Pileggi, the Fella Behind ‘GoodFellas’ : Movies: For 30 years, the New York journalist has covered cops, crime, corruption and the Mafia. His book inspired the acclaimed Martin Scorsese film--and he’s up for an Oscar Monday.
It would be hard to find a guy who is less Hollywood than Nicholas Pileggi. Here is a man who has kept sources for 30 years, a man so absent of malice he married writer Nora Ephron, despite the fact that her last writer-husband ended up the subject of the novel and movie “Heartburn.”
The agreement that Martin Scorsese would make a movie of his nonfiction book “Wiseguy,” which became Scorsese’s acclaimed “GoodFellas,” went something like this:
The phone rings at about 11:30 p.m.
“Nick Pileggi? My name is Martin Scorsese. I’m a movie director.”
“I know who you are.”
“I just read your book. I’ve been looking for it for years.”
“Well, I’ve been waiting for this call all my life!”
Pileggi gave Scorsese his word that night that he could make his book into a movie, and then refused to listen to other offers. The two collaborated on the screenplay, which is nominated for an Academy Award, and have plans to do two more movies together. Suddenly, at 58 and with no prior movie credits, Pileggi is a hot new Hollywood property.
Pileggi is the stuff movies are made of. He has been prowling the streets of New York City for nearly four decades as one of its top journalists. And always his beats have been cops, crime, corruption and one element that touches them all: the Mafia. Pileggi’s marriage to the Mob began when he was growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the curious, restless son of an immigrant Italian family.
“What the Vatican is to the Roman Catholics, Bensonhurst was to the Mafia,” Pileggi said early one recent morning in his rooftop office in Manhattan. “It was a kind of subculture and as a kid I was always fascinated by it. I saw these guys--who were supposed to be the bad guys--with the judges, the congressmen, the big shots. Priests would go to them and be very respectful.
“But no one ever talked about it then, never used the words Cosa Nostra. Not like today, where more people know about the Secret Society than about the Boy Scouts.”
In a sense, Pileggi was like the young Henry Hill in “GoodFellas,” the awe-struck outsider looking in. But where Hill dreamed of joining, Pileggi was more interested in just observing. All he dreamed about was getting away, and his next stop was New York City, where he scraped together enough money to share small quarters with his cousin, author Gay Talese.
Talese always knew he wanted to write and landed a copy-boy job with the New York Times. But teen-ager Pileggi was less directed and took what he thought was a night job at the A&P.; And thus began, quite by accident, an illustrious career.
“I soon learned it was the AP,” he says with a laugh. “But I fell totally in love with not only the Associated Press but with everything about journalism.”
He stayed at the wire service 15 years, first as a police reporter phoning in information from the field. It’s the sights, sounds and voices of those years that he would remember most fondly, and that he would one day bring to vivid literary and finally, cinematic, life.
“I’d literally check in at a police station to start my working day and I’d spend all day with the detectives,” Pileggi said. “I wound up becoming almost a cop. I’d ride in their cars, go to their bars, play cards in their stations. And, of course, I’d get to know not only the officers but the characters that inhabited those places.”
“It was amazing,” Talese said, in a separate interview. “I’d sometimes go down to the police station to meet Nick and even then, as a virtual child, he had the respect of his elders. They knew he wasn’t some brash young kid, but had a real understanding of what they were doing and who they were.”
People who would one day turn out to be invaluable to his work, either those trying to solve crimes or those committing them, started out simply as the people he hung out with.
“You don’t even know about sources,” Pileggi said, “you just know guys. And of course everyone grows. There was this one cop who was always in the station studying for some exams while we were playing cards. Now he’s the chief administrative judge in the city. Well, when you meet him 25 years later, there’s a bond there, a trust that goes way back. These guys say, ‘Well, he never screwed me in 30 years, odds are he won’t now.’ ”
He kept phoning it in until he was elevated to writer at the AP. It was then he realized that he had soaked up a lot over the years. And it was then that all his direct and indirect connections with the Mafia types started to pay off.
