Hollywood is home to some of the biggest movie production companies, directors, actors and actresses. Today Hollywood is the word used for the glamorous multibillion dollar US film industry. It is also home to some of the world biggest names in the entertainment industry and a place that most up and comers aspire to be on day. How could Hollywood ever be linked with the Mob? On the surface Hollywood would seem to be worlds apart from the murderers, extortionist, and gangsters in the Mob. But on closer inspection you can see that the film industry and the mob are very similar indeed.
Many of the Hollywood stars and moguls often originated from the same place as the gangsters, in that they were immigrants from Europe or sons of immigrants. For instance, the Warner brothers were sons of a Polish cobbler while the Cohn brothers were sons of a German tailor. And Frank Sinatra’s grandfather lived in the same village as Lucky Luciano.
With the film industry being so successful in Hollywood , of course the mafia would be attracted to it and the huge potential for financial gain. The need for huge amounts of cash to create a movie meant that this was perfect for laundering money unlike other forms of “fronting” such as a manufacturing business which take a bit of time to set up before they can start washing money. So the mafia would be naturally attracted to such an opportunity. It would be simple enough for the mafia to move into the film industry.
Bankers were always reluctant to lend the huge sums required to make a film because they saw the film industry a volatile and unable to produce a consistent return on investment, but the gangsters who already controlled the film industry unions were prepared to take a greater risk for bigger reward. Control of the unions gave the mob greater leverage over the film industry. Although the big movie producers were all too happy to jump into bed with the mob because it afforded them more financial freedom.
Film historian David Thomson once said that the Hollywood mogul’s in the Golden Age (1920s to late 1950s) often behaved like gangsters, which was probably largely down to their very close relationship with the mob. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was good friends with gangster -turned-agent Frank Orsatti, while Chicago mobster Johnny Rosselli was so close to Columbia studios boss Harry Cohn that they wore identical rings.
Writer Raymond Chandler who also wrote many screen plays for Hollywood producers once wrote to a friend after noticing the similarities between the Hollywood executives and the Mafiosi. He wrote:
“Once looking out of Joe Sistrom’s window on the (Universal) lot, I happened to see the big boys strolling back from lunch in the exec dining room in a loose group. I was transfixed with a sinister delight. They looked exactly like a bunch of topflight Chicago gangsters moving in to read the death sentence on a beaten competitor. It brought home to me in a flash the strange psychological and spiritual kinship between the operations of big money business and the rackets. Same faces, same expressions, same manners. Same way of dressing and same exaggerated leisure of movement.”
The mafia has intimidated actors and producers with threats and violence since the 1930s, extorting the studios for up to $1.5 million a year, which would be the equivalent of $14 million in today’s times. The mafia is reportedly still at it these days although there are now huge barriers to get over to gain entry into the movie business. Most of their business can only be done at lower levels now and on a smaller scale. It was reported that as recently as 7 years ago members of the Gambino crime family were imprisoned for threatening and trying to extort the actor Steve Seagal.
I am sure that the relationship between Hollywood and the Mob was/is not just for financial reason. The moguls of Hollywood loved to rub shoulders with the high flying gangsters because it added that certain power that they craved, and for the gangsters, having a friend or friends who was successful in the movie business would bring a lot of prestige and street cred.