He was once one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in America. But he fell in love and gave it all up for a life of faith.
“I’m going to ask you something rather personal,” a member of the audience says. “Have you ever shot or killed anybody?”
It’s not the sort of personal query you expect to hear in the question and answer section of a business seminar. But then again, Michael Franzese (pronounced “Fran-zeace”) is not your usual speaker.
Tall and imposing, dressed in a smart suit, the former mob boss is candid as he replies, his voice crisp with a New York accent.
“That’s always the number one question I get asked! Never fails, every single time! Listen, I always want to be honest with my audience. And I think you’ll understand when I tell you that if you’re part of the life, you’re part of the violence.”
His face turns slightly more serious as he recalls details of his former life as a caporegime, or captain, of the notorious Colombo family. The Colombo family was the youngest of the “Five Families” that in the 1980s dominated organised crime activities in the Big Apple, within the nationwide criminal organisation known as the Mafia, or La Cosa Nostra (Italian for “this thing of ours”).
“In that life, we had 115 ‘made’ guys in that family, as well as a lot of associates,” Franzese says, referring to fully initiated members of the Mafia.
“Out of the 115, only about 15 of us were making real money. The rest were just around, doing their thing. They did most of the ‘work’, as we called it. And guys like me, we worked on earning money,” Franzese, 64, says.
“But am I a stranger to violence? No. Did I ever participate? Yes. That is part of the life.”
That life, however, is now over for Franzese.
In December 1987, while serving a 10-year sentence in prison for racketeering and tax evasion, he decided to turn away from the Colombo family and organised crime in general. His life expectancy was drastically shortened – a contract was even taken out on his life.
“The reaction was very bad,” Franzese says. “They called me a traitor, a rag, a snitch. Because no one leaves that life without testifying. My family turned on me, everyone turned on me.”
Against all odds, however, Franzese endured. Now, he makes a living as a motivational speaker, hoping to inspire young people to avoid the paths he took. Franzese has spoken on more than 400 college campuses, and been interviewed on ESPN, HBO, CNN, CNBC, and forUSA Today magazine, among others. He is also the author of several books, including Quitting The Mob (1991), Blood Covenant (2002), and I’ll Make You An Offer You Can’t Refuse (2009).
A film about his life, God The Father, was released last year, starring Tom Benedict Knight and Amanda Fernando Stevens.
“I’m very happy with the film, because I think it portrayed that part of my life accurately. I was very involved with it. The goal of making it was to show people that there is a way out of a bad situation. It’s to encourage people that you can turn your life around,” Franzese says.
Franzese was in Malaysia for the first time last weekend, as a speaker at the Masters of Success 2015 event, organised by Summit Capital Training.
His life is a heck of a story. The son of alleged Colombo underboss John “Sonny” Franzese, the son followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming rich and powerful through his own scams, including an infamous gasoline bootlegging racket in the 1980s. Working with the Russian Mafia, Franzese sold millions of gallons of gas at reduced prices; the family would then collect the taxes on the gas, but keep the money for themselves instead of paying the government.
In 1986, Franzese was listed by Fortune Magazine as number 18 on its list of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses”. He was also the youngest name on the list.
“I had a lot of power, and I brought a lot more power for myself as I earned more money. The best talent I think I had was I knew how to use that life to benefit me. I knew how to carry myself the right way. And I was aggressive, I worked seven days a week. I was driven to get to the top,” Franzese says, speaking exclusively to us after the event.
“I had the power of life and death. If I was unhappy with someone, I wanted that person to be eliminated, I could do it. It’s an awesome power, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. And a lot of guys were abusive with it.”
Despite having to endure constant surveillance by law enforcement, it seemed that Franzese had everything: power, wealth, and renown. According to a Federal law enforcement report at the time, Franzese had made more money for a crime family than anyone since notorious gangster Al Capone in the 1940s. And his life would have continued down that brutal path if not for something that happened in 1984.
Franzese was in Florida, where he was keeping an eye on one of his many investments, the film Knights Of The City (released in 1986). One hot day, he met Camille Garcia, a dancer who was working on set.
“We were sitting by the pool, relaxing before the work started. I’m minding my own business, when suddenly this gorgeous 20-year-old girl comes out of the water. I saw her, and everything went in slow motion. It was like a Pepsi commercial!” he says with a laugh.
Struck by her beauty and her innocence, Franzese got to know Camille, eventually marrying her. This even after, he recalls, she stood him up five times.
“She was a very strong person of faith, and so was her mother. And when I saw how important her faith was to her, I realised my life was an entire contradiction to everything she believed in. And I knew that if I wanted her in my life, I had to make some changes,” Franzese says.
The changes did not come easily. Three months after getting married, in 1985, Franzese found himself going to prison, where he would remain, separated from Camille for eight years. His wife, however, stood by him. According to Franzese, she is the catalyst that made him accept Christianity and leave the Mafia.
“I’m not the real story here, my wife is. She didn’t know what she was getting herself into, and yet she stuck by me,” Franzese insists.
Indeed, Vanity Fair reportedly called Camille “the woman who changed the face of organised crime in America” because of her influence on Franzese. The two have now been married for 30 years and have four children.
Asked about his plans for the future, Franzese says he is producing a film called Love Is, which is about the success story of a school in Alabama; he is also involved in an upcoming TV series about the “golden era” of the American Mafia in the 1970s and 1980s. And now that he’s been here and likes it, he adds that he is also planning to come back to Malaysia in May or June to conduct talks at local churches.
Franzese also continues to serve in his foundation, the Michael Franzese Ministries (formerly the Breaking Out Foundation), which aims to encourage people to turn their lives around. According to him, his former life made him feel obligated to help people make a change.
“I’m probably one of the most blessed people ever. I’ve been very fortunate,” says Franzese. “For all the things I did in my life, I shouldn’t be here now. But I got a second chance. And when you get a second chance at something, shame on you if you squander it.”
READ ALSO: Michael Franzese reveals what life was like with the mob