It would become one of the greatest scandals in a nation’s sporting history. Young men, upon whose All-American shoulders rested the hopes of the 1978 Boston College basketball fraternity, ‘gotten to’ by mob heavies and coerced into influencing the points spread on key games. Central to the scam, mobster Henry Hill, the mafia rat brought to life by Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, whose small-scale fraud would ultimately lead to the downfall of underworld giant, Jimmy Burke. Director Cayman Grant, working alongside Emmy and Peabody award winning filmmaker Joe Lavine, affords the saga a vivid cinematic treatment in the compelling documentary Playing for the Mob...
From the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband and producing partner Terry City, Grant (pictured, below) spoke with SCREEN-SPACE on the eve of her film's Australian premiere on cable sports giant ESPN, in which she discussed the intricacies of the swindle, the human cost of the crime and of being the last person to interview the once-fearsome Henry Hill…
Tell me about the early days of your involvement with the project and of collaborating with Joe Lavine?
Through our Pittsburgh producing partner, Paula Gregg, we were able to acquire the life rights to Paul Mazzei, who was the infamous “Pittsburgh Connection” in the movie, Goodfellas. Once I learned about the ’78-’79 Boston College Basketball scandal, I knew it would be a fantastic documentary. I started shooting right away and soon found out that Joe Lavine at HBO was looking to make a doc of the same story. We met and he was excited that I had many of the contacts and interviews in place. We formed a partnership with Gary Cohen at Triple Threat and pitched to ESPN. Lucky for us, I had already shot several interviews, most importantly Henry Hill and Paulie’s reunion before Henry passed away in June 2012.
Upon meeting Henry Hill, what struck you about his character and how he views his role in the scandal?
Until the day he died, Henry was somewhat perplexed that this scandal is what took down his friend, Jimmy Burke. As stated in the film, he didn’t even think it was a crime. I’m not sure that most of the people involved really thought it was a huge deal, at least not to the degree that they (would be) charged and sentenced to jail. The Feds wanted Jimmy Burke and this was the way to get to him. They got everybody.
Did the frail, elderly man still exude any of the fierceness one associates with his ‘Goodfellas’ persona?
I wasn’t nervous at all about having Henry in my home. In fact, I was excited to meet the real “Henry”. All I ever knew was Henry Hill as Ray Liotta. Henry was a wonderful houseguest. He was kind. He even kissed my baby. Mind you, he was much older now so that whole gangster persona was gone, aside from his hat (pictured, below).
What insight into the criminal mind, the ‘Mob mentality’, did you glean from contact with the likes of Hill, The Perla Bros and Paul Mazzei?
Once I reunited Paulie and Henry, I saw another side of them. They talked about the old days, crimes they committed together, like it was nothing. I’m not sure that I ever saw any remorse for what they did. They’re over it and have moved on. Actually, we also reunited Paulie Mazzei and Tony Perla, which was a memorable event. For me, it was fun to see their “real” personalities come out over the course of a few hours. I noticed that deep down these guys haven’t changed that much. Their true persona came out when they were all together. Through my encounters and research it was obvious that they all grew up in a time and in an environment that made it easy to get into the things they all got into.
There is a potent sense of tragedy about the purity of the sporting contest and, in a larger sense, the innocence of a society being corrupted by this event. Does this go some way to explaining the longevity of the scandal and the place it has in American history?
As a Canadian, I had no idea about the scandal until I delved further into the life of Paulie Mazzei. Anytime the mob gets involved, people’s ears perk up. The way this film has been embraced shows the fascination of American audiences with the mob and their involvement with sports. It would have been an even bigger deal had there been social media back in the late 70s, early 80s. Americans are huge sports enthusiasts and huge sports gamblers. There are tremendous stakes behind these games. One ‘call’ can affect a gambling spread, which then affects thousands of people’s money. Some people would argue that the reason sports are popular in the United States is that the gambling world is larger than anyone knows. It’s the ultimate form of American entertainment. We take our kids to these games. It’s a family event.
Were ESPN immediately keen to be involved in a story that de-glorifies sport? The network’s image is built on the lionising of sport and its heroes. Was Playing For The Mob seen as a departure for the network?
ESPN and their 30 for 30 Series have been able to show the human side of sports. The heroes that we glorify, the players that have gone broke, those who have done drugs and at times, those whom succumbed to it all. Playing for The Mob, while unique, isn’t such a departure, (although) there are not that many stories with the fame of Goodfellas that connect directly to college sports. I always wanted it to be an ESPN 30 for 30. I knew it was the right place for the story. ESPN loved that Joe and I had all of our bases covered, (with) all sides of the story ready to be interviewed. And of course, having Henry Hill’s last interview already in the can.
What was the human element that you had to get across in the film? Why is this story still so resonant and relevant?
Part of its resonance is the mafia element but the reason we’ve been successful with the film is the human element. This is the tragedy of three young college kids who made poor decisions that they have to live with the rest of their lives. It’s even more relevant today because athletes at the College level are not compensated. They generally get their education paid for but with little or no stipend for spending money. These kids are broke. How many college kids would say no in this kind of situation? They would be torn, especially those players who grew up in poverty or have no other source of revenue. Boston College wasn’t the first scandal like this and given that colleges make millions off players’ performances, it certainly won’t be the last. (Pictured, above; Grant, second from left, and co-director Joe Lavine, centre, at the recent Boston Film Festival screening of Playing for the Mob).
Narrated by actor Ray Liotta, PLAYING FOR THE MOB premieres on Australian televsion on Tuesday 14th October on ESPN. Check local listings for times.