When Paul Castellano and a top aide were ambushed outside a New York City restaurant on December 16, 1985, a handgun that one assassin was using jammed and did not fire. Other gunmen finished off the Gambino crime family boss and driver Thomas Bilotti as the two got out of Castellano’s black Lincoln in front of Sparks Steak House.
Armed and ready about 5:30 p.m. during the busy holiday season, the killers all were wearing what author Anthony M. DeStefano describes in his book Gotti’s Boys as “long beige overcoats and fur Muscovite-style hats.” They dressed this way to confuse eyewitnesses in crowded Manhattan.
This bloody takedown was a power grab that John Gotti orchestrated to move himself up the ladder into the top spot as Gambino boss. He and future underboss Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano were in a car nearby, watching to be sure the hit was carried out. Over time, Gravano would turn on his boss and testify against him in court, sending Gotti to prison, where he died years later at age 61.
Gravano, 76 and free on parole, now has a website selling T-shirts, signed memorabilia, iPhone cases and more. He can be heard on his own podcast, Our Thing, discussing his life in the Mob.
The incident at the steakhouse is depicted in the 1996 television movie Gotti: The Rise and Fall of a Real Life Mafia Don, starring Armand Assante as the well-dressed celebrity gangster known in New York tabloids as the Dapper Don. In preparing for the starring role, Assante gained 35 pounds and closely studied Gotti’s life, even speaking with his attorneys about their client.
DeStefano, a reporter at New York Newsday in addition to writing nonfiction books about the Mob, is among those who say their favorite Gotti movie is the one with Assante. A 2018 version starring John Travolta as the Gambino godfather generated less enthusiasm, receiving a zero rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
“The first Assante movie is my favorite so far,” DeStefano said.
Fans wanting an encore Gotti performance from Assante, who won an Emmy for his first portrayal, might be in luck. A sequel to the HBO original Gotti movie is in its earliest stages of production and is expected to include the 71-year-old Assante in the lead role again.
‘Deliver the truth’
News that a sequel is in the works was announced at the SopranosCon and MobMovieCon event this summer in New Jersey. Gotti’s son, John A. Gotti, known as Junior, is serving as an adviser for the sequel, Gotti II: The Final Chapter, Facts Undisputed. The movie supposedly will focus on the last decade of Gotti’s life during the years he was in prison.
The sequel’s producer, Michael Mota, CEO of VirtualCons, said John A. Gotti’s mission is to “tell his father’s story factually and comprehensively,” according to The Wrap website.
“He understands that with Gotti II we will deliver the truth via the powerful vehicle of dramatic fiction,” Mota said.
Mota added that the only promise to Gotti’s son, and by extension to the family, “is one of honesty throughout the storytelling process.”
The Gotti sequel has a long way to go before being released to the public. Many matters still need to be worked out, including lining up the cast members surrounding Assante.
The mid-’90s version featured several actors who later starred in the HBO series The Sopranos. One of these was Tony Sirico, remembered by many as Paulie Walnuts, an associate of fictional New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano. There is no indication yet whether any of these actors will sign on for the Gotti sequel.
Two Hollywood veterans with previous movie credits, Oscar-winner Nick Vallelonga (Green Book) and George Gallo (Midnight Run), are the script’s co-writers. Gallo also is directing The Legitimate Wiseguy, an upcoming movie about mobster Tony “The Ant” Spilotro and his efforts to help the son of a Chicago car dealer begin a career in the Hollywood film industry. Beginning in the early 1970s, Spilotro was the Chicago Outfit’s overseer in Las Vegas for more than a decade. In 1986, mobsters in the Chicago area lured Spilotro and his brother, Michael, to their deaths in a brutal beating.
On June 10, 2002, Gotti died of cancer in a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri. Four years earlier, he had been operated on for neck and head cancer, according to the New York Times.
Though Gotti has been gone for nearly 22 years, interest in his life, and in places associated with him, remains high. In a story about Gotti’s death, the New York Times noted that his “swagger and seeming immunity from punishment earned him mythic gangster status.”
The Ravenite Social Club, Gotti’s headquarters at 247 Mulberry Street in New York City’s Little Italy, continues to attract sightseers. Until this summer, the club had been a shoe store for 22 years, first called Shoe and then Cydwoq. However, the store closed permanently on June 26, with its remaining stock only available on the Cydwoq website, according to the company’s Facebook page.
The Ravenite is where Gotti and others were arrested on December 11, 1990, leading to his conviction on 13 felony counts, including murder, racketeering and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Before he finally was sent away, Gotti managed to thwart earlier unsuccessful government attempts to put him behind bars. A steady stream of news stories during this period referred to him as the “Teflon Don,” because criminal charges would not stick to him.
The media attention that Gotti received during his reign, including appearing on the cover of Time magazine, heightened his profile, reminding people of Mob leaders from an earlier era, DeStefano said.
“I think the public fascination with Gotti is partly the result of the media furor surrounding (him) at the time he was boss, and the public and media thirst for a gangster figure whose image was a throwback to the old days when mobsters like Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano were personalities and themselves became part of the folklore of crime history,” DeStefano said.
With his daily haircuts and expensive suits, Gotti seemed to have come straight from a Hollywood casting office. Michael Green, a UNLV associate professor of history, said Gotti’s image matched the public’s perception of a crime boss.
“He looked the way you wanted a don to look,” said Green, who serves on The Mob Museum board of directors.
Over the years, Gotti’s family also has kept his name in the news, Green noted. One example occurred in mid-August, when his daughter, Angel, posted a message on Instagram, saying, “John Joseph Gotti was never beaten in prison despite what the government and their rats say. You’re all going to find out very soon.”
This is an apparent reference to an incident in the late 1990s at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Gotti was beaten in the recreation area of the prison in an argument with a Black inmate, according to news accounts.
Gotti’s name also continues to pop up in stories on different news sites. He was mentioned in August in an online item about Vincent Artuso, once a member of the Gambino crime family
In an exclusive story on the Gang Land News website, veteran journalist Jerry Capeci reported that the 76-year-old Artuso had died of bone cancer. Years earlier, on that December 1985 evening outside Sparks Steak House, Artuso was the assassin whose gun jammed during the ambush on Bilotti and Castellano, with Gotti watching.
Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.