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Feature Articles


April 2002

Johnny Hollywood


Part One

By John William Tuohy


     When the Chicago outfit moved in on Hollywood, the only person out west who was truly happy about the move was Johnny Roselli, because finally, after fifteen years of being exiled to the West coast, Roselli's star was starting to shine.

     Roselli was Chicago's sleeper agent out west, having been sent there in late 1924, to develop gambling, extortion and vice rackets for the outfit, and to help set up a national wire service, which was run by Moses Annenberg, whose family would later publish TV Guide.

     The outfit's choice (actually it was Al Capone's decision) to send Johnny Roselli to Hollywood was a smart one, because Johnny was a real hustler, an "earner," with movie star good looks, an easy charm and a smooth but phony style that fit right into the Hollywood scene of the fifties and sixties.

     But despite his polished manner, expensive suits and practiced dialogue, Roselli was nothing more then a slicked-back hood, an antisocial punk with deep, psychological problems that put a permanent chip on his shoulders. Prison doctors labeled him an extreme paranoid.

     An illegal immigrant into the United States, Roselli always claimed he didn't know his birth date, instead celebrating his birthday on July 4, since it was "easy to remember and comes around at the same time every year."

     He said he thought he was born in 1905, but he couldn't remember where; it was all a lie of course, because when it came to his personal business, Johnny Roselli lied all the time. Roselli knew exactly when he was born, June 4, 1905, and where he was born, as Filippo Sacco in Esteria, Italy. He came to Boston, illegally, when he was 6 years old.

     His first brush with the law came on September 14, 1922, when Roselli was trailed by federal narcotic agents as he delivered a quarter ounce bag of morphine to a drug addict named Fisher who was also a government informant. Roselli was arrested, but made bail. The case was eventually dropped because the state's witness, Fisher, had disappeared and was believed to have been killed.

     He was also an arsonist. After his drug arrest, Roselli and his step father, hoping to finance a trip back to their native Italy tried to burn their house down to collect on the fire insurance but the Fire Department reacted too quickly and put the fire out.

     After that, Roselli went to New York and started running bootleg booze and acting as a guard, protecting beer wagons as they rolled through the streets of Manhattan.

     It was at that point, probably in or about the middle of 1923,that Roselli was recruited out to Chicago by the Capone organization which was in the middle of yet another territory war. Likable, smart and handsome, Roselli eventually managed to get close to Al Capone's inner circle, at one point he was even reported to be Capone's cousin, which is how other hoods explained the relationship, but the connection may have been Roselli's ability to provide Capone with a steady flow of cocaine out of New York.

     While in Chicago, Roselli leafed through an encyclopedia and found the name Cosimo Roselli, a fifteenth-century painter who contributed frescoes of Moses on Mount Sinai and the Last Super on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Impressed, and in need of a new name anyway, Roselli kept his first name, John, and took on the last name, Roselli.

     Eventually. Capone shared his lifelong dream with Roselli, to move west to Los Angeles, then still a mostly rural but growing community, and rebuild the mob out there.

     Roselli had always wanted to move to California, in fact when he was a boy he had dreams of settling their with his mother, so when Johnny Torrio, the leader of the Chicago outfit in 1925, and Al Capone, talked to Roselli about spearheading their move out west, Johnny was all for it.

     Roselli's first two years out west were rough. He was sick and gaunt from tuberculosis, and penniless since all that the Chicago outfit had going out in California were high hopes and big plans, but no money producing operations.

     Then, in 1926, Roselli went to work for Anthony "The Hat" Cornero a colorful if slightly off-balance southern California bootlegger and gambler. Prohibition had made Cornero rich and Roselli profited as a result. For the first time in his life, Roselli had enough money to renta house outside of the Italian ghettos he had known since moving to America. He bought a car, started to dress better, and, as the bootlegger and bookmaker to a growing number of movie stars, he started to move in higher circles.

