Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Real Life Sopranos

Prologue

Art imitates life, and sometimes life is flattered. From all indications, this has been the Mafia's reaction to the hit HBO television series The Sopranos, which focuses on the trials and tribulations of a fictional New Jersey crime boss and his families (both criminal and actual). For the most part, real-life wiseguys not only like the show, some believe they've been the inspiration for a few of the characters and plots. What's more, they're not particularly upset about it.

Sam DeCavalcante, mugshot
Sam DeCavalcante,
mugshot

Four members of New Jersey's only home-grown mob family, the DeCavalcantes, were secretly taped by the feds in the winter of 1999 as they were driving to a mob sit-down. As reported by Jerry Capeci in his online column Gang Land, the men complained about the disrespect they were receiving from the New York families. Eventually, the conversation turned to The Sopranos.

"Hey, what's this f***ing thing, Sopranos?" soldier Joseph "Tin Ear" Sclafani asked. "What the f*** are they... Is this supposed to be us?"

"You are in there," capo Anthony Rotondo replied. "They mentioned your name in there." Apparently Rotondo was a big fan.

"Yeah? What did they say?" Sclafani asked.

A third wiseguy identified in the FBI transcripts only as "Billy" answered. "Watch out for that guy, they said. Watch that guy." Billy was apparently joking because the fourth man in the car started laughing. He was the one wearing the concealed wire.

"Every show you watch, more and more you pick up somebody. Every show," Rotondo said.

"Yeah, but it's not me," Sclafani said. "I'm not even existing over there." Sclafani didn't seem to be angry or offended when he learned that he was source material for the show. In fact, his attitude seemed to be just the opposite.

The mobsters' discussion about The Sopranos concluded with Rotondo's capsule review: "What characters. Great acting."

David Chase, creator of The Sopranos
David Chase, creator
of The Sopranos

As strange as it may seem, men who have dedicated their lives to belonging to a secret criminal society are basking in the recognition The Sopranos provides. Obviously the show's creator, David Chase, did not intend to glorify gangsters. But even gangsters have a propensity to look on the sunny side of something that strokes their own egos. Perhaps like Tony Soprano, the stressed-out, Prozac-popping capo, the real-life wiseguys just crave a little attention. If they "don't get no respect" in certain areas of their own lives, they can gain it vicariously through Tony and his crew.

When fictional characters capture the public's fascination as the Soprano clan has, people inevitably start looking for the real-life models. The creators of fictional characters seldom model their characters on any single source; a writer might be influenced by one or several real-life individuals, but the character he or she creates is usually an amalgam of many sources held together by a large dose of imagination.

Nevertheless, the Mafiosi portrayed on the Sopranos do come pretty close to the real thing. In January 2000, New York Post reporter Allen Salkin asked Robert J. Carroll, former head of New Jersey's Organized Crime Task Force, and Robert Buccino, retired chief of the state's Organized Crime and Racketeering Bureau, to pick real-life gangsters from the Garden State whose lives and deeds resemble the fictional Soprano crew. What follows is an in-depth look at those "real-life Sopranos."

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