The start of it all, the unmoved mover, was John Gotti, legendary head of the Gambino crime family, a snarling, bloodthirsty, charismatic monster tightly encased in a shiny Brioni suit. After he had previous Gambino boss Paul Castellano murdered outside Sparks Steak House in 1985, a stunning piece of Mafia theater replete with costumed hit men and walkie-talkies, Gotti thoroughly dominated his era, orchestrating dozens of murders—and making it impossible, because of his fame and flamboyance and pure viciousness, for anyone to be a mobster in quite that way again. “You’ll never see another one like me,” he once said.
So what is the son and chosen heir of such a man to do? After five criminal prosecutions and nine years in prison, after millions of dollars of asset seizures, with the world he knew as a child no longer in existence, with the Ravenite social club where his father ordered hits now a trendy Nolita shoe store, what, exactly, is his patrimony?
I was talking to John “Junior” Gotti about these questions, his father, and his way forward over espressos one recent afternoon. There were pale echoes of the former Gotti life. We were at Da Mikele, a Tribeca restaurant that is owned in part by his lawyer and friend Tony D’Aiuto; Vinny the bartender was Gotti’s sometime driver.
John Gotti is 48 years old, wide-bodied and narrow-eyed, with two-tone hair: gray creeping up the sides, still black on top. He was dressed in a black-and-white cabana shirt, black jeans, black shoes, a hipster but for the strapping build.
Junior is a chip off the old block—but only a chip. “He was handsome, he was charismatic,” Junior said, with something like awe of his father’s Mephistophelian glamour. “Not a hypocritical bone in his body. He told you what he was. He made a choice. I was proud to be around him, proud to be under him. He acted … like a man.”
But when Junior faced twenty years in prison, his outlook changed. He reflected on the wisdom of following in those giant footsteps. He realized that he wasn’t his father, couldn’t be. And in 1999, in a visit at the supermax prison where Gotti Sr. was serving life without parole, the son told the father he wanted to take a plea, serve his time, and leave the Mafia.
The decision still troubles him. “Was walking away the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? Am I making my wife and children happy by what I’m doing? Did I hurt my father? Was he disappointed in me?” Junior asked. He paused, as if deciding whether to answer his own question.
“I did feel like he was disappointed. I still do. To be honest with you, I have to wrestle with that every day.”
You can check out of the Mafia—but you can never really leave. After the Don died, in 2002, John Gotti Junior no longer had a father or a Mafia empire—but what he did have was a story. He started by writing a book based on his massive archive of documents and transcripts, some conveniently provided by FBI wiretaps—it grew to a thousand pages but never really took off. Then Gotti heard that movie producers were going to try to muscle in on his territory, make a movie about his father. That’s when he realized he had to make that movie himself. It made perfect sense—Hollywood has always been Mafia heaven—and how different were the mob and Hollywood, after all? Both in the Mafia and in the movies, a bloodthirsty boss could be a man of honor.
“It’s a fascinating story,” Gotti says, as if pitching the picture to me. “It’s an opportunity to say, ‘Look at the street life.’ ” He pierced the air with a thick finger. “People don’t see the pain. They don’t see my mother, 23 years without my father. They don’t see my wife without me. They don’t see houses and buildings that were taken from me. Businesses that were taken from me. They don’t see the price that we had to pay, the tolls that were taken on my children. They don’t see any of it. I think the movie will help me … because it’s an explanation.”
Whereas his father had wanted to rule, Junior wants to be understood, and also wants the catharsis of telling his story. Plus there was that other thing both Hollywood and the Mafia understand: money. Junior was nearly broke, largely from paying his lawyers. The story represented his inheritance.
Gottis do things in their way, and selling the movie was no different. Junior didn’t hire an agent. He likes to deal with people he knows, people he trusts. So he put out the word through his lawyer, D’Aiuto, and also through an ex-brother-in-law in the pizza business in L.A.