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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cleveland gangster Danny Greene's explosive life captured in 'The Irishman' and two docs

Federal Bureau of Investigation surveillance p...Image via WikipediaFilmmakers are fascinated by Cleveland's legendary thugs. Especially if their deaths were triggered by exploding automobiles in the 1970s. A new movie and two new documentaries will arrive in 2011, feeding America's unending appetite for mob stories with a grisly slice of Cleveland's criminal past. "The Irishman," out next March, spotlights gangster Danny Greene, whose life was famously extinguished by a car bomb in a Lyndhurst parking lot; racketeer Shondor Birns, shredded by a car bomb on Detroit Avenue near West 25th Street; and mafia-connected Teamster official John Nardi, wiped out by a car bomb just off East 22nd Street near Carnegie Avenue.
Birns was killed in March 1975. Nardi in May 1977. Greene in October 1977. Bang. Bam. Boom. If you were a Cleveland mobster in the '70s, public transportation would have been a smart choice.
Our ever-striving region actually topped the nation in something in 1976, though it was a dubious distinction: No. 1 in bombings. There were 37 in Cuyahoga County, including 21 in Cleveland. Car bombs were relatively cheap to make, easy to plant, could be detonated from afar, and destroyed lots of evidence.
The film stars Irish actor Ray Stevenson as Greene, Vincent D'Onofrio as Nardi, Paul Sorvino as mob boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, Val Kilmer as a Cleveland detective, and in a stroke of inspired casting, Oscar-winner Christopher Walken playing Birns.
Legendary Cleveland gangster Danny Greene will receive new notoriety in 2011 as the subject of a Hollywood movie and two documentaries.
•Catch some vintage TV footage of Danny Greene on youtube.
•See the trailer for "The Rise and Fall of the Irishman" documentary.
•Ray Stevenspn talks to Movieset.com about playing Danny Greene.
•Christopher Walken talks to Movieset.com about playing Shondor Birns.
•"The Irishman" is slated for release on March 11. It stars Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer and Paul Sorvino. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, it is based on the book "To Kill the Irishman: The War that Crippled the Mafia" by Lyndhurst Police Chief Rick Porrello. A new edition of the book will also hit stores next March.
•The documentary "Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman," is due in March 2011. Producer-director Tommy Reid mixed archival footage and interviews with former Cleveland law enforcement officials and members of Greene's family.
Bio (formerly the Biography Channel) will also air a new Greene documentary as part of its "Mobsters" series early next year. The as-yet untitled film is being produced by Greg Scott and Mike Burke of Chicago's Towers Productions. Based on the book "To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia," by Lyndhurst Police Chief Rick Porrello, it was shot in Detroit last summer and is slated to open next March before St. Patrick's Day. So is the documentary, "Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman." A third film, a documentary for the Bio channel's "Mobsters" series, is scheduled to air early next year.
The question isn't why there's suddenly a rash of Danny Greene movies. The question is: With such a camera-ready life, why haven't several been made already?
A fearless hood who grabbed headlines for nearly 15 years, Greene was a colorful character. Literally. He dressed in green, drove green cars, signed his name in green ink. He embraced Irish history and Celtic lore.
Alternately a union troubleshooter, embezzler, and enforcer, Greene dabbled in racketeering, gambling, and loan-sharking.
He excelled at beating the rap, which may have been attributed to his other occupation: FBI informant. Police have long assumed, but never proven, that Greene conspired to take out Birns, a rival in Cleveland's lucrative numbers racket, and later mafia underboss Leo "Lips" Moceri, whose body was never found.
Greene also possessed an amazing feline facility for dodging death, surviving at least four murder attempts.
"He was larger than life," said Porrello. "Very charismatic. Very bold. The people hired to kill him didn't want to get too close. He had this air of invincibility."
Former friend and business associate Mike Frato shot at Greene from a passing car when Greene was jogging with his dogs near Cleveland's White City Beach in November 1971. Greene pulled out a gun and shot back, killing Frato. Charged with manslaughter, he was later acquitted. Self-defense.
Had Greene's exploits played out in New York, he would have been a more notorious national figure. Perhaps Martin Scorsese would have already directed the definitive gritty production starring Robert De Niro.
But Greene is a Cleveland story, from his early days at the Parmadale orphanage to the streets of Collinwood, to a brief stint in suburban Willoughby. And though his dangerous life was marked by the sensational bursts of violence and mob intrigue that Hollywood loves, a new movie also means opening old wounds for those he left behind: five children and two ex-wives who still live in the area.
