It takes more than just a bad-ass mobster to make a “killer” Mafia movie. You also need a set of great actors; here are some great tough-guy mobsters and the actors that portrayed them on the big screen.
Let’s see if we can compare the toughness of the real life mobster to that of the character portrayed by the actor, and the actor himself.
The Valachi Papers (1972)
The Valachi Papers is the story of Joseph Valachi and the history of how he became the first government informant against the Mafia. Before this point in history, the government knew that the Mafia existed, but had no formal proof. Joseph Valachi was the first to publicly admit that the Mafia does indeed exist.
The story is told that Valachi, while in prison, killed a man that he mistakenly thought was a Mafia assassin out to get him. The Feds got involved at this point and Joseph Valachi became the first ever Mafia informant.
Joseph Valachi – Mobster (September 22, 1903 – April 3, 1971)
Charles Bronson – Actor (November 3, 1921 – August 30, 2003)
Joseph Valachi: 5/10
Charles Bronson as Joseph Valachi: 5/10
Charles Bronson: 6/10
Though the movie tells one side of the story, there is and always will be a discrepancy as to why Valachi became an informant. The way Valachi tells the story is that he wanted to do a service for the people. However, there were reports that mental illness ran in his family and that he personally had suffered from delusions. It’s thought that he killed the man in prison due to a mistaken identity and that he may have even been suffering from delusions or paranoia at the time.
Though Valachi had the ability to kill, it could have been out of fear and I don’t really believe he was as tough as a lot of men in the Mafia. Anyone that’s going to become an informant has some weakness issues, so he was pretty much a punk.
The actor who portrayed Valachi in the movie, Charles Bronson, was a well-known and popular actor at the time and was known for starring in tough-guy roles. He did what he could with the part and made Valachi appear as tough as he possibly could.
Bronson was known as a bad boy himself simply by association of all of the roles that he played. He seemed pretty tame as a person, but not wimpy or wishy-washy; his bad-ass roles are what stick out in people’s minds. We’ll have to rate him as a little higher on the “toughness” scale than the real Joe Valachi and even the character that Bronson portrays.
Winner: Charles Bronson himself
Vito Genovese – Mobster (November 27, 1897 – February 12, 1969)
Lino Ventura – Actor (July 14, 1919 – October 22, 1987)
Vito Genovese: 8/10
Lino Ventura as Vito Genovese: 7/10
Lino Ventura: 5/10
Vito Genovese was the head of the Genovese crime family in the 1950s an 1960s. He succeeded Frank Costello and his rise to power involved good business sense, skill, power, underhandedness, and toughness. The real Vito Genovese was a force to be reckoned with.
The Valachi Papers only depicts a small part of how tough Genovese actually was. The actor who portrayed Vito, Lino Ventura, was an Italian actor who has played a few Mafia roles. His popularity wasn’t great and while he did fairly well, he wasn’t known or thought of as a macho man. He’d never been in trouble with the law and the persona of “tough guy” didn’t really catch on.
Winner: Vito Genovese
Albert Anastasia – Mobster (September 26, 1902 – October 25, 1957)
Fausto Tozzi – Actor (October 29, 1921 – December 10, 1978)
Albert Anastasia: 10/10
Fausto Tozzi as Albert Anastasia: 7/10
Fausto Tozzi: 5/10
The real life Albert Anastasia is no one that anyone wanted to mess with. Even his enemies didn’t want to confront him head-on because they knew of the repercussions. Anastasia was as brutal as it gets and was known as the “High Executioner”, and also well known for running the contract-killing gang called Murder, Inc.
Anastasia didn’t have a large enough role in the movie The Valachi Papers to accurately portray how tough he really was, and the actor who played him is virtually an unknown in the United States. The winner here is by a large margin.
Winner: Albert Anastasia
Charles “Lucky” Luciano – Mobster (November 24, 1897 – January 26, 1962)
Angelo Infanti – Actor (born February 16, 1939)
Lucky Luciano: 10/10
Angelo Infanti as Lucky Luciano: 9/10
Angelo Infanto: 7/10
As the first official boss of the Genovese crime family, the real life Lucky Luciano is known as the “father of modern organized crime”. With his reorganization skills he was key for the Genovese family in the heroin trafficking ring.
