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Family Ties

A cop discovers his family's mob past -- and ends up bringing Danny Greene to the silver screen.


Sergeant Rick Porrello at the site of one of - Cleveland's most notorious slayings. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Sergeant Rick Porrello at the site of one of Cleveland's most notorious slayings.
"They call this the Danny Greene Building."

Lyndhurst police Sergeant Rick Porrello has just pulled into the parking lot of Beachwood's Brainard Place to provide a play-by-play of the last moments of Danny Greene's life. As he leans back and tells the story of the legendary car bombing, the ticktock, ticktock of his Oldsmobile's turn signal punctuates the drama.

"Ronnie Carabbia and Ray Ferritto parked the getaway car and went to the phone booth over there," he says, pointing to a booth that still stands today. "They've got this remote-control button, and as soon as Danny walks out" . . . ticktock, ticktock . . . "they jump into the car, turn right onto Brainard, watch Danny get into his car, push the detonator, blow it up, and they kill Danny Greene."

Greene's ill-fated trip to the dentist that day in 1977 is the last stop on Porrello's self-titled "Danny Greene Tour," which distills the life of this renowned mob figure into a quick 30 minutes. Highlights include the dilapidated duplex that Greene grew up in on East 147th Street in Collinwood, a barren lot on Waterloo Road where one of Greene's apartments was blown to bits, and this last stop, where Greene's gold Celtic cross was found embedded in the asphalt after the Cleveland mob finally killed him at age 47 -- after seven bungled attempts.

Porrello, 38, is also closing in on the last stop of his own journey through Greene's life -- a journey that began 17 years ago, when the then-21-year-old Porrello just finished touring as a drummer with Sammy Davis Jr.'s band. Filled with child-like curiosity, Porrello stopped by Case Western Reserve University's library to research the mysterious murder of his grandfather, Raymond Porrello. Armed only with the date of the man's death, Porrello loaded the microfilm and watched it spin until it stopped on a headline so alarming his heart sank: "Gang Guns Kill Two Porrellos and Ally."

"It was just staring right at me," Porrello says. "There were pictures of the murder scene and the body on the floor."

That grisly image led Porrello to discover that his grandfather and uncle were Cleveland mafiosi, gunned down while playing cards in his grandfather's barbershop at East 100th Street and Woodland Avenue. Porrello also learned that, between 1927 and 1932, four of the seven Porrello boys who emigrated from Sicily were killed in shootings like this -- shootings that were part of The Sugar War, a feud between the Porrello and Lonardo families over sales of corn sugar, which bootleggers used to make bourbon during Prohibition.

Nine years after he first saw that grainy picture of his grandfather, Porrello stood in his living room and held a copy of his first book, The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia, which details his family's role in the Cleveland mob. Since then, Porrello -- who repeatedly reminds you that he's really not a writer -- has achieved every writer's dream.

Running with a suggestion from an Irish cop to write a book about Greene, Porrello wrote and self-published To Kill the Irishman, which reveals how investigations of Greene's murder led several high-ranking mafiosi to betray omertà, the Sicilian code of silence. As a result, Mafia families from Kansas City to Cleveland fell apart.

Three years after publication, To Kill the Irishman is being made into a movie called The Irishman, directed by Glengarry Glen Ross's James Foley. Porrello has been signed by literary agent Peter Miller, who represents such heavy hitters as Helter Skelter's Vincent Bugliosi. Ask how he's reacting to all of this, and Porrello delivers a time-honored movie line: "It's like a dream come true."

He credits his fascination with Greene's story for propelling him down this trail. What he didn't know was that a 27-year-old Hollywood producer was fascinated with Greene's story as well.

"It's totally karma," says Tommy Reid, president of Dundee Entertainment.

Reid first heard about Danny Greene in 1993 through Clevelander Dominic Powall, his Ohio State roommate. "We used to watch Goodfellas like it was religion," Reid says. "Then, one day, he told me stories about an Irish racketeer that I just couldn't believe."

Four years later, Powall spotted an article about Porrello's book in the Lake County News Herald and called Reid, a budding producer on the prowl for material. Days later, when Porrello answered the phone and heard the raspy-voiced Reid say that he wanted to make a movie out of his book, Porrello was taken aback. "There was this joy," he says, "because now two people had approached me about making a movie."

Months earlier, a local real-estate investor, hungry to hitch his way into Hollywood, had approached Porrello about buying the rights as well. Trouble was, he hailed from Collinwood -- not Hollywood. Porrello knew releasing the rights to this guy all but guaranteed the film wouldn't open at the Cinematheque, never mind the multiplex. "It's not like I was getting a call from Miramax," Porrello says.

But Reid was different. He had graduated from the New York Film Academy, and his sister, Tara, was about to star in American Pie. Since then, she's played Richard Gere's disillusioned daughter in Robert Altman's Dr. T and the Women and is now playing the ditzy drummer Melody in a remake of the '70s cartoon Josie and the Pussycats.

