In my last column, I interviewed legendary FBI agent Joe Pistone, who went undercover with the New York Cosa Nostra Bonanno crime family for six years and helped takedown more than a hundred mobsters in the late 1970s.
In the column, Pistone spoke of his Philadelphia connections, which includes his long friendship with Leo Rossi, the TV and film actor/writer/producer who is from Northeast Philadelphia. Rossi is also the host and Joe Pistone’s partner in a podcast called “Deep Cover – The Real Donnie Brasco.”
When I told Pistone that I would be interviewing Rossi, he said that I wouldn’t get in more than one question with Rossi, as he was quite a talker. Rossi, like me, I admit, is a person Italians call a “chiacchierone” – a chatterbox.
I asked Rossi about the podcast.
“Joe made a living out of keeping his mouth shut, and he doesn’t give it up too easy, so a trust factor came in as we started,” Rossi said. “Joe got looser, and we have laughs, and I think we hit on some pretty big topics. We have one podcast coming up about when Joe quit the FBI. It is compelling. He is the real deal. When he starts talking, everybody leans in.
“Joe made his living with his dukes up, covering. My goal is to have him put his dukes down and have some fun with this, even though it is serious material. He told me, ‘You know how long you’d last undercover? About a minute.’”
Rossi went to Bishop Egan High School where he played football and he later played football for Villanova. He went on to become an actor, and he’s had a long and varied TV and movie career. He appeared in the mini-series “In Cold Blood,” and in films such as “Relentless, “The Accused,” “Gotti,” “10th and Wolf” and “Analyze This.”
I asked him about the film “10th & Wolf,” as I grew up near 10 and Wolf in South Philly. I noted that I and many others were disappointed that it was filmed in Pittsburgh rather than South Philly. The story is reportedly based on the Merlino-Stanfa internecine mob war in the 1990s and the 12th and Wolf corner where Merlino and his crew hung out.
“We were doing a picture, loosely based on a true story. The true meeting place was 12th & Wolf. I know some of the guys and they were upset with the title and said it was not going to fly. How about ‘10th & Wolf,’ I asked, and they said yeah, that would be alright.
“I’ve had some luck getting movies made in Philadelphia, such as ‘The Nail: The Story of Joey Nardone,’ starring William Forsythe, Tony Danza and Philly’s own Tony Luke Jr. It was filmed on the streets of South Philly and it was a nice little picture.”
Rossi said he’s known Sharon Pinkenson, the head of the Philadelphia Film Office, for years, so every fiber in him wanted to film in South Philly. But the man who financed the film wanted to film outside Pittsburgh.
“Knowing how hard it is to get movies made, we had to agree. It didn’t bother anyone around the country, but you guys in Philly torched me!”
Rossi spoke of his becoming a film writer when he was in a slump as an actor. “I was always good with dialogue because I’m an actor and I was always good with character development because I’m a character actor. But structure is a bitch.”
Rossi spoke of his current screenplay for an upcoming crime and boxing film based on the life of the late South Philly middleweight boxing champ Joey Giardello (who was my 9th street neighbor years ago). The film is called “Canvas Dancer.”
“I met with Joey’s son Stevie, and we sat down, and he started telling me this story. His father’s real name was Carmine Tileili. He bought someone’s birth certificate when he was getting in trouble in Brooklyn. Before Mike Tyson, Joey Giardello was the bad boy of boxing. He was a rounder, and he was in the slammer before he fell in love with a girl from South Philly.”
I look forward to seeing the film.
Rossi has portrayed a lot of street guy criminals and street guy cop characters, and he portrays these characters very well. Although he said he was more of an athlete growing up in Philly, he knew street guys. “I retained all that stuff.”
You can listen to “Deep Cover – The Real Donnie Brasco” on Spotify, Apple and other outlets, and the podcast is free.
Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be contacted via pauldavisoncrime.com.