     It was Cornero who recommended Roselli to Longy Zwillman, the New Jersey labor rackets boss who had expanded his criminal empire into the most successful rum-running enterprise on the East coast. Zwillman was a Hollywood regular and met with Roselli often, grew to like him and came to rely on him as his primary West coast contact and even assigned Roselli to watch over the various starlets that Zwillman dated. In turn, Zwillman put other big name East coast hoods in touch with Roselli as the man to see when they went west, and when Capone traveled to Los Angeles in 1927, Roselli showed him around the city and introduced him to movie stars, which impressed the movie stars and Capone, and gave Roselli a lot of prestige around town.

     Roselli also remembered Capone's visit and talked about it often over the years. He said that even for California's laid-back lifestyle of the twenties, Capone's banana yellow suits and shocking pink silk shoes, "pimp gear" he called it, were outrageous. He remembered that the press, crowds and the police hounded them everywhere and Capone seemed to love all the attention. Roselli would remember it for the rest of his life and the smart crook that he was, he learned from it. He shunned Capone's type of flamboyance. He learned to fit in with the Hollywood crowd, but to keep a low profile, and aside from an arrest in Los Angeles in 1925 for carrying a concealed weapon, Roselli was virtually unknown to law enforcement.

     After Capone went to jail, Roselli was still out in Los Angeles, exiled as he saw it, and considering a career in films. Then Frank Nitti called and told Johnny that his moment had come, the outfit was moving in on Hollywood and Roselli would lead the attack on the West Coast, the so-called Bioff scandal, that extorted millions out of the Hollywood studios in the mid-1930s. Convicted in scam, Roselli did a few years hard time and strutted out of jail on August 13, 1947.

     The slick little hood leaped right back into the rackets and the center of Hollywood. Even while he was in prison, Roselli kept in touch with the Hollywood community by way of his friend, talent agent Danny Winkler, who wrote to him with the latest gossip, and from the 250 letters he received from a bit-part actress named Beatrice Ann Frank, who, in 1947, became Roselli's fiancée, but nothing ever came of it.

     Eventually, Johnny did marry a promising young actress named June Lang, born June Valasek, who was 12 years younger than Roselli, was madly in love with him and had no idea that he was a gangster, because Roselli had told her he was an aspiring movie producer. But, with time, the truth came out, and Johnny promised her he would leave the rackets. But what he said, and what he did were two different things and soon, Lang came to see that Roselli would never change and divorced him.

     After that, Johnny dated actresses Betty Hutton, Lana Turner and Donna Reed, among many others, and still managed to find time to have an affair with Bugsy Siegel's girlfriend, Virginia Hill, but that may have been ordered by Paul Ricca back in Chicago, so that Hill and Roselli would spy on each other.

     Amazingly, producer Joe Schenck, just out of prison himself as a result of the Bioff mess, sponsored Roselli for a job at Eagle Lion Studios, a small, British owned production company, where the hood worked with Brian Foy, Vice President in charge of production. Eagle-Lion churned out a dozen true life, fast paced, low budget crime related semi-documentary films, which Foy clipped out of the tabloid papers. The Docudramas were popular with critics and fans alike, and lead the way for television police dramas like Dragnet.

     Roselli would work at Eagle Lion, on the records anyway, as a purchasing agent for $50 a week and would be "promoted," by Foy of course, through the ranks, to associate producer. It was the only legitimate job Roselli ever had and apparently he had a knack for the business, and produced several hit films for Eagle-Lion, including the dark gangster dramas, which now have a cult status, "He Walked By Night," "T-Men," and "Canon City."

     Roselli's other official source of income, outside of the Studios, was as an agent for Nationwide, the only wire service into California and wholly owned and operated by the mob, although he was supplementing his income by replacing Willie Bioff as the DuPont Film Corporation's representative to Hollywood. Actually, Roselli probably knew nothing at all about film stock, but the outfit still controlled large parts of the studios and if DuPont wanted to remain a dominant force in Hollywood, it had to cooperate and leave Roselli on the payroll. DuPont never complained since Roselli had so much influence with the studio bosses and the company wanted to take the Hollywood film market from Eastman-Kodak, who had a virtual lock on the market.

CONTINUED

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to MobStudy@aol.com


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