COVER STORY : Is This Really His Life? : Frank Sinatra blessed a TV bio with daughter Tina as executive producer. Cynics have already cried whitewash. But the CBS miniseries script includes the heartbreaks, the fights and the Mob. The question is: Why did he allow it?

Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer

Frank Sinatra has always done it his way. But which way did the producers of the upcoming "Sinatra" TV miniseries do it?

Did they tell the real story of the performer's long, legendary career, or did they create a sanitized version, minus the Mafia associations, the marital infidelities and the ties to various politicos?

With the imprimatur given the project by Sinatra--he cooperated in its production and has sanctioned it as an "official" biography, in lieu of a book--and with the presence of his youngest daughter, Tina, as executive producer, skeptics could be excused for expecting a fawning tale, a whitewashed rendering of the controversial entertainer's life story.

Judging from interviews with the filmmakers and a reading of the script, however, what viewers will see when the five-hour "Sinatra" airs on CBS in November is a straightforward attempt to address some of the more controversial incidents that have dogged his reputation and to show its subject's weaknesses and vulnerabilities along with his phenomenal success.

The TV movie spans 1920 to 1974 in the life of "Ol' Blue Eyes" and spends considerable time examining his relationship with mob boss Sam Giancana and the shadow that association cast over his friendship with President John F. Kennedy. It also shows Sinatra, the renowned ladies' man, stumbling in his first marriage to his teen-age sweetheart Nancy, in his tempestuous but doomed love affair with Ava Gardner, in his short-lived marriage to Mia Farrow, and in several notable liasions in between.

"Reading the script at various stages was painful for him," Tina Sinatra said of her father. "Now it's done and he's going to have to face it."

One scene depicts the 52-year-old Sinatra dismissing the 21-year-old Farrow from his life after her work schedule interfered with his by telling his attorney, Mickey Rudin: "It's over with her. Take care of it." Then he walks away as calmly as if he'd just ordered lunch, according to the script's stage directions.

Another scene, set in 1950 at a time when his career had stalled, his marriage was falling apart and his nights were spent carousing with his buddies, depicts a drunken, despondent Sinatra appearing to attempt suicide.

"I'm satisfied we got to the truth," says the film's writer, William Mastrosimone. "There are so many things the public doesn't know about him. When you see these things (portrayed in the movie) you're going to say, 'Why did he ever let his story be done?' That's the remarkable thing: It's not particularly flattering to him."

"Sinatra" has had a turbulent history. Nearly eight years in the making, it was originally written as a 10-hour miniseries, then revised to eight hours and finally shortened to five. Mastrosimone, a playwright and screenwriter ("Extremities," "The Woolgatherer," "Tamer of Horses," "Nanawatai"), was the third writer approached about the picture. Scripts by the first two had not met with the approval of Sinatra or Warner Bros., the studio footing the $18.5-million production bill. Mastrosimone undertook the project with some hesitation.

"When I first heard Tina was involved with it, I thought, 'Sinatra's in the driver's seat here so it's got to be a whitewash,' " he said. "But the truth of it is, Tina is a very straight-shooter. Professionally she had nothing to gain from doing a whitewash. CBS knew and Tina knew that the only thing that would succeed was something that was truly honest, because it was going to be doubly scrutinized by the media and the public. . . . What they wanted was what the world doesn't know about Frank Sinatra. What they wanted was what was going on in Frank's head."

Sinatra, 77, declined to be interviewed about the project, but Tina said that her father chose to make a movie of his life rather than write a book because he believed his life as a singer lent itself more naturally to a cinematic portrayal, rather than a literary one. The movie features his original recordings throughout--lip-synced by 37-year-old Philip Casnoff, who plays the title role.

Ultimately, said Tina Sinatra, 44, her father wanted to see the movie made "to set the record straight. . . . There had been inaccuracies and innuendoes constantly restated and history and time made them seem like truth."

Sorting the factual from the mythical was Mastrosimone's most arduous task. To get to the truth, he read biographies and articles about Sinatra, waded through transcripts of FBI wiretaps investigating Sinatra's mob connections, listened to all of Sinatra's music and talked with the man himself.

"I approached this right from the beginning with the belief that Frank Sinatra was a folk hero," Mastrosimone said. "In the (Trenton, N.J.) neighborhood where I was born, people absolutely worshiped Frank. They had his picture right next to their kids. He knows the heart of the common person and that's the deep connection. The people themselves have voted him as their icon because he seems to know the secrets in their hearts."