When Porrello realized Reid's offer was real, he knew he had to arm himself with a literary agent who could protect him from the powerful -- and sometimes perilous -- world of Hollywood. What he didn't know was that he'd be able to attract Peter Miller -- "a hired killer," as Porrello puts it -- who has brokered deals for best-selling authors for more than 30 years.

Within months, Miller had secured a $5,000-a-year option for Porrello's book, guaranteed that Porrello would be hired as a paid consultant on the film, and put forth a plan to resell the book rights after the film is released.

And the film will be released, Reid says. In a business where millions of dollars are routinely spent on movies that never reach the screen, Reid has not only secured director James Foley, he has cast Goodfellas' Paul Sorvino to play mob boss Jack Licavoli and Tara Reid to play Greene's teenage girlfriend. And despite the threat of an actors' strike that could shut down Hollywood this summer, Reid believes he'll begin shooting in Cleveland before year's end.

The ultimate challenge is in finding the right actor to play Greene, an altar boy who spent his childhood living in an orphanage, earning Boy Scout badges, shooting dice, and fighting on the streets.

When Mafia chief John Scalish -- who preceded Jack Licavoli as mob boss -- died after bypass surgery in 1976 without naming a successor, Greene teamed up with friend John Nardi to take over the Cleveland mob. Protected by Irish thugs -- whom Greene nicknamed after Celtic warriors and regularly quizzed about Irish history -- Greene and Nardi sealed their fate with the Mafia when they were accused of murdering Licavoli's underboss and cousin, Leo Moceri.

From that moment on, Greene and Nardi were marked men. But Greene didn't go into hiding. Instead, he taunted his attackers by tooling around town in a green Cadillac and a full-length white fur coat, and placing a huge Irish flag in front of his house. "How can a marked man put a big flag in front of his house?" one mobster said on an FBI tape. "He put it there on purpose."

Blessed with his faith in God and what he thought was the luck of the Irish, Greene miraculously escaped death at least seven times. He dodged bullets while jogging on Bratenahl's White City Beach. He disassembled an improperly wired bomb he found underneath his car. He picked pieces of dead cats out of the rubble that surrounded him after his apartment had just been blown apart. And he cruised out of a parking lot at Hopkins Airport as Pasquale "Butchie" Cisternino -- who was watching from a hotel room above -- cursed at a detonator that wouldn't ignite the bomb he placed in Greene's car.

And that was only the beginning.

"When I was in the third grade, somebody shot a bullet through our front window," says Greene's daughter Sharon, 44, one of five children from her father's three marriages. "And when a bomb was tossed in his Toronado, he walked in the house all singed . . . He had a lot of love for God. I think that's how he lived all those lives."

Combine that with Greene's penchant for tossing coins to kids in the street and passing out turkeys to neighbors at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and his tale seems ready-made for Hollywood.

"There's only one story of Danny Greene," Reid says. "From the beginning, I've believed this was not only a movie. It was a movie that would rank right up there with Goodfellas and The Godfather. He was feared and hated and loved by his neighborhood. And most people don't even know that the guy existed."

Porrello always knew guys like Greene existed. In 1977, when Porrello was 15 years old, he remembers watching his mother's expression change as his father told her over the phone that John Nardi had just been killed by a car bomb.

"John was my friend," says Raymond Porrello, 73, a talented drummer who worked as the chief business agent of the Cleveland musicians' union, Local 4, across the street from where Nardi was killed. "I heard a big explosion and I ran across the street. They were taking his body out when I got there."

Rick Porrello suspects that FBI files probably listed his father as an associate of the mob. But he wasn't a member. Porrello isn't sure why. "My father would have been a great mobster," Porrello says with pride. "He was smart. He was organized. He had all the connections. He was personable. He had a good sense of humor. I mean, thank God he didn't. Otherwise, he'd be either dead or in prison today."

"I was a pretty tough kid, but I never got involved, and I was never asked," the elder Porrello says. "I wouldn't have been any good to them. But I could always go to them for a favor, and it would be done right away."

Porrello believes his father remained on the outside because of the pain he felt over losing his own father in 1932. Raymond Porrello remembers hearing his father yell, "Take him home! Now!" in Italian just before a bodyguard scooped him up in his arms. "I'll never forget it," Porrello says. "All I remember is him running and running and running through the neighborhood, and when we got home, somebody came over to the house and said, 'They got him.'"

Scenes like this, and one in which the family hosted the first-known national Mafia meeting in Cleveland in 1928, prompted a Hollywood producer years ago to ask the Porrellos if they'd be interested in making a movie about their family. "They wanted nothing to do with it," Rick Porrello says. "There was so much bloodshed and pain and grief about growing up without their fathers. They just wanted to forget about it."

But Danny Greene never wanted anyone to forget about him. "My dad always thought his life would be made into a movie," says Sharon Greene.

Ironically, it will be Raymond Porrello's grandson who makes the prediction come true.

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