Luciano was tough and could be violent if he had to be, but what gives him a rating of “10″ for toughness is the same reason that he attained the nickname “Lucky”. In 1929, he was forced into a car by three men, was beaten, stabbed, and left for dead on a beach. He actually survived the attack, and residual scarring left him with the signature droopy eye with which we automatically identify the real Lucky Luciano.
Angelo Infanti was excellent in his role as Luciano, but the role wasn’t significant enough to truly capture the persona of Lucky. Though anyone who portrays Luciano has to be excellent as coming off as a tough guy, I don’t think they could ever capture the real thing in a movie.
Italian actor Infanto has been in over 90 Italian films, so we don’t know terribly much about him in the United States. He seems to be quite popular in Italy, so we do have to go on the perception of his persona. It doesn’t appear that the actor himself has ever been in any legal trouble, but his image seems to be that of a bad ass (but just not bad enough).
Winner: Charles “Lucky” Luciano
Tony Bender – Mobster (Real name Anthony Strollo) (June 18, 1899 – April 8, 1962)
Guido Leontini – Actor
Tony Bender: 9/10
Guido Leontini as Tony Bneder: 7/10
Guido Leontini: 5/10
Anthony Strollo, better known as Tony Bender, was a high-up and active member of the Mafia. As you can tell by his nickname “Tony Bender“, he was to be taken very seriously. He could be vicious and was creative with torture and violence. The way Bender ties in with the movie The Valachi Papers is that he was Joe Valachis’s capo (caporegime), the head of the soldiers in a Mafia family. Valachi didn’t have a very good relationship with Tony Bender.
Again, Guido Leontini is an Italian actor and there’s not too much known about him in the United States. There doesn’t seem to be any negative press coverage on him, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and a rating in the middle of the road on the toughness scale.
Winner: Tony Bender
The movie Capone is loosely based on the life story of well known mobster Al Capone. This is a basic outline of Al Capone’s life with a lot of creative liberties thrown in. A lot of the characters in the movie are based on or were real life people.
Al Capone – Mobster (January 17, 1899 – January 25, 1947)
Ben Gazzara – Actor (born August 28, 1930)
Al Capone: 10/10
Ben Gazzara as Al Capone: 7/10
Ben Gazzara: 7/10
Al Capone is one of the most notorious and well known mobsters of all time, and was also one of the most feared. In 1929, he was believed to be the mastermind behind the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, though officially nothing could be proven.
In the movie Capone, Ben Gazzara doesn’t really do a very convincing job of how intimidating Capone truly was, despite an okay performance.
No matter how Capone is portrayed, some of the fierceness is bound to show through. Gazzara himself is about as tough or perhaps even a little tougher than the character he portrayed, however didn’t just limit himself to Mafia-type roles.
Winner: Al Capone
Johnny Torrio – Mobster (February 1882 – April 16, 1957)
Harry Guardino – Actor (December 23, 1925 – July 17, 1995)
Johnny Torrio: 8/10
Harry Guardino as Johnny Torrio: 8/10
Harry Guardino: 4/10
Johnny Torrio was one of the “old time” Italian gangsters that laid the foundation for generations to come. He wasn’t as well known or feared as Al Capone, but groomed Capone and helped him develop his skills. In his own right, he was a fierce leader and deserves recognition.
The way that he’s portrayed by Harry Guardino in the movie Capone is brilliant, who captured the toughness of him very well. Guardino was a very prominent and successful actor appearing in many films and television shows of different genres. Though some were tough guy roles, not all were. He really wasn’t known as a bad guy and appeared to be rather docile in real life.
Tie: Between Johnny Torrio and Harry Guardino as Johnny Torrio
Frank Nitti – Mobster (January 27, 1888 – March 19, 1943)
Sylvester Stallone – Actor (born July 6, 1946)
Frank Nitti: 10/10
Sylvester Stallone as Frank Nitti: 8/10
Sylvester Stallone: 7/10
Frank Nitti, also known as “The Enforcer”, was one of Al Capone’s top henchmen. Nitti was as tough as they come and by his own right was one of he most feared mobsters of his time. Though Stallone’s acting job in portraying Frank in Capone was great, there just wasn’t enough air time on Nitti’s character to really capture his persona.
Stallone as an individual was considered a troubled teen, which most likely filtered into his young adulthood as well. Over the years, Stallone mellowed out and was able to pursue speech lessons and refine his excellent acting talents. Because he was tough as a younger guy, he still ranks in the middle.