“As soon as they asked me to write,” Pileggi said, “it was, ‘What do you want, a story? I’ve got a million! You want plot? You want character? You want to know about Lefty?’ ”
Pretty soon, his stories were appearing in Esquire and New York magazine. “Because I was writing about stuff that no one knew about, it got published,” he said.
There was one book before “Wiseguy,” a well-reviewed, real-life story of a detective. But the big one came when Simon and Schuster put him together with (then under arrest) Henry Hill, who was looking for someone to tell his story to. The two men began feeling each other out to see if the mix was right.
“Henry started mentioning a lot of names that had been part of his life,” Pileggi said, “and I knew them all. I knew the players and I knew the language. He liked that, and I liked that Henry had a good eye, he was articulate, and he wasn’t quite one of them.”
At least that’s how Hill himself saw the story: not so much as the betrayer as the betrayed. The impressionable kid, seduced in what he described as a unique form of child abuse.
“I never thought that for a minute,” Pileggi said, “but it was his rationale. It took us a year to get through that garbage. I had to let him get it out of his system. But I knew immediately that wasn’t the book. The book was what it was like growing up!”
“Wiseguy” was an instant hit, and soon after came that late-night call from Scorsese, unnecessarily introducing himself. “I’d seen everything he’d ever done,” Pileggi said, “and I thought ‘Mean Streets’ was the best gangster movie ever made. It got gritty enough to capture the streets that I knew growing up and, later, covering.”
It was on those streets where Pileggi, ironically, had also once known a struggling actor named Bobby De Niro. “We used to see each other around town 20 years ago,” Pileggi said, “and sit in Dunkin’ Donuts trying to come up with stories. He’d always say, ‘You gotta come downtown. We’re working on some stuff,’ but it was all pie-in-the-sky theatrical stuff.”
But Pileggi saw the obsessive side of the actor: “I remember once seeing him with a huge cast on his arm. He’d just broken it in a terrible accident. Two days later, I saw him again without the cast and I asked, ‘What happened?’ He explained that he’d just read for a part in ‘The Godfather’ and had broken off his cast for the audition. So 18 years later, I’m sitting in Marty’s office and we’re waiting for De Niro. He walks in, looks my way and says, ‘Do you remember me?’ ”
Scorsese said he knew right away he wanted to adapt Pileggi’s book and never had any doubts that the author could also be his co-screenwriter.
“I could tell by the way he constructed the book, it already read like a brilliant movie,” Scorsese said. “You could almost photograph every page. And he had such a complete understanding of those people, and that includes as much compassion as one could have for them. He had such a good sense of drama and irony and that’s what I trusted.”
One reason for the smooth collaboration between Scorsese and Pileggi was that Pileggi always understood the differences in the two media: “I know I’m the director of my books, Marty is the director of his movies, Marty’s mother is the director of her kitchen,” Pileggi said. “That’s the only way it works.”
The partnership hasn’t ended. Two more Scorsese-Pileggi projects are in the works, but first, the writer has two other film scripts: one a story of a real-life cop for producer Lee Rich; the other, about city hall corruption and the workings of a major American city for director Paul Schrader. But while he is enjoying this sudden attention, Pileggi remains very much a creature of reporting and the only city he’s ever known.
“I’ll never be the kind of screenwriter studios will call for just anything,” Pileggi said. “I’d rather be doing a magazine piece than a polish on someone else’s story. But I’ve spent a lifetime listening to certain kinds of voices and knowing those worlds. And when those stories lend themselves to film, I’m interested. But I’ll always continue the journalism.”
To prove it, he opens up two drawers full of folders filled with information for his next book, a history of the casino industry. He hopes to focus on that full time starting next month, and it is scheduled for publication next year. But first there is Monday’s Oscars, which Pileggi has attended twice before with his wife, Nora Ephron, a two-time Oscar nominee for her screenplays.
This current-day Nick and Nora had passed each other’s lives many times before accidentally running into each other one night eight years ago.
“The ironic thing is we’d known each other casually over 20 years and then were both suddenly single at the same time,” said Pileggi, who had ended a 17-year marriage with a sportswriter. “Even though when we got together we had the exact same Rolodex, none of our busybody friends ever thought to put us together.”