John Travolta Takes on The swaggering Persona Of Mob Boss John Gotti in a December release biopic
By Lindsey Blair
After six years, two title changes, and a turbulent pre production including churning through three directors and once announced cast members Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anthony Hopkins, and Lindsay Lohan dropping out Gotti, a crime film chronicling the rise and decline of New York City mobster John Gotti, will make its big screen debut on December 15, with John Travolta starring as the Italian American boss of the Gambino crime family.
The movie’s new trailer depicts a salt and pepper haired Travolta dripping with designer suits, ties, and jewelry (props that were often worn by the actual John Gotti) narrating infamous “Teflon Don” lines in the first scene: “New York is the greatest city in the world. This life of ours is a wonderful life…if you can get away with it.”
Spanning three decades and narrated by his son, John Jr. (played by Spencer Rocco Lofranco), the film follows the boss’s tumultuous life as he and his wife, Victoria, attempt to hold the family together through underworld intrigue, prison sentences, and Gotti’s famously volatile and flamboyant temperament. Directed by Kevin Connolly and written by Leo Rossi and Lem Dobbs, Gotti describes the boss’s reign as the kingpin of the largest and most influential organized crime syndicate in New York, until his death while serving a life sentence at the United States Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois for murder, loansharking, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, bribery, and tax evasion.
John Gotti was the fifth of 13 children, born in 1940 to Italian immigrants in the South Bronx—an area notorious at the time for its gang activity. By the age of 12, he was working as an errand boy for an underground club in the neighborhood, run by a captain in the Gambino family, Carmine Fatico. Between 1957 and 1961, Gotti pursued a life of crime on a full time basis (by his 21st birthday, he had been arrested five times for street fighting, public intoxication, and car theft), but served little jail time. This early reputation for escaping the law dissolved after he was found guilty of attempted manslaughter in 1974 and served four years in prison. He moved up the Mafia (aka Cosa Nostra) food chain quickly thereafter, and became head of the Gambino family after orchestrating the murder of boss Paul Castellano in 1985. His reign was marked by a frenzy of media coverage, at least in part fueled by the boss’s hunger for the spotlight. That lust for celebrity also made Gotti the object of scorn among many in his and other families in the city syndicates, who loathed that he helped transform the Mafia from a society cloaked in tradition and oaths of silence into what they regarded as vaudeville. (“He ruined everything,” offered longtime Gambino associate Peter “Bud” Zuccaro in a 2012 Brooklyn federal court hearing. “He brought everything that was supposed to be a secret society right out to the forefront.”)
In retrospect then, it’s not surprising that committing a life this oversized in every sense to film was going to be an endeavor. After a series of false starts, Gotti was produced by Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films, Fiore Films, and Highland Film Group, and will be distributed domestically by Lionsgate Premiere. Happily, the script has some real crime drama bona fides behind it; Dobbs penned the 1999 crime classic The Limey, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Terence Stamp.
Director Connolly, best known for portraying “E” on the hit HBO television series Entourage for eight seasons, told Entertainment Weekly, “There are nice cars and fancy suits in the movie, but we’re also showing where all that eventually leads. [Gotti’s] death, which was horrible, hasn’t been covered too much.” (He died of throat cancer in 2002 at the age of 61.)
Production was a family affair for Travolta, with his wife Kelly Preston portraying the mob boss’s wife, Victoria, while their 17 year old daughter, Ella Bleu Travolta, played the couple’s daughter, Angel.
At a spring 2011 press conference for the film, then titled Gotti: Three Generations, Travolta called the tale of the flamboyant boss “probably the most interesting untold story in this country.” He went on to say, “What a character to approach and to understand. And meeting John Gotti, Jr. was one of the pleasures I’ve had that sent me over the top. We just touched the surface, we have a lot more to go. His father lost a son, and I’ve lost a son; we discussed how painful that is.” (Travolta’s son, Jett, died in 2009 at the age of 16 after suffering a seizure at his family’s home.)
An entertainment legend in virtually every respect, Travolta first found stardom in 1975 with the ABC series Welcome Back, Kotter. Big screen fame, as readers likely know, happened in 1977 and 1978, when he starred in box office hits Saturday Night Fever and Grease (and was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for the former).
After years of relative career quiet, Travolta made a gun toting comeback as contract killer Vincent Vega in 1994’s Pulp Fiction (for which he was a Best Actor Oscar nominee again). Since then, Travolta has starred in a number of notable films, including Face/Off, Swordfish, Wild Hogs, and Hairspray. He snagged his only Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for his performance in 1995’s Get Shorty, but has received a total of six Golden Globe nominations. He’s also been the recipient of the International Indian Film Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in International Cinema. Last year, Travolta received his first Primetime Emmy as a producer of the first season of the anthology FX series The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, also receiving an additional Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of lawyer Robert Shapiro in the series.
Born and raised in Englewood, NJ, and the youngest of six children, Travolta comes from a clan in which acting runs deep. His mother, Helen Cecilia, was an actress and singer who appeared in the radio vocal group The Sunshine Sisters, and acted and directed before becoming a high school drama and English teacher. All of his siblings have tried their hand at acting.
Travolta has long been interested in the Gotti family, explaining at the new film’s press conference that the A&E reality TV series growing up Gotti, featuring Victoria Gotti and her three sons, “was always my favorite show.” He went on to say that “John Gotti’s character is filled with incredible dichotomies I like the glamour that he has and the humor, [but] there was mystery about what he was up to, and I think all of these things, with a script that captures it, will be wonderful to play.”