Rap Star 50 Cent Joins Movie Mobsters

Gangsters Have a Longstanding Love for Hollywood Bad Guys

Get Rich or Die Tryin

In this photo provided by Paramount Pictures, 50 Cent makes his motion picture debut as an orphaned street kid who makes his mark in the drug trade but finally dares to leave the violence behind and become the rap artist he was meant to be in 'Get Rich or Die Tryin'. (Michael Gibson/AP Photo)


Nov. 8, 2005 —  50 Cent says reliving the night he was shot nine times and left for dead wasn't as hard as letting himself cry in front of the camera — but he wanted the world to see two sides of himself in "Get Rich or Die Tryin'."

"I learned to be aggressive on the street," says the gangsta rapper, as he sat down with reporters at a New York hotel to talk up his new film. "But at home, I'm my grandmother's baby."

The new film, opening Wednesday, already sparked controversy when billboards depicted the bare-chested rapper with a mic in one hand and a pistol in the other. Paramount Pictures bowed to community activists in Los Angeles and removed the poster. But it left 50 Cent wondering why Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie didn't face the same ire when they brandished guns on promotional materials for "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."

"If we walk into our local Blockbuster, we'll see guns on the cover of DVDs, probably more than we'll see people's faces," 50 says. "But as soon as they see me with a gun on a billboard, they go, 'Oh my God, this is promoting violence!'"

"I do appreciate it," he says, laughing about the publicity that comes with controversy. "They are talking about it on media outlets I didn't have plans to market the movie to. They are helping me out."

Not that 50 Cent needs any more publicity. Earlier this year, he became the first recording artist since the Beatles to have four songs in the Top Ten on Billboard's Hot 100. Now, having introduced his own line of sneakers and a "Bulletproof" video game, he's out to make box office gold out of his rise from crack cocaine dealer to America's No. 1 recording artist.

"It's about 75 percent accurate," he says. "It's not exactly my story. It's a collage based on my life."

You might not like his music. You might wonder what message he's sending to kids, and how he's managed to sell more than 16 million CDs. But you can't be surprised that 50 Cent's violent gangster past led him ultimately to Hollywood.

From the earliest days of talkies, films like James Cagney's "Public Enemy" or Edward G. Robinson's "Little Caesar," Hollywood and the underworld have been fascinated with each other, so much so that kingpins like Sammy "The Bull" Gravano credit "The Godfather" as a major inspiration, and FBI wiretaps have caught reputed mafia bosses rehashing episodes of "The Sopranos."

Tinseltown Knows No Code of Silence

Al Capone was said to like the original version of "Scarface" so much that he owned a copy of the film. The actor George Raft, who played a long string of gangsters in the 1930s, literally invented the tough-talking, coin-flipping mobster — a character many criminals would emulate.

"In many respects, gangsters learned to be gangsters by watching them at the movies," says Allen Rucker, author of several "Sopranos" guides, including the forthcoming "Entertaining With the Sopranos."

"Raft has his imitators, just as later generations of thugs fell in love with Brando and Pacino and copied them."

But sometimes it's hard to tell whether it's the gangsters who are influencing Hollywood or vice versa. Raft could have learned a thing or two from childhood friend Bugsy Siegel, who lived in Raft's Hollywood home before building his casino legacy in Las Vegas.

The gangster connections hampered Raft's later career. Luckily, he was able to parody his mafia persona later in life in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," much like Robert De Niro in "Analyze This," and Marlon Brando in "The Freshman."

Capone played no direct role in his big screen incarnation, but he announced his presence during the 1932 production of "Scarface." Screenwriter Ben Hecht says he returned to his hotel room one evening to find two of Capone's associates demanding to know how their boss would be depicted.

Indeed, Mafiosi may be famously silent around cops, but the code of Omerta doesn't apply in Tinseltown. Meyer Lansky telephoned Lee Strasberg, the actor who portrayed Hyman Roth (the Lansky figure) in "The Godfather, Part II." The real-life gangter told the actor, "Now, why couldn't you have made me more sympathetic? After all, I am a grandfather," according to Lansky biographer Robert Lacey.

Jimmy "The Gent" Burke was so happy that De Niro was cast to play a part based on him in "Goodfellas" that he allegedly called him from prison to congratulate him and give him pointers. It turns out that De Niro was also on the phone five times a day with Henry Hill, the mob turncoat who supplied the "Goodfellas" storyline, which also put Burke in jail.

Wise Guys to Soprano: 'Dons Don't Show Leg'

Some wise guys can even offer fashion tips. James Gandolfini has gotten some unsolicited fashion tips for his portrayal of Tony Soprano.

