COLUMBIA — If you ever want to know what the New York mafia is really like, watch “Goodfellas,” Michael Franzese says. He would know.
The ex-Colombo family mobster, turned author and public speaker, has a character based on his former self in the 1990 movie and promised a full house at MU’s Conservation Auditorium on Wednesday night that it is the most authentic portrayal of life in a New York crime family.
“I really wanted to go see it when I got out of jail, but as soon as they said my name (in the movie) I picked up my wife and left the theater,” he said.
Franzese was at MU on Wednesday as part of an event co-sponsored by the Wellness Resource Center, the MU athletics department, the department of student affairs and Keeping the Score, a statewide gambling education program based at MU. Franzese's presentation and ensuing question-and-answer period was a lesson in “Mob 101,” as Franzese put it, with less emphasis on why he eventually gave up that lifestyle.
Franzese served eight years in prison for racketeering, authored two books on the mobster lifestyle, “Quitting The Mob” (1992) and “Blood Covenant” (2003), and has been called a “mob superstar” by multiple media outlets.
Jesse Garod, an Italian major at MU, was one of more than 300 audience members and came to the event because of the ties between Italian culture and the mafia. He asked a question about the corruptness of police and federal agents and said he was pleased with Franzese’s honest answer, which included a short story about going to a Brooklyn precinct and destroying incriminating documents.
Franzese was quick to add that he now has the utmost respect for police officers and considers an experience like that the exception.
Alex Ingram, an electrical engineering major at MU, heard about the event through an online advertisement and was excited about his new, clearer view of the mafia. He said he planned to watch “Goodfellas” again soon.
Franzese started his public speaking career in 1996 with an engagement at the NBA rookie camp, talking to the newcomers about the dangers of getting involved with bookies. The impression that the fast-talking New Yorker made on the rookies was obvious, and he quickly became a sought-after speaker on the perils of athlete gambling. He has spoken at rookie camps for every American professional sport and in 1998 the NCAA joined in. He has since spoken at more than 300 colleges. Franzese also spoke to a group of MU athletes Wednesday.
“I really do care about the future of young people,” he said to the crowd.
Kristy Wanner, gambling education coordinator for Keeping the Score, worked with the other three groups to bring Franzese to the campus. Wanner said she felt Franzese’s intriguing persona was what helped draw the large crowd but said she wished he would have spent more time on good life decisions and the dangers of gambling.
She hoped those in attendance heard the overarching message of lifestyle choices and the importance of education that coincide with the task force’s “harm reduction” policy.
When asked if he would do it all over again, Franzese replied that while he missed the camaraderie of the Colombo family, the criminal lifestyle was horrible and violent and that he should have stayed in school.
“Besides,” he added, “being a criminal is too hard with all the technology and weaponry that the police have these days.”