Death threats? No. Risk? Yes.

Times Staff Writer

He is the eldest son of the late Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, who for decades headed one of the New York Mafia's "Five Families." He has served time in penitentiaries like McNeil Island, Terminal Island and San Quentin. And he once escaped a gangland hit on a Brooklyn sidewalk.

"I heard the bullets going over my head," recalls Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno. "... If they knew what they were doing, I wouldn't be here."

But today, Bonanno, at 72, has embarked on a more stressful line of work: He's become a movie producer.

Bonanno and business associate Anthony Tarantola, Joseph Bonanno's nephew, have set up a production company in their hometown of Tucson called Halfway to Tucson Productions. They have three film projects in the works: an action-adventure film called "The Aztec Eagles," based on a real-life story about a squadron of Mexican fighter pilots who flew daring bombing missions for the Allies in the Pacific during World War II; "Pipe Dreams," a story of two men fleeing the mob; and "Ashtabula Moon," about an aging rock star who attempts a comeback.

Bonanno, who was made famous in Gay Talese's 1971 bestseller "Honor Thy Father" and went on to write several books on the mob himself, said "we've already set aside somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million to $6 million" in financing.

Just how successful Bonanno's production company becomes remains to be seen. One former studio production chief, who requested anonymity, said studio chiefs might be reluctant to deal with Bonanno given his mob past. "I'd be hesitant," he said. However, the former studio executive conceded, much depends on the material Bonanno develops and the connections he has to make a movie happen. "God knows there are enough other people who have managed careers out of less," he said.

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A turbulent time

A tall man with graying hair, an easygoing manner and an insatiable gift of gab, Bonanno looks more like a college professor in his camel-colored turtleneck than an underworld figure. But in his younger years, Bonanno came in contact with some of America's infamous gangsters.

"As I was growing up on Long Island, it would be nothing for me to see names that are familiar -- like [mobsters] Albert Anastasia or Vincent Mangano," he recalls. "Once I was in [Lucky] Lucciano's company, but I was such a young boy it didn't mean anything to me."

Over lunch at Orso Los Angeles, seated near his longtime literary agent Mickey Freiberg, a colorful character in his own right, Bonanno half-jokingly admits that he still looks each way whenever exiting a door even though life today is so much calmer than it was during his Mafia exploits in the 1960s.

"The '60s were a very turbulent time," Bonanno says. "I always say, I had only one goal in the '60s -- actually two goals. When I got up in the morning, my goal was to live to sunset. And when sunset came, my second goal was to live to sunrise. And that went on for eight years."

Bonanno said he never intended to follow in his father's footsteps. Growing up, he spent much of his time viewing the blazing sunsets and saddleback mountains of Arizona. He attended boarding schools, went to Tucson High School, and at Arizona colleges he majored in agriculture and later business and public administration.

But his life changed forever when authorities raided a meeting of Mafia chiefs in Apalachin, N.Y., in 1957. With his father's world under siege back East, Bonanno -- prompted, he says, by loyalty to his father -- returned to New York to act as a conduit between Joseph Bonanno and the rest of the Bonanno crime family.

For this reason, comparisons are often drawn between Bill Bonanno and Michael Corleone, the fictional youngest son of Mafia don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather," whose father had other plans for his son until circumstances pulled him inside his father's world.

His brushes with law would come later, and in all he served more than a dozen years behind bars for a variety of crimes, including misappropriation of a credit card, wire and bank fraud. One case involved bilking elderly widows out of their savings, and in the late 1980s he was arrested in connection with a housing repair scam. Now, however, Bonanno insists that it has been years since he's been involved in illegal activities -- and he said he plans to keep it that way.

The history of the Mafia has been written in blood, but Bill Bonanno is fond of saying: "I can't think of anybody who got hurt or was killed who didn't know he wasn't going to get killed. Because you know there are rules and there are regulations.... When you go against that code, you know that sooner or later, it's going to happen."

He also believes the media have distorted the Mafia and points to the mob family depicted on HBO's hit series "The Sopranos" as a prime example.

"That is a completely foreign world to me," Bonanno says. "If I was to use that language in mixed company, that would probably have been enough to [result in] serious repercussions. And to have your children talk to you that way? I mean, what are they trying to show?"

Bonanno contends mob infiltration of Hollywood is a thing of the past.

"We have been involved in Hollywood a lot longer than I like to admit," he says. "If you know the history of the studio system, you'll see it was peopled with people from my world since the 1920s. [But] as far as I know, there is absolutely no control [today]. When the studio system went down the drain, the controls came off."

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Entree to entertainment

Bonanno is no stranger to show business.

Talese interviewed him extensively for "Honor Thy Father," which chronicled the rise and fall of the Bonanno crime family. The book was made into a 1973 CBS movie.

Since then, Bonanno has been involved in various TV projects.

In 1999, Showtime aired "Bonanno: A Godfather's Story," a film based on Joe Bonanno's autobiography, "A Man of Honor" and Bill Bonanno's autobiography "Bound by Honor: A Mafioso's Story." CBS also made a four-hour miniseries in 1993 called "Love, Honor & Obey: The Last Mafia Marriage," which was based on a book called "Mafia Marriage" co-written by Rosalie Bonanno, Bill's wife. Bill Bonanno was given a technical advisor credit on the film.

"He was supposed to get a producer credit," chuckled agent Freiberg, "but at the time he was in San Quentin."

This week, Bonanno had a novel debut called "The Good Guys" (Warner Books), which he co-wrote with Joe Pistone, the former FBI special agent who infiltrated the mob under the name of Donnie Brasco. And Bonanno is working on another book called "An Insider's History of the American Mafia" for St. Martin's Press.

Freiberg said the reason Bonanno is getting into film production is to maintain greater creative and monetary control of the projects being developed.

But can a movie production company succeed when it's based in Arizona and not in Hollywood?

Tarantola, the business associate, is sure it can. "The difference between Bill and I and the rest of Hollywood is, if we tell somebody we are going to be there to do something, we do it," he said. "... We own the rights to these stories. We raise the money. We produce them. We hire the directors. At the end, we get a distribution deal with whoever we decide to go with."

Tarantola said that to finance his films, he has created a publicly traded company called Commanche Properties, which will seek investors.

"We're not going out there and making a $30-, $40- or $50-million movie," he said. "We are making movies that make sense. If you are making movies at $3 million or $4 million, most of the time you make money back if you put out a good product."

One person who isn't hesitant to working with Bonanno is Betty Kaplan, an award-winning filmmaker whose credits include "Of Love and Shadows" and "Dona Barbara." Tapped to write and direct "The Aztec Eagles," she is represented, like Bonanno, by Freiberg.

"I was excited to meet with someone who had such a past," Kaplan said of Bonanno.

What she discovered about Bonanno, Kaplan said, was that he was nothing like Tony Soprano. "He is the most low-key man," she said. "He's very laid-back and very caring. He's a gentleman."

Bonanno, who is the father of four, grandfather of 18 and recently got the news that he has been blessed with a great-granddaughter, said if he had to do it all over again, "I might have done things differently."

But he adds: "When your regrets start taking the place of your dreams, you become an old man. I still think there are things I can accomplish."

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