This episode of Mambo Non-Italiano focuses on the gritty true-life story of FBI Agent Joe Pistone who went undercover and infiltrated the Bonanno family in New York City. Pistone was incredibly successful, getting in so deep into the Mafia that they considered opening the books for him to be a made man, a blood member of “this thing of ours”. Pistone’s story is told in the 1997 film.

The two lead actors we will focus on are the very non-Italian Johnny Depp and Viking Michael Madsen. Depp played Joe Pistone/Donnie Brasco. Madsen played mob captain Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano.

Another lead, Al Pacino, is Italian royalty of course for playing Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies. His presence gives the film automatic Italian authenticity and makes sure that this mob drama is anything but fugazzi. Pacino plays Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggerio, who takes the undercover FBI agent under his wing, vouching for him to the other mobsters and schooling him on the ways of the Mafia.

It is important to point out that Donnie Brasco has a cast loaded with real Italians other than Pacino. Bruno Kirby, James Russo, Robert Miano, Brian Tarantina, Rocco Sisto, Terry Serpico, Tony Lip (more on Lip below) and finally Paul Giamatti, although he plays an FBI Agent.

A cast with plenty of goombahs is admirable, but I have to give points off for Bruno Kirby changing his name from Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu. I might give him a pass for the name change because even to me that looks like a tough Italian name to pronounce. He should have chosen something easier AND Italian to get a full pass. Please note that I think I have an easy Italian name to pronounce, but I have spent my entire life hearing it called everything other than Coz-en-tee-no. I do like the fact that because people find my last name a little difficult I was given the nickname “Tommy C”, a moniker I wear with Calabrian pride.

Since everyone who has read Mambo Non-Italiano has committed the first two episodes to memory, I feel it is a little redundant to have to remind everyone that the real Tony Lip’s life was the subject of the movie Green Book and the inspiration for the blog.

We’ll start on the discussion for a pass with Michael Madsen. Madsen is another Dane, looking back I guess he started the disturbing trend of Danes playing Italians (see Mambo Non-Italiano I). Madsen does a fine job playing Sonny Black, he is ruthless as his runs his crew. His men fear him because at any moment he can snap and send them for a nap with the fishes or in this movie, Mobster Parmigiana for a lion.

He is large, menacing and borderline psychopathic but he’s clearly not one thing: Italian. Looking through his filmography I see that he has played a handful of characters with Italian names but is that history combined with Donnie Brasco enough to give him a pass? My ruling has to be a no.

With Madsen failing to get a pass at the sit down, does that impact Depp’s chances of getting a pass for his lead role as Donnie Brasco himself?

When researching Johnny Depp, I was holding out hope that his real name would be De Pietro and that he changed it in a moment of misguided advice from a sleazy Hollywood agent. But unfortunately, he was born in Kentucky and his heritage is mostly English with some claims to having Native American heritage. To his credit, he never used those claims of being Native American to land the leading role as a Harvard Law professor or United States Senator.

I don’t see any other Italian characters in Depp’s filmography, but he was amazing as the Irish Mobster Whitey Bulger in the 2015 movie Black Mass. The real-life Whitey was also working for the FBI, snitching on his mostly Italian mobster rivals in Boston. The big question is this a big plus or minus for his pass? Since it is such a great performance, I will reluctantly make it a plus.

So to continue, does Depp get a pass? He does look a little Italian, a lot more than Madsen, with his hair slicked back and he has the body language and mannerisms down. His portrayal of Donnie was also stellar, the stress of knowing that at any moment he could be exposed as a rat is pervasive in his performance. Another point in Depp’s favor is that I haven’t seen a single movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. So, the ruling of this sit down is that Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco/Joe Pistone gets a pass as an Englishman playing a hardcore FBI agent/Mobster.

In the next episode of Mambo Non-Italiano we will discuss what I think is probably the most egregious offense in Non-Italian casting, the offspring of Tony Soprano in The Soprano’s. That kind of gives away what my ruling will be, but it’s a tough subject that we have to discuss as paisans, because we cannot allow another AJ to happen.

Don’t forget to pick The Art of Looking for Trouble now available in paperback!


Photo by Miguel Discart (Photos Vrac)