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an interview with former mafia boss michael franzese

The more mature Michael Franzese

This week at Sydney Arts Guide, Jake Freeman spoke to Michael Franzese, a former mafia boss who was a caporegime (captain) in the Colombo crime family. He is the son of former underboss Sonny Franzese. Originally Michael was on the path to study medicine and had no intention of inheriting the crime world as his father had, but would eventually do so, after his father was sentenced to 50 years in prison for bank robbery.

By the age of 35, in 1986, Fortune Magazine listed Michael Franzese as number 18 on its list of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses.” After spending nearly a decade in prison, Michael has since turned his life around, leaving the crime world and for the past 25 years, has worked as a writer and motivational speaker.

This week, Michael is touring Melbourne and Sydney with his show, In Conversation with Michael Franzese giving the audience a glimpse into his journey from mafia “king pin” to complete life change by reconnecting with his faith. Both shows will be hosted by former Detective Chief Inspector, author and host of the podcast,I Catch Killers,’ Gary Jubelin.

What can people expect to hear from you at your speaking tour in Melbourne and Sydney?

Well, I certainly tell them my story, how I grew up with my dad, who was the underboss of the Colombo family, my rising through the ranks, the business deals that I got involved with, some of the good, the bad and the ugly of that life. And there are a lot of myths about the mafia that people have, misconceptions, and they’re going to get the true story from me about the way the mafia’s run in our country.  I certainly know that you do have a presence there in Australia.  And then we’re going to do a Q&A, and people can ask me anything that they want.  I’ve been asked everything under the sun.  

Tell us a bit about your upbringing and your dad, for those who may not know the story.

Well, my dad, Sonny Franzese, was the underboss of the Colombo family back in the sixties. Extremely high profile, always a major target of law enforcement, major media target at that point in time, so I grew up in the life, but my dad really had some tough times during the sixties. He was indicted three times Three times was acquitted in all three of those cases, and my family was enduring all of this. I had fights in school when kids would call my dad a mafia dad.

My dad was in and out of prison, on trial, it caused a lot of turbulence in the family, and then he was indicted in Federal Court for masterminding a nationwide string of bank robberies.  Convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. He was finally released when his sentence expired in 2017, he was 100 years old. He was the oldest inmate in the federal prison system in the United States. And my dad sadly passed away during the pandemic at the age of 103.  He was the oldest living mob guy, made man, in America at the time and probably the oldest in the world

Your dad originally did not want you to be in the crime family business?

He wanted me to be a doctor, he wanted me to be the first professional in the family. He was very supportive of that; he didn’t want me to enter that life, but circumstances changed and when my dad went to prison. I was the oldest of my brothers and sisters; I had to take care of them and my mother, and the way to do that, we had to make money. I had to get on the street and do what I needed to do to support the family, and also to pay for legal bills and do the investigation necessary to try to overturn his conviction.  There was a lot to do and I couldn’t do it being in medical school for six, seven years, it wasn’t in the plan.

What do you remember from your days working in the mafia?

The ups and downs and making a lot of friends and a lot of money. When you have a lot of money, you make a lot of friends, whether they’re real friends or not, they’re friends. I had my own jet plane, I had my own helicopter, I had homes in three different states.

I had 300 guys under me ready to do anything I told them to do, so I attracted a lot of attention in that regard. There was a time when I had a task force, a government task force that had every different agency combined that would meet twice a month and their sole purpose, was to put me in prison for life. I became that much of a target, and I’m certainly not bragging about it

Out of all the shows and films that have been done, we’re talking The Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface, The Departed, is there any particular show or film that you feel is the most accurately depicted of the crime world and crime families?

I think the most accurate movie is something of a surprise to everyone, and that is in 1996 HBO Production of the movie Gotti. It was called Gotti, with Armand Assante and Anthony Quinn.  Armand played Gotti and Anthony Quinn played Neil Dellacroce, who was an important figure at that time.  Extremely accurate, extremely well done.

While you in prison you had a bit of an awakening?

I had married a young girl, who’s now my wife of 38 years, and then went off to do my time. I did five years in prison, got out on patrol, was home for 13 months.  It was all over the street that I walked away from that life and a contract was made on my life, made by my father. We patched it up later, but the FBI had told me that I was a dead man.

Thirteen months I had some attempts on my life, and then make a mistake and violate my parole, they throw me back in.  And I spent another three years, which was the maximum on the parole violation, but I spent 29 months and seven days in solitary, six by eight cell, 24/7, and it was during that time that this awakening and turning around, and I became a person of faith during that time and it kind of changed the direction of my life. It was a defining time, a defining moment in my life, and for the past 25 years I’ve been speaking all over the world, writing books, doing things, hopefully, to encourage people to let them understand that they can make a turn in their life, no matter how dismal things are, and I think I’m an example of that. 

What sort of reception do you normally get from when you visit prisons, not as an inmate yourself, but as a motivational speaker?

it’s always been extremely rewarding. Because of who I am and my family, people will immediately pay attention, so I have immediate credibility with these guys. And then I go on to tell them the story and it really hits them hard, I hit them right between the eyes, and how they’re just destroying their lives and how they can make a change. You can’t tell somebody they’re doing the wrong thing without giving them hope that they can make a change, and I’m it. And I tell people, “If I can make a change in my life, because at one point in time I might have been the worst person in the room, well then you can do it and there is a way,” and it’s extremely encouraging to people, and I’ve been very blessed to see the reaction that I get from people, which is very rewarding, and that’s what motivates me to continue.

What’s some parting advice you can give to people? I think you would be the best example of this because in your previous line of work, most people don’t make it out through the other end as you have done, most of them die or end up in prison for life, so what is the advice to tell people while they can still get out while it’s early?

Well, there’s a couple of things, especially with young people, I tell them this, “In this life we are who we hang out with, and first of all you’ve got to pick your friends wisely. Pick people that are not going to bring you down, but are going to put you in the right direction.  Secondly, who you are accountable to in life is the direction or the path that your life is going to take.” When I was on the street, I was accountable to my boss, to my oath.  As a result, I was a criminal. When I got out and I changed that accountability, I’m accountable first to my God, my wife, my kids to do the right thing, keep me on track, so that’s so important.

One of the saddest things that I encounter so often, especially when I go into prisons, is that guys that are in their fifties, sixties etc, say to me, “You know, Michael, I’ve been in and out of prison for the past 20 years, I really don’t have anything on the outside, what am I going to do with my life when I get out?”  It’s very, very sad. We only get through this life one time. You got to make it as productive on yourself as you possibly can, because the consequences are very severe and before you know it your life is over.”  I tell them, “I was very fortunate.  I was 40 years old when finally, the bell went off and I said, ‘Hey, what am I doing?’”  I’m 72 now and for the last 30 years, even though I’ve had challenges and so on, my life is pretty blessed, and anybody can make that turnaround if they’re determined to do it, and that’s what I encourage them to do.

In Conversation with Michael Franzese will be held on Friday night 6 October at The Palais Theatre in Melbourne and at The Enmore Theatre in Sydney on Sunday 8 October. Both shows are hosted by Gary Jubelin. To buy tickets to either shows, go to https://abstract.net.au/michael-franzese/
To learn more about Michael Franzese, his writings and work, go to his website at https://store.michaelfranzese.com/ 

Featured image – The  young Michael Franzese

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