Winner: Frank Nitti
Frankie Yale – Mobster (1893 – July 1, 1928)
John Cassavetes – Actor (December 9, 1929 – February 3, 1989)
Frankie Yale: 9/10
John Cassavetes as Frankie Yale: 9/10
John Cassavetes: 3/10
Frankie Yale was the original employer of Al Capone. He was also a brilliant gangster in organized crime and moved up the ladder quickly, though his life was short. John Cassavetes’ portrayal of Frankie Yale is awesome as he really captured the intimidation factor of Yale.
Cassavetes was a brilliant actor, but the bad guy role was nothing but an act. His successful career in both acting and directing along with his successful family life is proof enough that there isn’t anything “tough” about him.
Tie: Between Frankie Yale and John Cassavetes as Frankie Yale
James Colosimo (also known as “Big Jim”) – Mobster (February 16, 1878 – May 11, 1920)
Frank Campanella – Actor (March 12, 1919 – December 30, 2006)
James Colosimo: 6/10
Frank Campanella as James Colosimo: 7/10
Frank Campanella: 5/10
Big Jim was a Chicago mob boss whose empire was built on gambling rings and prostitution. His nephew was Johnny Torrio and he brought Johnny from Brooklyn to Chicago for some mobster action. At the age of 42 years old, James Colosimo was assassinated.
The assassin was said to have been Al Capone, though was never proven. It was also said to have been a betryal set up by his own nephew, Johnny Torrio. After Big Jim’s death, Capone and Torrio took over Colosimo’s business. It seems to me that Colosimo had the business sense and knew how to appear to be tough, but he was no match for others such as Capone or his nephew. It also appears that he wasn’t quite as brutal.
Frank Campanella made a living portraying many tough guys over the years and perfected the skill. Born from Sicilian immigrants, he grew up around the Sicilian culture and language. Though he was never into the Mafia scene, he could portray it will eloquence. Campanella also helped Robert DeNiro prepare for his starring role in The Godfather: Part II by teaching him Sicilian.
Winner: Frank Campanella as James Colosimo
Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn – Mobster (1905 – February 15, 1936)
Carmen Argenziano – Actor (born October 27, 1943)
Jack McGurn: 10/10
Carmen Argenziano as Jack McGurn: 7/10
Carmen Argenziano: 4/10
“Machine Gun” was one of the key men under Al Capone in his Chicago based crime ring, and was said to have been the main assassin and key orchestrator in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. This was definitely a man that was feared, and with good reason.
Though Carmen Argenziano did a good job portraying Jack McGurn, the role wasn’t really large enough to capture the pure malevolence of him.
Winner: Jack McGurn
The Untouchables (1987)
The Untouchables is based on the true events of Elliott Ness and his determination to bring down the Al Capone crime ring during the time of Prohibition. With numerous stars and brilliant acting and directing, this movie was a huge hit and is still well regarded as one of the best mobster movies of all time.
The film is based on truth, but some of the names in the movie were changed. However, the two main mobsters, Al Capone and Frank Nitti, remained the same.
Al Capone – Mobster (January 17, 1899 – January 25, 1947)
Robert De Niro – Actor (born August 17, 1943)
Al Capone: 10/10
Robert De Niro as Al Capone: 10/10
Robert De Niro: 7/10
The Untouchables does an exquisite job of depicting just how violent and dangerous Al Capone really was, and Robert De Niro’s performance was flawless and convincing. It’s not difficult to see that Capone (or even De Niro as Capone) is not someone you would want to be on the wrong side of.
De Niro is a brilliant actor who has portrayed many characters both in and outside of the Italian Mafia. In any role, he’s always extremely convincing, but doesn’t mean that he’s a tough guy. He’s no where near as intimidating as Capone, but way more than your average person.
Tie: Al Capone and Robert De Niro as Al Capone
Frank Nitti – Mobster (January 27, 1888 – March 19, 1943)
Billy Drago – Actor (Born William Eugene Burrows on September 18, 1949)
Frank Nitti: 10/10
Billy Drago as Frank Nitti: 6/10
Billy Drago: 5/10
Though The Untouchables is a brilliantly made movie, there were only a few parts in it where Frank Nitti could have been exposed as dangerous as he truly was in real life. Nitti, Al Capone’s top “tough guy”, wasn’t known as “The Enforcer” for nothing.
