company a couple of times.
Q: How do you feel about (Scorsese’s) “The Departed?”
Lorenzo: That was (set) in Boston. I liked it. It was a different thing. It was based on (James Joseph) “Whitey” Bulger. I liked the movie but it was a life I knew nothing about. I was kind of in the middle of that thing with Donnie Brasco (an FBI informant who went undercover in the Bonanno family that inspired the Mike Newell film of the same name). He was hanging out with friends of mine at the time.
Q: Besides the HBO mob drama “Boardwalk Empire,” there are so many mob-centered shows that keep popping up. Why are audiences still so fascinated by the mob?
Lorenzo: I think it goes back to “The Godfather,” which romanticized everything. It opened up everybody’s eyes. It made everybody interested in mob material. I watched (TNT’s) “Mob City.” I guess it was alright but I think it could be done better if they just dealt with it in a more realistic way. That one Sean Penn did, “Gangster Squad,” that was just like the one that Nick Nolte did (“Mulholland Falls”). They were almost the same picture but, c’mon, machineguns in the street?
Q: Are there good mob stories that haven’t been told yet?
Lorenzo: Plenty (He laughs.) In fact, I’m in the middle of (developing) something now that they’re going to make a (cable TV) series out of. I can’t talk about. There’s a movie that should be made about Joe Colombo. He was head of the Colombo crime family. He’s the youngest boss ever to have a family named after him. He started a league called the Italian-American Civil Rights League. You know, in “The Godfather,” you never hear the word “Mafia” or “Cosa Nostra.” Joe Colombo was responsible for getting them not to use those words in the movie. It would make a great story. His son, Joe Jr., and I have put together an outline for a movie.
Q: Who would you like to see play Joe Colombo?
Lorenzo: Stanley Tucci. He looks like him and everything.
Q: How does working with Hollywood executives compare to the guys you used to deal with?
Lorenzo: There are more crooks in this business than I ever met on the street. Man oh man, forget it. (He laughs.)