He continued: "But you just have to firmly believe that underneath all the lore is a beating human heart and that he's no different from anybody else in many ways. Things affect him. With that belief, you just cut through a lot of the stuff that's said about him."

Mastrosimone said that he and Tina spent hours grilling Sinatra--notoriously close-mouthed with the press--on events, conversations and feelings, forcing him to probe and scrutinize his past.

"We'd ask him again and again and again about something until he finally lit up like a light bulb and we got what we wanted," the writer said. "He is a man who knows the truth and is willing to tell it when he feels comfortable. He knocked me off my chair sometimes. For instance, there was a time when I said, 'What about that reporter you punched out?' "--a reference to the time Sinatra hit a journalist who photographed him with Ava Gardner, launching his reputation as being difficult and hot-headed.

"He said, 'Well, I was a jerk. I shouldn't have done that. But the guy did insult me.' "

Mastrosimone attributed Sinatra's uncharacteristic openness and candor during the researching of the project to the singer's having reached a point of self-examination and analysis of his earlier life. "I guess Tina caught her father at a time when he really wanted to disburden his heart, which was our fortune," he said.

Eventually Mastrosimone wound up with more material than he could use. He learned, for example, that, in the 1950s, Sinatra bought a house for Sammy Davis Jr. in Beverly Hills, enabling him to be one of the first blacks to live in that city, and that Sinatra helped support many out-of-work Hollywood actors and singers during lean years. But Tina Sinatra vetoed the inclusion of these little-known deeds, he said, because "she didn't want the movie to be a grocery list of his benefits to the world. She wanted the movie to be a psychological study of him."

The miniseries, directed by Jim Sadwith and shot last spring on location around Los Angeles and in Sinatra's hometown of Hoboken, N.J., chronicles Sinatra's life from his childhood days in the 1920s, singing in his father's saloon in Hoboken, through his teen idol success and on to the peaks and valleys of his musical and acting careers, his work with bandleaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and his friendships with Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Peter Lawford--"the Rat Pack." It comes to a halt in 1974. The last 18 years have been bypassed, Tina Sinatra explained, because "his life stops being as interesting when he comes out of retirement at 59."

Mastrosimone said he approached the film as "a morality tale. It's a very American story: a man from a low station who has a big dream and then he gets his dream and the dream destroys him and he puts himself back together again."

Indeed, some of the interactions between the young Sinatra and his parents and childhood peers seem steeped in the sort of lore that surrounds a legend. A 10-year-old Sinatra, for example, is seen being teased by his young friends when they discover he's hidden sheet music under his shirt.

"Songs?! You chump! Whaddaya gonna do with that?" asks one boy. The stage direction reads: "He grabs the music out of Frankie's hand, looks at it and smacks Frankie alongside of the head and yells 'What a sap!' "

The next scene shows the young Sinatra wowing the patrons at his father's saloon with his rendition of "Wonderful One."

Philip Casnoff, who plays Sinatra from ages 19 to 60, said that he regarded the experience as one of his biggest career challenges, given the complexity of the role and the fact that he was playing a star of nearly mythological fame.

"I think it's fascinating to portray a live figure, somebody who's been so public," the New York-based actor said. "He's a very visceral character. I think the key to his personality is that his emotions are very close to the surface. Yet he was also very guarded. What attracted me to the script is that the writer seemed to capture a lot of dark and light."

Casnoff did extensive preparation for the role. "I read books both positive and negative about him, saw a lot of his films, talked to Tina and Nancy (Sinatra's first wife)," Casnoff said. "I tried to absorb stuff into the character. But it's always a mystery, trying to piece it together. Ultimately it becomes merging your vision with the script."

"I don't kiss ass and I don't sell out my friends," Frank Sinatra snarls to his handlers in the early 1960s when told that Warners Bros. had asked that he publicly disassociate himself from such mobsters as Sam Giancana or risk losing his recording contract.

The film pays considerable attention to the singer's associations with Giancana (played by Rod Steiger) and other mob types and paints those friendships as part and parcel of Sinatra's sense of loyalty.

"These are the guys who gave me a job when nobody else would," he tells Ava Gardner (played by Marcia Gay Harden) after introducing her to Giancana in 1950.

Said Mastrosimone: "A lot of times many of his actions were dictated by his fierce loyalty to people no matter who they were. Friendship was everything to him. His (first) wife Nancy told me he lived for his friends. When the friends called, he dropped everything and went to them."

