UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif.
Besides Watergate, bell bottoms and disco, something more sinister was at its zenith in the ’70s. The Mafia had reached a pinnacle it had never known since Lucky Luciano first conceived of the idea of organizing crime.
La Cosa Nostra, as it was known here, 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, as well as the gradual decline of the Mafia’s grip on the underworld, in six episodes titled “Inside the American Mob” premiering at 9 p.m. 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 movie 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 here.
“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.”
“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.”