Danny Kelly, Greene's oldest son, was 17 when his dad was killed. Growing up, he helped out with various tasks including crawling under his dad's car to check for plastic explosives. Kelly, who goes by his mother's maiden name, is not involved with the film and declined to discuss it. The one question he agreed to answer was: What was your dad like?
"He was Irish, Irish Catholic," said Kelly. "He believed the man upstairs pulled the strings and that there was someplace to go after this. Where he is today, he wouldn't trade places with either me or you here. He was truly intrepid. He did everything with humor. If you know somebody that has that charisma, that magnetism of the Irish personality, that was him. He probably could have been governor or senator if he hadn't gone the other way."
And one more thing. "He was an orphan. Most of the orphans I know are always scared that eventually they're going to not have something again. They tend to want to grab everything they can get right now."
Danny Greene leaves a courthouse with his lawyer in 1973. For years he beat the rap and several murder attempts.
Greene, the ultimate street hustler, first became a public figure when he headed up the Longshoreman's union on Cleveland's docks in the early 1960s.
"He reminded me of Marlon Brando in 'On the Waterfront,' " said Ed Kovacic, a former Cleveland Police detective, and later police chief, who spent years tussling with Greene and his cohorts.
"After you broke through that veneer that he put on, you could see he was such a convoluted character. He had so many sides. So many faces. Basically, he was a pretty decent guy who got caught up with living up to reputation, the image of being Danny Greene."
The image also included generosity. Greene helped out neighbors with money and favors. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, he bought dozens of turkeys and passed them out to needy folks in Collinwood.
OSU student's fascination with Greene led to movie
"The Irishman" has been in the works since 1997. It began with a Buckeye.
Tommy Reid, a student at Ohio State University in the mid- '90s, would drive up to Cleveland with friends for various weekend excursions. That's when he started hearing stories about the area's explosive criminal past.
"My heritage is Irish and Italian," said Reid. "I wanted to tell a story that had significance in both nationalities, and me being from New Jersey, which has always been kind of home to the mob, you know, the East Coast, I saw the Danny Greene story as an ideal mission and purpose for my career."
Reid was so taken with the saga, that he is also the producer and director behind the documentary "Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman." """'"He hooked up with Porrello in 1997 and acquired an option on the book before it was published.
Porrello, who grew up in Cleveland Heights, had his own colorful past. He toured the world as a drummer for Sammy Davis Jr., and later became an author with the book "The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia," which featured his own grandfather and great-uncles as players in the bootleg wars of the 1920s and 1930s.
But Porrello was also a kid who longed to be a cop, ever since his parents gave him a police scanner for Christmas when he was 10. His day job for the past 22 years has been on the Lyndhurst police force.""
As Reid pitched his movie dreams in Los Angeles, Porrello waited. And waited.
"There were times when I was on the road on the midnight shift, I'd go sit on that spot where Danny was killed and have coffee and I'd wonder, 'Will that movie ever get made? Will they be filming right here in this parking lot?' "
Reid, who worked for a talent agency before becoming a producer, spent years trekking Hollywood's perpetual path of heartbreak: meetings that led to meetings followed by meetings that led nowhere. He did, however, have Tara.
"My sister is an actress, Tara Reid, the 'American Pie' series and everything. She helped out a lot opening doors to already established producers and talent. She could call Sean Penn and talk to him about it. Through her I met the right actors, the right companies."
Reid finally cut a deal with a production company, Code Entertainment, which recently landed a distributor, Anchor Bay Films. There are no less than 14 producers, co-producers and executive producers now attached to "The Irishman." Once the project took off with director Jonathan Hensleigh ("The Punisher") and its strong cast, the question became where to shoot.
Reid always assumed they would make the film in Cleveland. But as with all movie budgets, money talks. He went searching for tax credits.
As "The Irishman" was headed into production in 2009, the Ohio House and Senate were still debating competing tax-incentive bills for filmmakers. One finally passed, but it was too late for Reid and company. Michigan already had one in place. That's why Detroit plays Cleveland in "The Irishman."
Reid was able to shoot part of his documentary in Cleveland in 2008. He hopes to release it a week or so before the movie next March and use them to cross-promote each other. The documentary includes interviews with one of Danny's ex-wives, Nancy, and one of his daughters, Sharon.
"I was 21 when my dad died," said Sharon. "I had just gotten married two months earlier." She described the experience of making the documentary as "a little surreal."
After her parents divorced, she said, "we had a great life growing up in Willoughby. We didn't know what was going on. You didn't know what your father did back then. He was just this big guy to us."
One bombing leads to another and another
"The Irishman" chronicles Greene's rise to power, his battles with Birns and his alliance with Nardi. "The story is just so compelling that actors respond and really want to play these historic figures," said Reid. "For an actor like Christopher Walken to play Shondor Birns, that's fun."
