Just as they may never find Jimmy Hoffa, we may also fail to discover the ”real” Tony Soprano. TV’s favorite mob boss was pure fiction. But many a real-life New Jersey gangster helped to influence the sleazy characters and murderous scenarios on the show. What’s more, real Jersey gangsters love it: an FBI wiretap caught one of them saying of the drama, “What characters. Great acting.”
Here are five Notorious New Jersey figures any “Sopranos” fan should know about.
1. Willie Moretti
The roly-poly “Laughing Boy of the Underworld” — who got whacked at Joe’s Elbow Room restaurant in Cliffside, N.J., in 1951 — is referenced in episode 20. “That’s where Joe’s restaurant used to be,” Christopher tells Jon Favreau, playing himself. “Willie Moretti, that’s where he bought it.” Christopher then goes on a digression about how Moretti’s legendary bid to free Frank Sinatra from an onerous contract — by sticking a gun down Tommy Dorsey’s throat — inspired a famous scene from “The Godfather.”
2. Abner “Longie” Zwillman
Zwillman was, from the ’30s to the ’50s, the most powerful Jewish crime boss in Jersey. It hardly seems a coincidence then, that Tony Soprano’s unscrupulous north Jersey power broker is named Assemblyman Zellman. Also, like Tony’s capo Eugene Pontecorvo, Zwillman died an unusual death for a gangster — suicide, by hanging himself from the rafter of his basement.
3. Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo
TV genius David Chase has owned up to one interviewer that while 90 percent of his “Sopranos” creation was pure fiction, 10 percent was patterned on Boiardo’s rather untraditional Mafia family. A relic of the 1920s bootlegging wars, Boiardo ran the Newark rackets well into the ’70s, operated City Hall as a virtual puppet government, and lived, Tony Soprano-like, in a suburban castle. Like many a gangster, Richie loved mob movies — at his Livingston home, he put up a prominent sign reading “Godfather’s Garden.”
4. Simone “Sam the Plumber” DeCavalcante
Before Tony Soprano, DeCavalcante probably had the most media exposure of any Mafia don — thanks to a 13-volume set of transcripts of FBI wiretaps on his Kenilworth, N.J., office that became a headline-grabbing sensation in 1969. The revelation that DeCavalcante headed a sixth crime family, separate from the five families of New York, was the model for Tony’s independent outfit. And the real-life contempt that the Big Apple wiseguys had for the Garden State — they called them the “Jersey Farmers” — was mirrored by the hatred for Tony felt by the fictional Phil Leotardo.
5. Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo
More than just the name of this gangster was stolen from real life to create the character of Tony’s pal “Big Pussy.” When the real Pussy got whacked in Long Branch, N.J., in 1979, his flashy jewelry was missing; when the fictional Pussy got rubbed out on the show, Tony & Co. thoughtfully take off his rings before chucking the body into the drink. “Little Pussy” Russo, who got his moniker from a pet cat, most likely fell victim to his big mouth: FBI wiretaps caught him referring to Boiardo as a “nut” and a “weasel.”