Every family has its challenges. Around the Franzese house, young Michael was reminded of them whenever he went out to play.
The Brooklyn cops and federal agents investigating his notorious father, Colombo crime family figure John “Sonny” Franzese, didn’t try to conceal their presence.
“Back then, their tactics and techniques were very different than they are today,” an older, wiser Michael Franzese recalled Thursday over lunch at Triple George. “Everything’s very covert today. Back then when a guy was under investigation, they wanted him to know about it. And for maybe 10 years when I was a kid growing up my dad was under investigation by seven or eight agencies from the FBI on down. We had a car parked outside the house 24/7. And that’s a rough detail at times. I witnessed some things that were really very unpleasant.
“They were parked down the street, and I was playing ball. I was 10 or 12 years old. The ball goes over my head, rolls down the street, and a big burly detective gets out of the car and steps on the ball with his foot. And I get up to him and he pulls his jacket aside and he’s got a gun there. And he said, ‘This is going to be for your old man one day.’ ”
Although young Michael worked to emerge from Sonny’s dark shadow, at one time enrolling in Hofstra University, his father’s life and the lure of easy money drew him in.
At the height of his own power as a capo in the Colombo family, Michael was one of America’s biggest mobsters. His manipulation of untaxed gasoline alone generated an estimated $100 million, and he once ranked No. 18 on Fortune’s list of “The Fifty Biggest Mafia Bosses.”
His rise and fall in the mob is compelling stuff, but his decision to cooperate with the government and leave behind his father’s life is even more intriguing.
He credits the steadying influence of wife Camille and his Christian beliefs for giving him the strength to essentially reinvent himself.
But as I say, every family has its challenges. Two big hurdles for the former mob prince: having his father disown him for doing the right thing, and then learning the old man had remained silent when Colombo crime family bosses put out a hit on his own kid.
That would tend to chill most father-son relationships.
But Michael grew up in the Franzese house, and the mob. He understood its twisted rules and monstrous realities.
“I was not upset with him. I knew he loved me,” Franzese said. “Until today I never resented him for it. I understood. … And I know that if that didn’t happen, I never would have left the life. Things happen for a reason.”
After serving several years in prison, including 30 months in solitary confinement, Franzese left prison without the cloak of the Witness Protection Program and managed to change his life.
Today, he’s a popular public speaker, author of several best-sellers, creator of television features, and a man who seems quite comfortable with the decisions he’s made. Franzese is scheduled to speak at 6:30 p.m. Friday April 12 at the Mob Museum downtown. (For ticket information call 702-229-2734 or go to themobmuseum.org.)
On a tour of the museum Thursday, Franzese saw the faces of friends and enemies on the walls like ghosts from a not too distant past life.
“I was just walking through the hall at that museum, looking at the plaques there, and thinking back, even after all these years I kind of get a little guilt feeling, like I betrayed something that I took an oath to uphold,” he said. “It’s very strange. I don’t know why it happens, but it does.”
Although he knows he’ll always have his share of skeptics, he’s at peace in his own skin.
He’s even managed to reconcile with double tough Sonny Franzese, who at 96 is the oldest made guy in America and, yes, still in custody.
“It’s come full circle,” he said. “Now we’re closer than ever. We still have the same discussions. It’s like I never left.”
Except, of course, that when the son leaves his father’s side he walks away a free man.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.