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The real Donnie Brasco

Legendary FBI agent Joe Pistone talks about his Philly connections

Joe Pistone
Legendary FBI agent Joe Pistone worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence, and his first assignment was the Philadelphia Navy Yard, from 1967 to 1969. Image | Courtesy of Joseph Pistone

I first interviewed legendary undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone back in 2004 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Pistone infiltrated the New York Bonanno Cosa Nostra crime family in 1976, and for the next six years he gathered evidence that led to more than 100 federal convictions of Cosa Nostra members from New York, Florida and Michigan. 

Pistone’s incredibly dangerous life undercover with the mob was the subject of the 1988 book, “Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia – A True Story by FBI Agent Joseph D. Pistone.” The book was the basis for the 1997 film “Donnie Brasco,” which starred Al Pacino and Johnny Depp as Pistone, who used the name Donnie Brasco while undercover. Along with “Goodfellas” and “A Bronx Tale,” “Donnie Brasco” is one the three most realistic modern mob movies, in my view. Fuhgeddaboudit, as they say famously in the film.  

I reached out to Pistone as I was interested in his Philly connections, one of which is his friendship with actor/writer/producer Leo Rossi, who is from Northeast Philly. The two friends are now doing a podcast called “Deep Cover – The Real Donnie Brasco.”   

I asked Pistone how the podcast came about.

“Leo and I have been friends for over 20 years. I had a TV show called ‘Falcone’ and Leo was a cast member,” Pistone replied. “We became friends, as he’s from Philadelphia and I’m from Jersey. We started working on other projects together and produced a couple of movies.

“I said to Leo, everybody has a podcast, why don’t we do something? We have a friend named John Mosher, who has a management company out of Philly, and he knew Matty Staudt of Jam Street Media. We spoke to Matty, and he thought it was a good idea. We went into the studio in Philly and recorded the first one. Everybody liked it and it took off from there.”

Pistone said they recorded season one and they have recorded four episodes of season two.

“In the first season, we discussed my undercover endeavors, the six-year operation where I infiltrated the Colombo and Bonanno crime families. We spoke of how I was proposed for membership as a ‘made man,’ and what it was like working undercover in that type of situation against the mafia.” 

Pistone said they also discussed the RICO statute and other undercover operations he was involved in. Rossi and Pistone interviewed a federal prison warden on one episode, and they discussed the Commission trial and the Pizza Connection trial in other episodes. In an upcoming episode, they plan to discuss Pistone’s work overseas.

“The podcast is about criminal activity, organized crime in the U.S. and foreign countries, and every so often we’ll have on a guest that is associated with law enforcement or a former gangster, “Pistone explained. “We also talk about how ‘Donnie Brasco,’ the book and movie, came about. We offer a lot of insight into the TV, movie and literary industries.”

You can listen to “Deep Cover – The Real Donnie Brasco” on Spotify, Apple, and other outlets, and the podcast is free.

“The podcast is doing well,” Pistone said. “We’re blowing up, as they say.” 

It is not well known, but before Pistone became an FBI special agent, he was a Naval Investigative Service (NIS, later called NCIS) special agent, working at the Philadelphia Naval Base.

“I worked in the Office of Naval Intelligence, and my first assignment was the Philadelphia Navy Yard, from 1967 to 1969. We investigated crimes committed by civilians or people in the military on the federal installation,” Pistone recalled. “Any government installation is ripe for the mobsters with gambling and stealing. There is a lot to steal on a government installation, and they got all the ways to do it.” 

I asked him about “10th & Wolf,” one the films he and Leo Rossi made together. I noted my disappointment that the South Philly crime story was filmed in Pittsburgh. 

“We originally were going to film in South Philly, and we scouted locations, but that movie was financed by one person, and he was from Pittsburgh. He said they had places in Pittsburgh that could pass for Philly.”

I asked about the genesis of the story, which is reportedly based on the Merlino-Stanfa internecine mob war in the 1990s. Pistone said it was based on the undercover work of one of his ex-partners in the FBI who infiltrated the South Philly mob. 

With his many Philly connections, I asked Pistone what he thought of the city.

“I love Philly. It’s a great city,” Pistone said. “It has great Italian restaurants and Tony Luke’s cheesesteaks, and I think it’s a great sports town.”

Paul Davis’s Crime Beat column appears here each week. He can be contacted via pauldavisoncrime.com.       

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  • Paul Davis

    Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has covered organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white collar crime, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime.com

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