"I talk to some gentlemen who have friends who are these people and most of them enjoy the show," James Gandolfini, TV's Tony Soprano, told reporters when he was promoting "The Mexican."

"They get a good laugh out of it, although once when I wore shorts in a barbecue scene it was relayed to me that it was not something these gentlemen would do, even at a barbecue."

When "Sopranos" creator James Chase heard that, he wrote it into the show, having New York boss Carmine Lupertazzi tell Tony at a lawn party that "A don never wears shorts." The Lupertazzi character died last season, and Tony subsequently started showing some more leg.

Of course, the mob's love of mob movies is a running joke on "The Sopranos." As Silvio Dante, Steve Van Zandt regales the rest of the Soprano gang with his Michael Corleone impression. And as Van Zandt's fictional character did his impression of another pretend gangster, some real gangsters were watching, according to FBI wiretaps.

Members of the DeCavalcante family — a New Jersey crime syndicate said to be the model for the HBO show — were secretly recorded in 1999 gushing over the show, and how it's given them more respect among their elitist New York peers, who once dismissed them as "Farmers."

"Every show you watch, more and more, you pick somebody," says Anthony Rotondo, a DeCavalcante turncoat who called the show "amusing."

"Yeah, but where do they get this information from?" family soldier Joseph "Tin Ear" Sclafani asks.

"Aren't they funny?" Rotondo says. "What characters. Great acting."

Like the Sopranos, the DeCavalcante family is said to operate from a pork store in north Jersey, and one of the acting bosses owns a strip club, just like the Bada-Bing.

Guys with rap sheets have long infiltrated "The Sopranos." Several cast members, including Tony Sirico, who plays Paulie Walnuts, have had brushes with the law, and many members count themselves in an unofficial group of New York actors called "GAG" — the Gangsters Actors Guild.

Just a few "GAG-sters" have done time, but all make their living playing hoodlums.

Sirico, who was convicted and served time in Sing Sing for sticking up a few New York nightclubs, once told the New York Daily News, "I've done like 45 movies, played 40 gangsters and five crooked cops."

Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli

Nearly every American man has seen "The Godfather" multiple times, but gangsters speak of it as a life-affirming experience. When the original hit the big screen in 1972, Gravano described his associates "gloriously floating out of theaters."

In interviews over the years, he'll quote "Leave the gun, take the cannoli," and other lines that fans commit to memory.

When asked by The New York Times if it influenced how he behaved, Gravano said, "Well, I killed 19 people." And before the movie came out? "I only did, like, one murder."

Another Gambino family soldier says he had actually tried to go straight, but was persuaded back after watching "The Godfather" and feeling "terribly homesick."

The man, identified as "Dominick" in the TNT documentary, "Family Values: The Mob & The Movies," says he was a war veteran, just like Michael Corleone, and could easily relate to the romanticized mob life, even while acknowledging that it doesn't really exist.

"The movie "Godfather' was so different from what it's really like," Dominick says. "This honor and respect, it's not there. It's money; it's greed. And it's killing for people you might not want to kill for, but you've got to do it or they're going to kill you."

Today, Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece is so widely hailed as a cinematic achievement, that it's hard to appreciate that it was controversial in its day. While it was in production, Frank Sinatra hosted a fundraiser by the Italian-American Civil Rights League at Madison Square Garden, slamming the film for advancing ethnic stereotypes. The studio eventually promised that the words "mafia" or "cosa nostra" would not be used. (And they weren't, until "Godfather, Part II.")

Sinatra, of course, was said to be furious that he seemed to be the inspiration for the film's Johnny Fontaine character. Fontaine gets a plumb movie role after his godfather intimidates a producer, who wakes up with a severed horse's head in his bed.

Film historians will note that Sinatra indeed socialized with reputed gangsters. But he got his Oscar-winning part in "From Here to Eternity" the old-fashioned way — by begging: Ole Blue Eyes dropped his asking price from $150,000 to $8,000.

Sinatra had a few confrontations with "Godfather" novelist Mario Puzo, but eventually he, too, lightened up. He even mulled taking a part in "The Godfather Part III," a role that eventually went to Eli Wallach. (Ironically, it was Wallach who dropped out of "From Here to Eternity," paving the way for Sinatra's cinematic comeback.)

At 89, Wallach is still acting, so perhaps 50 Cent might give him the call, when he's ready for "Get Rich Or Die Tryin' Part II." But by then, will he be rich enough to stop trying?

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.