“Gotti,” a crime drama starring John Travolta as the flamboyant mobster John J. Gotti, arrives in theaters Friday, June 15, after an eight-year history almost as complicated and tortuous as one of the Mafia don’s many court trials.
“The making of this movie, in the beginning, it was a really tough haul,” says Gotti’s son, John A. “Junior” Gotti., 54. “I don’t know Hollywood, nor do I want to know Hollywood. I want to tell you, it’s a beast that really can’t be tamed.”
The biopic follows the elder Gotti from his days as a newly made man to his blood-soaked rise within the Gambino family to his heyday as the well-dressed kingpin known in the tabloids as the Dapper Don — also called the Teflon Don after authorities repeatedly failed to make multiple charges stick to him in court. “Gotti” is based on his son John’s memoir, “Shadow of My Father,” and directed by Kevin Connolly, the Patchogue-born actor best known as Eric “E” Murphy on the HBO series “Entourage.” Though there have been several television productions devoted to the mobster (including an A&E biographical special that aired June 9 and 10), “Gotti” is the first such movie to receive a nationwide theatrical release.
That, however, almost didn’t happen.
The film’s path from conception to theaters began in 2010, when the younger Gotti began looking to turn his memoir into a film. Writers Lem Dobbs (“Haywire”) and Leo Rossi (best known as a character actor) came aboard, and a deal was struck with producer Marc Fiore, a relative Hollywood neophyte with a colorful past (he pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 2002). Travolta joined the production, eager to play a real-life figure who simultaneously functioned as crime lord, family man and cultural icon. Over the years, several actors — including Al Pacino, Lindsay Lohan and Joe Pesci — were reportedly linked to the film, as were the directors Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”), Joe Johnston (“Captain America: The First Avenger”) and Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”). None stayed.
Even after Connolly took over as director and completed filming, “Gotti” continued to encounter problems: At one point it appeared to be headed for a video-only release, until its producers bought back the film from distributor Lionsgate Premiere to ensure it would play in theaters.
“This cut of the movie is worth a nationwide release,” Gotti says. “I’m excited to see the movie here in New York and in the theaters.”
Connolly, a three-time feature director who joined the film after Levinson left, admits to some initial trepidation about working on a movie so closely affiliated with a Mafia family. “We’ve all seen one too many mob movies, so of course you have those thoughts going in,” he says. “Did I ever feel like my life was in danger? No.” Connolly also says he was struck by the “normalcy” of the Gotti family home in Oyster Bay, where he had dinner one evening.
“Mom running the kitchen, telling everyone to sit down,” Connolly recalls. “It felt like any other home, just like mine.”
For the younger Gotti (played in the film by relative newcomer Spencer Lofranco), the movie was a chance to tell his life story on his terms, focusing particularly on his difficult decision to plead guilty in 1999 to several charges, including bribery and conspiracy to commit extortion. He was sentenced to 77 months in prison and was released in 2005.
Even today, Gotti sounds emotional when he speaks of visiting his father in prison to ask his advice on taking the plea.
“That visit is where I’m asking my father for permission to move on with my life, to basically leave the street life,” Gotti says. “The movie is based around that story.”
After its premiere at Cannes this year, “Gotti” was accused by some critics of painting its central figure in too flattering a light, but Connolly says his film is simply trying to stay faithful to the younger Gotti’s book.
“You know the question is going to come up: ‘Are you glorifying the mob? Are you glorifying [Gotti]?’ ” Connolly says. “To the Gottis, this is the man that he was, and this is what they saw.” He adds: “This movie is their truth.”