When there were places in the movie where Nitti could have been intimidating, Billy Drago fell short. I’m not sure why Drago was a casting choice for this movie, but he simply wasn’t believable as one of the most feared men ever in organized crime.
Winner: Frank Nitti
Have you ever heard of mobster turned FBI informant Henry Hill? Goodfellas tells his story. This action packed, well shot film powerfully shows the life of a mobster and the schemes that come with it. It also shows the exciting end of the lifestyle and how easy it could be to get caught up in the hype and thrill.
The main characters were given different names, with the exception of Henry Hill. For instance, Jimmy Conway (portrayed by Robert De Niro) is based on the real life mobster Jimmy Burke and Joe Pesci’s character Tommy DeVito is based on the mobster Tommy DeSimone. There are some minor roles in the movie of actual mobsters such as Billy Batts and JimColella.
Henry Hill – Mobster (Born June 11, 1943)
Ray Liotta – Actor (Born December 18, 1954)
Henry Hill: 6/10
Ray Liotta as Henry Hill: 7/10
Ray Liotta: 6/10
It’s well-known that Henry Hill wasn’t an enforcer in his Mafia family, and this is also expressed in the film. Hill was more of a thief, con man, the orchestrator of crime schemes, and a drug trafficker. There is a scene in the movie where he pistol-whips a guy for taking advantage of Hill’s girlfriend (and future wife) Karen, but violence wasn’t really his forte.
The perception of Henry Hill is that he really just wanted a piece of the action, but wasn’t a violent man. That, combined with the fact that he was willing to rat his Mafia family out to save his own ass, is proof enough that Hill isn’t tough at all.
Ray Liotta came across as tough as you can for playing a person such as Henry Hill. Liotta himself has had a at least one run in with the law, many related to alcohol issues.
Winner: Ray Liotta as Henry Hill
Bugsy is based on the real life gangster Bugsy Seigel and his rise in Las Vegas. It’s important to note that this movie only covers how Bugsy started Vegas and how he had a thirst for flair, not his life story.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel – Mobster (February 28, 1906 – June 20, 1947)
Warren Beatty – Actor (Born March 30, 1937)
Bugsy Siegel: 8/10
Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel: 7/10
Warren Beatty: 4/10
What’s most interesting about the real life Bugsy isn’t his ability to be violent, but his brilliant business sense and desire to be noticed. However, the real Bugsy Siegel could “get ugly” if he had to. This is depicted in the movie somewhat, but in order to get a better idea, the film would have had to encompass his entire life and not just his Las Vegas years.
Winner: Bugsy Siegel
With all the great action-packed Mafia movies out there, you’ve got to wonder why it took so long to make one about John Gotti. The film covers his relationships with key members of the Gambino crime family, and how he worked his way up to the top of the ladder within the mob.
John Gotti – Mobster (October 27, 1940 – June 10, 2002)
Armand Assante – Actor (Born October 4, 1949)
John Gotti: 9/10
Armand Assante as John Gotti: 8/10
Armand Assante: 6/10
John Gotti is possibly the most well known and talked about Mafia gangster in history. Known as the “Dapper Don”, Gotti had his hand into a lot different operations in organized crime, but for years couldn’t be convicted.
He also had another nickname: the “Teflon Don”, due to the fact that no criminal charges would stick; he always seemed to have a way out. Finally in 1992, Gotti was convicted of several major crimes such as murder, tax evasion, and racketeering.
The Dapper Don was not one that should be messed with. Armand Assante did a great job of portraying Gotti, but it was still apparent that the real Gotti was a little meaner than that.
Winner: John Gotti
Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano – Mobster (Born March 12, 1945)
William Forsythe – Actor (Born June 7, 1955)
Sammy the Bull: 8/10
William Forsythe as Sammy the Bull: 7/10
William Forsythe: 5/10
Sammy the Bull, a high ranking member of the Gambino crime family, was the main FBI informant against John Gotti. The movie depicts how the two butted heads and how the whole ordeal came about. As a boss underling, Sammy the Bull definitely had muscle, so he had to be tough. Forsythe is a suspicious looking character and he plays the part of Gravano very well, but I think that the real life Sammy is tougher than the character in the movie.
Winner: Sammy the Bull
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