Sinatra is so loyal that he persuades his fellow "Rat Packers" to play at Giancana's Chicago nightclub in 1961 for free--with the implication that this constituted repayment for a favor given Sinatra.

"I needed to know was he or wasn't he (in the Mafia)?" Mastrosimone said. "So the first thing Tina did was make available to me under the Freedom of Information Act all the documents pertaining to that."

"It's dealt with openly," Tina Sinatra said of her father's organized crime ties. "It's not all that explosive. If you grew up in Hoboken, you knew them and sometimes you worked for them. The Mafia at that time was so very involved in entertainment."

According to the script, Joseph Kennedy asked Sinatra in 1960 to exert his influence among Chicago mobsters to aid his son John's presidential campaign.

Joe Kennedy: "We need a boost from our friends in Chicago who control the unions. They could win this race for us. But you understand, Frank, I can't go to those people. It might come back at Jack. The White House can't owe them any favors. . . . The best thing you can do for Jack is ask for their help as a personal favor to you."

Sinatra: "I understand."

A following scene shows Sinatra going to Giancana for a favor.

Frank: "My friend Jack Kennedy needs some help in the West Virginia primary."

The stage direction reads: "Sam understands. He puts his arm around Frank's shoulders and pats him on the back like a son. The coin of this realm is the favor. Frank has entered a dark new world."

Shortly after Kennedy was elected President, he distanced himself from Sinatra, according to the script and to published reports. (Indeed, a scene centers on Sinatra's disappointment when Kennedy chooses to stay at Bing Crosby's Palm Springs home rather than his.)

Also during this time, investigations were conducted by then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy of such Sinatra associates as Giancana, Johnny Formosa and one of Sinatra's employees at his Lake Tahoe casino. The script depicts a phone conversation in which Formosa is heard suggesting to Giancana that Sinatra be killed "to show Bobby (Kennedy) how we keep score." Giancana talks him out of it, saying, "You let me take care of Sinatra."

A few scenes later, Giancana warns Sinatra: "Watch your back. . . . I got feds outside my home. They sit behind me in church. They got a tap on my phone. . . . And don't think they ain't waiting for me to step foot in your casino."

Sinatra: "Screw 'em. It's my place and you're my friend."

What the movie hints at but doesn't portray is that in 1963, a couple of years after that conversation allegedly took place, Sinatra was forced to sell his interest in the casino when the Nevada Gaming Commission revoked his gambling license, accusing him of playing host to an underworld figure--Giancana.

And not only did Sinatra lose his valued political connections, but, according to the script, the entertainment world began to grow fearful of him because of his alleged Mafia ties.

"It's cathartic getting something of this scope and magnitude accomplished," Tina Sinatra observed. "It's a piece of Americana, a piece of history."

Nearly everyone involved in the project points to her dogged determination as the force that brought the movie to fruition.

"If it wasn't for her, the thing would never have been made," said Harvey Shephard, president of Warner Bros. television production. "She was driven to make this. There were so many obstacles, and she overcame them. The first script was a tremendous disappointment and people were losing interest. She kept the project alive. She oversaw an extraordinarily complex production schedule. Tina was the one who was there all the time, who was unrelenting, not willing to compromise in terms of anything."

Indeed, Tina was able to elicit her father's participation in a way that no one else may have been able to achieve.

"He's a very private man and all this was difficult for him," she explained. "Sometimes it was much too exposing for him. But I think that my involvement and my presence was a protective shield. "

Tina Sinatra said there were gaps in her memory about her father's life. He and her mother, the former Nancy Barbato, were divorced when Tina was only 6 months old. (In the film, when wife Mia Farrow suggests having a child, Sinatra responds, "I never gave enough time to the kids I had. They grew up thinking the telephone was their father.")

But his daughter maintained that not seeing her father on a day-to-day basis when she was a child helped give her the distance she needed to tackle such a project. Still, being forced to relive the breakup of her family has dredged up painful memories for the youngest Sinatra.

"It hurt, but I feel like I've gotten to know him better," Tina Sinatra said. "I understand better what it was like to be him and to be Mom. There was a lot of turmoil and a lot of pain. . . . I totally accept him. There were times when I think he let me down. I think any father is remiss when he's not home. But it was always wonderful to have him back for whatever short time. I don't know if he did everything the way I wanted him to, but he did it the way he could."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
56°