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Real-life ‘Donnie Brasco’ in a Las Vegas Mob scene

Updated February 18, 2022 - 9:40 pm

Joe Pistone flunked drama class in college. But he fooled the highest-ranking members of one of the most notorious crime families in New York City.

So, the man once known as Donnie Brasco gets a pass.

”I wish I was a good actor,” Pistone said Thursday night during the VIP event at The Mob Museum’s 10th anniversary gala. “I took drama because I needed three credits. I figured, ‘Wow, I should be able to get an A, B or C in drama. But I flunked it.”

At the peak of his career as a undercover FBI agent, Pistone was able to carry on his role as a jewelry thief and burglar for more than five years. He was a friend and confidant of the top tier of the Bonanno crime family until ending the assignment in August 1981.

Pistone was so effective he was about to be inducted into the Bonanno family when the wise guys learned he was actually a federal agent. Pistone’s work led to more than 200 convictions and 100 indictments of Mafia members. Within the FBI, Pistone is regarded as the man who delivered the death blow to organized crime nationwide.

Pistone’s story is chronicled in the 1997 mob classic “Donnie Brasco,” based on Pistone’s 1988 memoirs. A remarkably fresh-faced Johnny Depp portrayed Pistone. Al Pacino, who originally wanted the Brascoe role, played Bonanno family soldier Lefty Ruggiero.

Asked how much of the movie’s account of his book was accurate, Pistone responded swiftly, “Eighty-five percent, which in Hollywood is pretty good.”

The scene in which Depp slaps Pistone’s wife, Maggie (Anne Heche), never happened. “The director (Mike Newell) put that in. I remember driving with Johnny to the studio that day and he hardly said anything, I think because he knew I was going to have a problem with that scene,” said Pistone, a consultant on the film. “When I saw it, I went ballistic. But I don’t outrank the director in this case. He’s like the captain, so it stayed.”

Pistone also said he and his wife never entered marriage counseling, as depicted in the movie, joking, “We never did ‘The Sopranos’ scene.” And, also inaccurate was the grisly scene where Lefty’s crew kill Sonny Red (Robert Milano) and two other rival gangsters, then use a hacksaw to dismember and dispose of the bodies.

“They actually cut one of the guys up with a chainsaw, because he was so big,” Pistone said.

The scene that was true do life was when Pistone was recognized in an airport by an attorney from Chicago, who began to re-introduce himself and called Pistone “Joe.”

Pistone knocked him to the ground with a right hook before he could finish the sentence, claiming (in the real-life incident) that the guy was staring at his “private part.”

“That one really happened,” Pisone said, “but I didn’t say ‘private part.’ ”

Pistone was recognized during the event with the Undercover of the Night Award, matching the evening’s theme. Accepting from The Mob Museum President and CEO Jonathan Ullman, Pistone said from the stage, “I got a lotta plaques,” but is making sure to hold onto this one, as he accepted with several retired FBI agents in the room

Pistone certainly could make a fortune on the speaking circuit, but is simply too reserved to seek that path. “I don’t come to Vegas and gamble, but I used to come here twice a year and talk to the Wynn security staff.” He has not asked for photos of himself with the A-list actors he’s known, including Pacino and Depp.

“What I have learned, as far as these undercovers, is if you are just being yourself, they’re not thinking of you as an undercover agent,” Pistone said. “If you’re like yourself, it’s not an act, you’re not raising suspicion. I think that’s why I had success.”

We’ve met?

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and former Mayor Oscar Goodman were the evening’s honorary co-chairs. Ullman introduced the couple to Pistone, who turned to Oscar and said, “Oh, we’ve met.”

Goodman stopped. “We have?”

“Years ago,” Pistone said.

The ex-undercover FBI agent didn’t offer any specifics.

Even Friday afternoon, the former “mob lawyer” was still trying to remember that meeting. “I have to say, it makes you wonder who has been watching you.”

The English language

This week we had a chance to breeze through The English Hotel in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas. The great chef Todd English is in a licensing deal with Marriott, which operates the property. But English has developed the concept and menu for The Pepper Club, where ingredients are locally sourced and specializes oysters, sushi and some “Mediterranean flair,” as English says.

Love the hours, open until 1 a.m. weeknights and until the crowd disperses on weekend nights.

The 74-room hotel has some character. GM Steve Dennis was once a weatherman in Fairbanks, Alaska; and has also lived in Hawaii. He’s set to co-host a podcast with ventriloquial performer April Brucker, who led the tour with a series of her puppets, including, “Dwayne Newton.”

The figure says he’s, “Mr. Las Vegas’s second cousin, twice removed: Once by casino security, and once by the Clark County Department of Health.”


Brucker will alternate with a DJ as the entertainment at Pepper, which has the same name (but is not specifically named for) English’s dog.

We’ll know more at Tuesday’s ribbon cutting, set for 2/22/22 at 2 p.m. Maybe Dwayne will sing his signature tune, “Almost Las Vegas.”

Cool Hang Alert

Keeping in the Arts Distinct territory, Cairo Knife Fight, headed up by guitar great and songwriter George Pajon Jr., makes its Vegas debut at 9 p.m. Feb. 26 at Soulbelly BBQ at 1327 S. Main Street. The Grammy Award-winning Pajon is late of Black Eyed Peas. He moved to Vegas from L.A. in May 2020, and likes the absence of traffic. So do we, because we can walk to this gig. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at eventbrite.com.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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