UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Besides Watergate, bell bottoms and disco, something more sinister was at its zenith during the '70s. The Mafia had reached a pinnacle it had never known since Lucky Luciano conceived of the idea of organizing crime.
La Cosa Nostra, as it was known, had insinuated itself into almost every facet of commercial society — from mom-and-pop stores to labor unions, drugs and extortion.
Law enforcement was desperate to staunch the flow of these ill-gotten gains and to put an end to the violence that punctuated the mob's shifting power structure.
The National Geographic Channel will examine those turbulent days, and the gradual decline of the Mafia's grip on the underworld, in a six- episodes series called Inside the American Mob that premieres Sunday.
Former capos, informants and lawmen relive their experiences with organized crime. Many of the stories have never been told before; some of the witnesses are still filmed in shadow for fear of reprisal.
One of the major turning points was FBI agent Joe Pistone's infiltration into the nether reaches of the mob. He was able to ingratiate himself with the hard-hitting gangsters, slowly working his way up the regimented Mafia ladder. Known to them as Donnie Brasco, Pistone spent six years bobbing and weaving with the power brokers, never knowing when his cover would be blown.
A 1997 movie, also called Donnie Brasco, was made of his exploits starring Johnny Depp, but to Pistone, it was just part of the job. "I was an FBI agent and I thoroughly loved being an FBI agent, and to me it was an investigation, a part of an investigation," he says, seated on a vinyl settee in a hotel.
"And it's hard to do a lot of overt work against the mob. We figured that this type of crime that was being committed, the best way was to try to infiltrate the group, and undercover is the basic way you do it. It's simplistic for me — for some people it's hard to understand — it's part of my job as an FBI agent, no other motives than I was asked to do it."
Pistone says there were several terrifying moments when he felt he'd been detected.
"The personalities and characteristics of mob guys aren't much different than the average citizen," he says. "And in the mob there's jealousies, guys don't like each other, guys are jealous just like in the corporate world. ... So I had individuals that were jealous of me because I was a younger guy, new face, only a couple of years around.
"I had good relationships with the capos that were running the family, so guys were jealous of me there. And the worst thing you could be called in the mob or on the street was informant.
"So I had one guy, Tony Mirra particularly, who was a made guy who I had many run-ins with. And he went to the bosses and told them I'd stolen $250,000 in a drug deal that we did. That's a big no-no: stealing money from the mob. Course, he's a made guy, so they had to listen to him. We had several sit-downs over that situation. A sit-down is basically a meeting. He brings in his people, I have to have my representatives, and luckily my representatives won the sit-down because if you lost a sit-down in that situation where the infraction is stealing money from the mob, they're going to kill you."
Another time, Pistone found himself the victim of distrust by two ex-cons. "They got out of jail and were jealous of the fact that I had such good standing with the capo, so they make a beef and tell the capo, 'Look, we don't trust him, we don't know him.' And they had this right because they're made guys. So I come to the club one day and go in and the capo says, 'Donnie, we gotta talk. We have to straighten this out.'
"Now I'd been with these guys nine, 10 months, so we go into the back room, they lock the door and put their guns on the table. You've got to convince them you're Donnie Brasco, otherwise you're going out rolled up in a rug. So we were in there six or seven hours."
Eventually Pistone won the capo over and was able to walk out on his own two feet. The secret, he says, is never let them see you sweat.
"You have to be very street smart and you have to be a good communicator and don't ever sweat. Don't ever let them see you sweat. Whenever I see a guy sweat I know he's nervous, and I know I can do him."
'Inside the American Mob'
Premieres at 9 p.m. July 28 on National Geographic Channel