The meetings tended to last just long enough to deliver the wisdom of the moment: Nobody wants to see mob movies anymore. Fiore didn’t buy that. “I think it was me,” Fiore told me. “I was a nobody.” And indeed, this was a big part of the problem. Fiore’s presentation was outlandish. He had the wrong accent and wore the wrong clothes—a suit that barely contained him, with garish cuff links. “He was a shocking amateur. He would truly never know what he was talking about,” said an industry player. Which was certainly true when he was talking about Hollywood—at the time he met Gotti, Fiore hadn’t even seen The Godfather.
But Fiore did have one impressive attribute, and that was money. At a Yankees game, he’d met Fay Devlin, an Irish immigrant with an adventurous streak. At age 24, Devlin had founded Eurotech, a Manhattan-based construction company with more than $80 million a year in sales. Devlin was, if possible, even less experienced than Fiore in the movie business, a fact for which he doesn’t apologize. “Of course we are outsiders; so is everybody at some stage,” he told me. “You have to listen to your gut.” So Devlin became a 50-50 partner in Fiore Films and its principal funder. “Holy shit,” he said at the prospect of the Gotti rights. “This is a no-brainer.”
Fiore already had a screenwriter lined up. His meeting with Gotti had been brokered by a longtime character actor and sometime screenwriter named Leo Rossi, who’d heard about the Gotti rights through the ex-brother-in-law in the pizza business. Rossi moved from Los Angeles to Long Island and spent five months interviewing Gotti, taking notes since Gotti wouldn’t permit a tape recorder. “I’ve been taped too much in my life,” Gotti told me.
“The movie is seen through my eyes,” Gotti told me, and the treatment is built around his unusual boyhood and his midlife career change. For Junior, the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, his father’s headquarters, was a fun place to hang out. His uncles were there—his father’s brothers worked for him—and everyone made sure to treat the boss’s son right. “I loved going to the club on Saturdays,” Junior told me. “I loved the way everybody treated me. Taking me to the toy store. Giving me five bucks. People were talking about food and barbecuing and sports and boxing and gambling, betting on the game tomorrow.” It was only natural that a son in thrall to a father would graduate from weekend ball-breaking into the father’s business—which happened to be loan-sharking, extortion, and murder.
But Junior wasn’t his father, a man who grew up “dirt poor,” as Junior described it, and had never considered any career but gangster. He was the boss’s son but also a suburban kid. Occasionally, he sauntered into the social club with a Walkman playing in his ears—an entitled, Gen-X version of a gangster.
The movie’s climactic scene takes place over a formal conference table at Marion prison in Illinois. It was 1999, and Junior had been charged with extortion and racketeering and faced a long sentence. The government was offering a plea, and he wanted to take it and retire from the mob. “I’d follow you over a cliff,” he told his father. But he wanted his father’s blessing: The code word for it was closure.
“That word is not in my vocabulary,” the father told his son. “That’s [for] overeducated, underintelligent motherfuckers … that word, ‘closure.’ ”
Ultimately, Junior chose his children over his father. He took the plea, served seven years, a good portion of it in solitary, and never saw his father again.
Great material. For Fiore, the challenge was getting producers and agents to see past him—the 325-pound, Brooklyn-accented salesperson (“delusional,” one insider called him) to the property itself. Which wasn’t easy. His other emissary to Hollywood besides Stuttering John was a 77-year-old gadfly and publicity hound named Marty Ingels, who looks like Captain Kangaroo and has a once-famous wife, Shirley Jones, late of the Partridge Family.
“We’re looking for some stars,” Fiore told Ingels. What about John Travolta? Travolta was the perfect man to play the Don. A Jersey boy and son of a tire salesman, whose breakout movie, Saturday Night Fever, was set in the same Brooklyn provinces where John Gotti had made his bones. And so Ingels mounted a yearlong campaign, a blend of agitprop and schmaltz, to get Travolta’s attention. After Travolta’s son Benjamin was born, Ingels pretended the Old Testament name meant the boy was Jewish. He inundated the baby—Benny or Benji, he called him—with e-mails signed by his Jewish uncle, Uncle M, and offered advice on the High Holidays. Amazingly, the campaign worked—he got Travolta to read the script. Travolta was already rich, even by movie-star standards—he owns five planes, including a wide-bodied Boeing 707, which he parks in a hangar connected to his house. Still, he wasn’t the leading man he’d once been. He hasn’t done anything with real heft since The Thin Red Line, in 1998. But John Gotti—that was a role for a real movie star. “What a character to approach and understand,” Travolta would later say. “He’s filled with incredible dichotomies. I like the glamour, the humor. There was mystery about what he was up to. I like playing that, too.”