For a fleeting moment in an early frame of CBS’ miniseries “Love, Honor and Obey: The Last Mafia Marriage,” the real Rosalie Bonanno can be seen at her 1956 wedding to Bill Bonanno, who would become his father’s consigliere.
Amid clinking of good crystal and toasting of the young couple led by Ben Gazzara--who plays Joe Bonanno, Mafia chieftain and boss of bosses--the trimly elegant reddish-haired woman gazes respectfully as he shouts, “A la Famiglia. " To the Family.
The making of the miniseries, primarily based on her 1990 book “Mafia Marriage,” co-written with Beverly Donofrio, was, in a sense, all in the family.
Now 57, mother of four, grandmother of nine and the maker of intricate bridal veils, Rosalie Bonanno (whose father was Mafia boss Joe Profaci) plays, without speaking lines, her mother-in-law. “To sit next to Ben Gazzara, that was the most exciting experience of my life,” bubbles Bonanno by phone from her home in Tucson, one of the few times a listener does not have to ask her to speak up.
Yet even as she prepares to come to Los Angeles for a gala CBS screening of the four-hour miniseries, airing Sunday and Tuesday nights at 9, one senses a certain reluctance in the soft-voiced Mafia--or former Mafia--wife about what is considered her story. “It was a fine, beautiful, nice story (but) it feels like Bill’s explanations as to what really happened. . . . And me? It was against my nature to expose my private life but it was something Bob Dellinger and Bill convinced me to do. They thought I had a story women would identify with . . . a woman’s side of (that) world.”
Dellinger, who first met Bill Bonanno in 1972 while both were serving time on Terminal Island--Dellinger for extortion; Bonanno for credit-card fraud--is executive producer of the miniseries, featuring Nancy McKeon as Rosalie and Eric Roberts as Bill. More than anyone else, Dellinger is responsible for this story. He is a TV scriptwriter whose 50 credits include “Blue Knight,” “Starsky & Hutch” and “Serpico,” and a former advertising executive, former consultant to the CIA and prison creative-writing teacher whose students included Bonanno and G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame.
This, “the credit I yearned for most,” says Dellinger who also lives in Tucson about a mile from the Bonannos, took “20 years, three production companies and more than a dozen network development executives” to get on air. For a long time, says Dellinger, networks and other media dared not say anything negative about J. Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972, and his FBI, fearing “vindictiveness.”
According to Dellinger, Bill Bonanno disclosed to him that at one point Hoover offered the Bonannos “ carte blanche in Brooklyn without any FBI interference if Bill could get (his father), who was in hiding to avoid New York state and federal subpoenas, to surrender publicly to the press-conscious FBI chief.” Dellinger says Bill Bonanno turned that offer down. That story is included in the miniseries.
More than telling the story from Rosalie’s vantage point--after all, Gay Talese’s 1971 book “Honor Thy Father” and the subsequent CBS miniseries told the Bonanno story from Bill’s point of view--Dellinger had a subtext. He wanted to “tell the story of the FBI . . . how it stepped over the line.”
In “Last Mafia Marriage,” Joe Bonanno, now 88 and also living in Tucson, is portrayed as the good-guy Mafia chieftain who sought to prevent the underworld network from getting involved in drugs. Dellinger, who insisted on the title “Last Mafia Marriage,” maintains that the Mafia was brought down by the “internal” warring factions within the Mob and the “external” factor of Robert F. Kennedy’s longstanding campaign against organized crime.
In 1983, Joe Bonanno also wrote a book, “A Man of Honor,” which Rosalie wrote gave her the courage to come forward with her own book.
Both Rosalie and Bill Bonanno served as technical consultants on the nearly $10-million project earning, Dellinger discloses, more than $500,000 for the book and TV deal. Dellinger, who got $100,000 for producing the movie, has a non-speaking role as a mobster from Detroit.
Rosalie and Bill’s then-11-month-old grandson Daniel Pettinato, son of their daughter Gigi, played Chuck, the baby Bonanno brought home and whom they adopted after their first baby died at birth.
Dellinger’s involvement with the Bonanno project began in 1973 (a 30-year sentence had been reduced to 20 months) when E. Jack Neuman, a TV producer at Paramount who spoke to Dellinger’s prison class, urged him to try to get it produced. Based on conversations with Rosalie and Bill, Dellinger wrote a 47-page outline for a book and TV story. Dellinger says publishers preferred a female approach. Rosalie refused to write.
Later, Bonanno and Dellinger also pitched “Mafia Mistress” based on one of Bonanno’s girlfriends. The networks also passed.
In the early ‘80s, Dellinger noted, networks had no problem with “fictional” Mafia movies but “avoided true stories about real mobsters.” Then in 1986 a break of sorts came when CBS aired “Mafia Princess,” based on the book by Antoinette Giancana, daughter of Chicago boss Sam Giancana. “Network numbers-crunchers discovered there was a large audience” for this kind of fare, Dellinger said.
Meanwhile, based on his outline, his agent Mickey Freiberg got a book deal for Rosalie, who now agreed to tell her story. That led to TV once more. At first, with the current production, Dellinger says he was essentially invited-out of story conferences. In an early version, he said Bill Bonanno was made to look “like the Ozzie Nelson of blue-collar criminals,” Joe Bonanno was “not given credit for taking his stand against Mafia involvement in drugs” and there was no mention of the organized crime strike forces. The story was saved, he said, by Sunta Izzicupo, brought in by CBS as vice president of miniseries and movies.
From interviews and reading his work, it seems clear that Dellinger’s attitude toward the Bonannos is near reverential. Joe is “one of the immortals,” Bill is a “a Renaissance man . . . intelligent, articulate, a dinosaur.”
His assessment of Rosalie? She “vowed (her children) would not follow in the footsteps of her husband and the traditions of the family, and her children haven’t. Historically children of Mafia have had a hard time cutting the umbilical cord with the past. . . .”
For Rosalie Bonanno, it was “painful” watching the making of the miniseries, particularly the parts that had to do with her husband’s arrest in Mexico, a place where surprisingly for her their marriage was infused with renewed passion. “And the Erica stuff.” Erica was the “other woman.”
Convent-educated, Bonanno sees her story as that of a woman who had “come from wealth, and then I ended up raising my four children alone and having three jobs, on food stamps. And I was on welfare for awhile.” (In the miniseries there are only three children.)
“I guess I was ashamed of all the publicity,” she says in retrospect. “If the father (Joe Bonanno) had done things right,” her husband wouldn’t have been in the “situation” he was. “In the film, he’s more gentle,” she says of her husband. “In the film he shows his emotions more.” She laughed with an edge of sadness. “Eric Roberts (as Bill Bonanno) kissing Nancy (McKeon as Rosalie). He just loved to kiss (her).”
Dellinger insists the miniseries has been Rosalie’s “emancipation.”
“It’s not the story of an emancipated woman,” responds Rosalie. “It’s the story of a woman--gosh, I got it in my notes,” she pauses before hurrying back to the phone, “ ‘who lived within the constraints of her life and found contentment there.’ ”