Famed gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano underwent a career makeover of sorts, making the leap from first official boss of the modern Genovese crime family to wartime American patriot.
Now, longtime concert and sports promoter Frank Russo is embarking on a bit of a career change, too – entering the movie business to produce a film about the life of the enigmatic Luciano, "Charlie Lucky."
Russo probably won’t mind the comparison with Luciano, far less known for his efforts during World War II on behalf of the Allies from a New York jail cell than he was for his role in transforming the modern Cosa Nostra into a corporate-style business enterprise.
By coincidence, Russo had been working on a screenplay about Luciano’s life when he learned another writer, Joe Cortese, had a completed script that had not yet been shopped around Hollywood. He contacted Cortese, arranged a meeting, read and fell in love with the script, and wrote a seven-figure check for it within 24 hours.
He formed Creative Pictures in May to independently produce "Charlie Lucky." The movie is being independently financed as well, for a cost Russo estimates at close to $100 million. It will be shot on location in New York and Sicily, and distributed worldwide. If all goes according to plan, the film will debut in November 2010.
"This screenplay is by far not only deeper than what I was writing, but [Cortese] spent three years of his life with a research team," Russo told Pollstar. "He learned about how the Mafia in Italy, through Luciano, gave Gen. [George S.] Patton maps that enabled the Allies to march through Sicily in four days.
"This is a story, not just about blood and guts and guns and all that, that’s very in-depth about Luciano and also Gov. [Thomas] Dewey, who ran for president in 1948 and was almost elected because of the Mafia," Russo said.
The relationship between Luciano and Dewey is complicated, to say the least – Dewey successfully prosecuted Luciano as an organized crime ringleader in 1936. Luciano was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison, where he continued to run his crime family but also struck a deal with the U.S. government to assist in cleaning up the New York waterfront and aid the Allies in Italy.
In return for his cooperation, Luciano was deported to Sicily, where he continued to operate his "enterprise" and died in 1962 of a heart attack at the Naples airport, caught between rival Mafia and police contingents who followed him there.
"So it turns out that Luciano, the head of organized crime, and the head of the commission and the board of directors, so to speak, was a patriot," Russo said. "He was very patriotic and he loved America. He’s credited with saving thousands of American and Italian lives with those maps. Otherwise, it could have been a month before Patton got through Italy."
It’s an undeniably epic story in American history and Russo intends to produce a film that rises to the material. He has already signed Academy Award-winner and conductor Bill Conti to compose the score. Russo is currently meeting with "A-list" directors and expects to make an announcement shortly, after which he hopes to line up equally top-shelf talent for at least four key roles including Luciano and Dewey.
Russo’s own history is pretty epic, too. As a young man, he had tryouts with the New England Patriots and New York Jets NFL teams, but a knee injury put an end to his budding athletic career.
Instead, he went into sports promotion – founding the first but short-lived arena football league, producing matches for a fledgling ESPN, and pioneering closed-circuit broadcasts of championship boxing, including three of arguably the greatest fights in history.
"I did the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight in Zaire with Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. I did the third fight with Ali and Joe Frazier, the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ –
the third fight of theirs and the most spectacular," Russo said. "I had Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns live, and Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, on closed circuit.
"Plus, I was the first concert promoter in the country to promote NBA basketball games. In the early ’80s I was able to secure an agreement with [legendary Boston Celtics coach] Red Auerbach for a number of years to promote Boston Celtics exhibition games in Providence, R.I., and Worcester, Mass.," Russo said.
And he promoted a few concerts over a four-decade span, too. Among his best-known productions were concerts with Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Luciano Pavarotti.
Russo is still in the concert business, having produced tours for Andrea Bocelli with Gelb Productions for the last nine years. He lives in Rhode Island but has opened an office in Los Angeles for Creative Pictures and the "Charlie Lucky" project.
He has another film in mind as his next project, provided "Charlie Lucky" is the success he believes it will be. Russo, however, has no plans to bow out of the music business to become a movie mogul.
"I love the music business," Russo emphasized. "It’s been great to me. And when the music business is in your blood you never leave it. You just don’t."