"There are still times when I get pulled back in to my old ways": Michael Franzese on leaving the Mafia

Image credit: Jens Astrup/Play the Game via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Franzese was once caporegime of the Columbo family, or New York mafia, making millions of dollars a week from gasoline bootlegging and other crimes. Now reformed, married, and a devout Christian, he tours university campuses to denounce gang violence and organised crime, speaking out about his own experiences as a former 'made man'.

Being part of a Mafia-esque gang is “romanticised and glamorised to a degree that I never realised when I was part of that life”, he tells me. “It’s amazing how intrigued people are by it. All the media and the movies are not really an accurate portrayal. I certainly don’t glamorise it.” 

Be that as it may, I can’t help but be impressed by Franzese’s cool manner as he tells me “I have regrets. You can’t do what I did and not have regrets.” I ask him if any in particular stand out. “Unfortunately at times that life is a violent life. I lost a very dear friend who was like a brother to me and I regret that I couldn’t save him.” 

“There’s still times when I get pulled back in to my old ways” he continues. “When I became a person of faith I didn’t get a lobotomy. I don’t forget who I was and old habits die hard. You don’t become perfect when you become Christian: it’s a constant battle.” Having slowly undergone a transformation of lifestyle and belief, Franzese does now have a new ideology, however. 

“You have to make a clean break: surround yourself with the right people. I tell a lot of young people: in our life today, you are who you hang out with. In the United States we have a tremendous problem with our youth and gangs; I spent a lot of time in prison with young people coming into the system. 

“I’ve got seven kids of my own and I feel a responsibility towards them because they’re our future. Adults created the environment that these kids are growing up in, and we have a responsibility to try and save them. There’s severe consequences to the mistakes we make in our lives and some of them are very difficult to overcome. If we can prevent that happening to young people, then we are obligated to do that.” 

But what brought Franzese, who was once number eighteen in Fortune Magazine’s list of “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses”, to his new way of life and what had it been like before? “We had a very idealistic view of what we were doing. We were almost indoctrinated into thinking that we were doing was the right thing.

“We were kind of anti-government in a way because we didn’t believe they were honest. We thought they were corrupt and they became our enemy in a lot of ways. But I saw the evil in my life. I always call the mob life evil; I always call the gang life evil, and not because the guys were evil — I was one of them. 

“I don’t know any member of any family that hasn’t been totally devastated, I mean destroyed, including me. My wife and children, my mother, father, brothers, sisters: our family was destroyed. And it was all because of my involvement and my Dad’s involvement with that life. Any lifestyle that hurts people is evil.”

Franzese is now touring the UK to demote this lifestyle. “I’ll be meeting with parliament tomorrow, helping with the gang and youth violence issue in the United Kingdom. I’ve been asked by parliament to come because they heard me speak here a couple of weeks ago,” he tells me. 

It’s little wonder that parliament — or the Cambridge Union, for that matter — were keen to invite Franzese to speak about his experiences and new philosophy. A gripping, if glamourised, history and cool and collected way of talking makes Franzese a compelling speaker, and someone who is clearly dedicated to spreading a message of forgiveness and peace. 

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