LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Vanity Fair named him one of the biggest moneymakers in the mob since Al Capone, but after 20 years of running with the mob, former mob boss Michael Franzese found salvation in the Southland.
We spoke Franzese about how he went from mobster to motivational speaker, beating the odds to help inspire others.
“It’s a rough life. And when you’re told to do something you do it,” Franzese said.
Franzese, a Brooklyn born mobster, lived a life full of fear, crime and violence.
“I realize in that point in time I was a mob guy. Always been in control my whole life and I was trapped,” he said.
He was even referenced in the classic mob movie “Goodfellas”.
But wanting out, Franzese left his notorious past and moved to the Southland.
“My dad was the boss of the underboss of the Colombo family back in the ‘60’s. For him it was a very powerful position. He was very high profile, very active member of that life. Originally he didn’t want this life for me, but he wanted me to go to school get an education and I was on that road until he got into some real good trouble,” Franzese said.
After his dad was indicted and sentenced for 50 years in prison for masterminding a string of bank robberies, Franzese’s life changed. He dropped out of college, as a premed student, and started living the street life.
“I met with the boss at the time. There was a new guy because Joe Colombo had been — there was assassination attempt on his life. So a new boss took over, Tom Devila,” Franzese said. “I was 22 years old and Tom sat me down and said, ‘Mike I heard you want to become a member of our life. Your dad’s proposed you.’ He said, ‘Here’s the deal. From now on 24 hours, 7 days a week you’re on call to serve this family. So that means if your mother is sick and she’s dying and she’s at your death bed and we call you to service and leave your mother’s side and you come and serve us. And when we believe you deserve this privilege we’ll let you know.’”
After a year and a half, Franzese got “made” a Colombo soldier in 1975 and made millions.
In a good week he brought in $5- to $8 million.
“In 1980 my boss, who is now doing life in prison, said, ‘Mike, you’re doing a good job. I’m going to make you a coupa regime,’ which is captain,” Franzese said.
Famous for wheeling and dealing in professional sports gambling and cashing in on gasoline racketeering, he was indicted in 1985 on gas tax fraud.
But a few years later in a federal jail in L.A., he was given a book that would forever change his life.
“A prison guard walked by my cell and they said, ‘Franzese, you don’t look good. You OK?’ And I said, ‘Get away from me, man’ and I chased him. He left and came back a minute later and he had this book, it was a Bible, and he pushed it through a slot on the door and it falls on the floor. I looked down, I was mad at God, but I picked up the Bible after about a minute and I started to read it.”
“And all of a sudden I got to a verse that just got me,” he added.
The verse was Proverbs 3:5-6.
“Trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; In all of your ways follow Him and He will make your path straight,” Franzese read.
He said his wife Camille was the catalyst for change.
“I thought I lost everything — my wife, my kids, my money, my freedom, all gone at the age of 37, 38,” he said.
But today he is a man on a mission. Franzese has written numerous books based on his life to help others face life’s challenges.
He now travels the country, lecturing professional and college athletes, at-risk youths, businesses and churches and his Breaking Out Foundation has helped educate youths on life’s obstacles, especially with gambling addiction.
“If I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, I think I would be out of this right away. God wouldn’t allow me to be where I am today,” he said. “I am still who I am in many, many ways. And there are times when I have to fight that. But the fight gets easier for me all the time.”
Franzese is currently working with 20th Century Fox on a film about his life.
For more on Franzese, visit his website, michaelfranzese.com.