8 QUESTIONS WITH Michael Franzese

Former mobster Michael Franzese is trying to do good in the world as a motivational speaker and author

Motivational speaker Michael Franzese says he does not glamorise his days in the New York Mafia.
Motivational speaker Michael Franzese says he does not glamorise his days in the New York Mafia.PHOTO: FAST TRACK EVENTS

Former mobster Michael Franzese is trying to do good in the world as a motivational speaker and author

When Michael Franzese offers his suggestion of the best big-screen mobster, you do not refute it.

"Pesci is the best. There's nobody who plays a better gangster than him," he says, referring to Joe Pesci, an actor in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990).

His opinion holds weight. Franzese, referenced in Goodfellas, once headed the Colombo crime family, one of the five families that form the New York Mafia.

Now 62, he has turned his back on a life in crime, and is a motivational speaker and the author of several autobiographical books.

"I never glamorise my Mob life. It's an evil life," says Franzese, speaking to Life! ahead of his Aug 23 seminar here, aptly titled A Day With The Godfather.

At the event, he will talk about his chequered past and his incredible turn-around.

Franzese, aka "The Yuppie Don", was noted for his sophisticated money-making schemes, especially a high-profile gas tax scam in the 1980s that allegedly saw him earning millions a week in his heyday.

It also landed him on Fortune magazine's 1986 list of wealthiest Mob bosses. At 35, he was the youngest on the list.

He got into a life of crime in 1975 at age 22, when his father, Sonny Franzese, then the underboss of the Colombo family, was incarcerated for multiple charges, including murder. The underboss is only one position below the boss in a typical Mob family structure.

"My father had high hopes of me being a doctor," says Franzese, who was in pre-med school at the time, before associating with his father's former colleagues and joining the Mob barely a year later.

After meeting his wife in 1984 and a few incarcerations later, he resolved to walk away from the Mob.

"It was very difficult. I became such a target," he says, adding that his father even disowned him at the time. After getting out of prison in 1995, he and his family had to move multiple times because of death threats.

He now lives in California with his wife, Camille, 50, and their four children who are aged between 15 and 28. He also has three other children in their 30s from his first wife and two grandchildren who are both not yet one.

Eventually, he managed to free himself of the Mob life because by 2003, most of the people who were after him were either dead or in prison.

They included his former boss, Carmine Persico, who was imprisoned in 1986 as part of then New York State Attorney Rudy Giuliani's Commission Trial, which saw all the heads of the five crime families incarcerated.

Franzese says his relationship with his father, who is 97 and will be in jail until 2017, has improved over the years.

"I do think he's proud of me in some ways. He probably wishes I would tone it down with the film," he says, referring to a Hollywood biopic based on his life which is slated for release in 2016.

Which actor would he like to portray him?

"Leonardo DiCaprio. I got to go for the A-list, right?" he says, with a laugh.

1 Do you have any regrets about your past?

I do and I don't. You can't make up for what you've done in life. What you've done is done. I just follow my heart and I'm consciously trying to do better now. I've lived a very full life.

2 Is there anything that you miss about being in the Mob?

I have mixed emotions. I had a lot of good times and I had a lot of tragic times too. People often ask me if I miss all the power and the money. Honestly, I don't miss that. What I do miss at times is the camaraderie with the guys. There were a lot of good times and a lot of solid friends.

3 Is it true that Goodfellas is your favourite Mob movie and you watch it every time it is on?

Every time. It brings me back. I knew all those characters in Goodfellas, so it's nostalgic for me.

4 And Joe Pesci is the real deal?

Robert De Niro is good but Pesci is the best. My wife thinks I'm crazy because I just laugh through that whole movie. He just makes me laugh. I knew a lot of Joe Pesci-type guys on the street. I tell you something, guys in that life are pretty funny.

5 What do you think of the popularity of Mob movies, especially among the young?

I'm not okay with how these young gangster wannabes look up to me because of my past or my history. They always talk about movies, the money, the power, the women. And I ask them: "Don't you guys watch the ending of the movie?" They are often misled.

6 Would most Mobsters actually make good legal businessmen?

You should never underestimate a lot of these guys on the street because that's a tough life. There were some guys in there that I would call close to brilliant. If they were to put their resources into a legitimate life, they would have done extremely well.

7 What are you like as a father?

I'm like a dinosaur, I'm old school. My family thinks I'm crazy at times because for me, everything is about respect and honour. My dad drummed that into my head. My kids roll their eyes when I give them the "respect" speech. They tell me: "You got to get into the 21st century." They don't care about the Mob stuff, I'm just dad.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I like to be remembered as a good family man, a good husband and good father. Someone who started out bad but ended up better and contributed something positive to the world.

nabilahs@sph.com.sg