Shondor Birns, Public Enemy No. 1, met his own car bomb demise in 1975.
Arrested more than 50 times, Alex "Shondor" Birns was dubbed Public Enemy No. 1. He excelled at extortion, assault and murder. A former club owner, he knew how to keep drinks, food and favors flowing to cops, lawyers, judges and reporters. Years before clashing with Greene, Birns battled Don King, erstwhile Cleveland felon and later hair-raising boxing promoter.
On the evening of March 29, 1975, Birns walked out of a strip club, Christy's Lounge on Detroit Avenue near St. Malachi Church, and went to start his Lincoln Continental Mark IV. He was 70.
Nardi, secretary-treasurer of Vending Machine Employees Local 410, lacked Birns' public profile. He and Greene collaborated on gambling and money-skimming schemes that increasingly trampled on the turf of Cleveland mafia boss James "Jack White" Licavoli. "Greene had the street power, and Nardi knew how the mob game worked," said Porrello.
Never convicted of a crime, federal agents still ranked Nardi high in the local mob's chain of command, a distinction he succinctly denied to reporters just a month before his death, saying, "I ain't nobody."
On the afternoon of May 17, 1977, Nardi left his Teamsters office and walked over to his Olds 98. He was 61.
The bomb that killed Birns was wired to his car. The one that killed Nardi was planted in the car beside his and detonated by remote control. It was almost identical to the bomb and method used five months later to get Greene. The police called it a "Trojan Horse attack."
Nardi's murder was never solved. Neither was the blast on Birns, though Kovacic said, "I'm convinced that Danny did it."
The mob finally caught up with Greene because they had tapped his phone and learned of a dentist appointment on the afternoon of Oct. 6, 1977. For weeks, he had been switching cars to throw off potential bombers. This time, two men planted the explosives in a Chevy Nova, which they parked next to Greene's Lincoln Continental after he went inside. About a half-hour later, Greene walked out and reached to open his car door. He was 47.
Greene's death served as a profound propellant for future busts. It ended up being his most significant act.
The police got lucky with eyewitnesses. Nine men were indicted initially. The 79-day murder trial stretched from February to May 1978. It's the longest continuous criminal trial in the history of Cuyahoga County, longer even than the infamous Sam Sheppard case in 1954. The trial, and subsequent federal cases, led to 22 convictions for Greene's murder or other crimes.
Those eventually sent to prison included Licavoli (played in the film by Tony Lo Bianco), hitman Ray Ferritto (played by Robert Davi), and accomplices Pasquale "Butchie" Cisternino, and Ronald Carabbia, who was paroled in 2002.
The aftershocks provoked mob insiders Angelo "Big Ange" Lonardo and Aladena "Jimmy the Weasel" Fratianno to "flip," turning state's evidence and fingering former associates. The domino-effect helped dismantle chunks of the La Cosa Nostra from New York to Los Angeles.
Greene walks away from early bombing
More bizarre than the bombing that killed Greene is the one that didn't.
Two years earlier, at 3:50 a.m. on May 12, 1975, a bomb shattered glass and ripped through the bottom floor of Greene's office and apartment at 15805 Waterloo Road in Collinwood. Greene was on the second floor and crashed down into a pile of bricks and crud, breaking several ribs.
"I felt the floor give out," he later explained. "The next thing I knew I was in a heap of rubble. An icebox was over me. I dug myself out. I heard dogs whining and cats crying." Two of his cats were killed, but his girlfriend, Denise, managed to survive, crawling down from the mangled mess, while the bathrobe-clad Greene, spitting up blood, worked to dig his way upwards.
"There are three reasons somebody bombs somebody," said Kovacic that morning. "Either it's to make someone start doing something, to make someone stop doing something, or to kill someone. This was to wipe out Danny Greene."
But instead of fleeing the country, or at least the county, Greene set up a temporary trailer on the lot after the debris was hauled away. In utter defiance, he sat outside with friends and posted a sign, "Future Home: Celtic Club."
Then, in taunting tones right out of a mob movie screenplay, Greene talked to the TV cameras.
"I'm in between both worlds, the square world and the street world," he said. "I think I have trust on both sides, but I have no ax to grind. If somebody wants to come after me, we're over here by the Celtic Club. I'm not hard to find."
As a sign of some strange homage to Greene, or lack of real estate development, what became a vacant lot is, today, a vacant lot. The stark gap is just east of the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern. In cheeky Collinwood, a trio of artists painted a huge burnt sienna mural on the side of the building facing the bomb site.
In big capital letters, it reads, "KABOOM!"
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