1 9 8 1 (USA)
15 x 60 minute episodes
This 15-part NBC series followed the lives of the three main characters from 1907 through their youth on the Lower East Side of New York City and on their path to becoming major criminal figures in America during the 1920s and 1930s.
The series – subtitled “An American Story” – premiered with a special three-hour presentation on 12 February 1981.
Based on fact (with some dramatic fabrications), it told the story of how Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Michael Nouri) and Meyer Lansky essentially invented “the mob” in the early 1930s. The real Meyer Lansky was still alive – and capable of filing lawsuits – when the series was made so his name was changed to Michael Lasker (Brian Benben).
As Michael Lasker’s boyhood friend, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Joe Penny) joined forces with Charlie and Michael as they drifted from being small-time nickel-and-dime hoods to underworld kingpins, though Bugsy was more of a muscleman than a mastermind.
The superb retelling of the history of organized crime in America was the most authentic portrayal of the mob lifestyle until the more recent Sopranos and Goodfellas.
The storyline dealt with “the Castellammarese War”, fought in New York in 1930 and 1931 between two gangs led by Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Mascolo) and Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria (Richard S. Castellano).
The war was named after Castellammare del Golfo, the village in Sicily where Maranzano was born.
Caught in the middle, Luciano picked up all the spoils by engineering the execution of first Masseria and then Maranzano (the first criminal dictator to name himself “capo de tutti capi” – or “boss of all bosses” – and who also set up the “five families” that still control crime in New York).
Universal pumped $1 million per hour into the series, and the production was lush, filled with the proper cars, clothes, price tags and general ambience of the era.
The only real criticism levelled at The Gangster Chronicles was that it tended to romanticise the likes of Luciano and company – men who, after all, were little more than cheap hoods who killed and plundered their way to the top of their heap.
The technical adviser on the show was Ralph Salerno, a retired New York detective with a 21-year career as a mob-busting cop and one of the most respected authorities on organised crime.
Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano
Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel
Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll
Thomas E. Dewey
Giuseppe ‘Joe the Boss’ Masseria
Richard S. Castellano
Thomas ‘Three Finger Brown’ Lucchese
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Big Joe Isson