Like Father, Unlike Son

Gotti.  A name notorious in organized crime circles, and infamous in American pop culture.  John Gotti, the boss of the Gambino crime family, dominated headlines throughout the 1980s, often referred to as the “Dapper Don” or the “Teflon Don.”  In the annals of organized crime history, his name is mentioned alongside imposing figures as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.  In the fifth week of its 2018 Spring Season, Stranger Than Fiction previewed the first two episodes of the latest exploration of the Gotti clan, aptly titled Gotti: Godfather & Son.  Airing on A&E in mid-June, the first two installments focus on John Gotti Junior, and the relationship with his father during his coming-of-age period in Queens.

The first episode of the series explores Junior’s childhood years, from birth to early adolescence, and his veneration for his father is on full display.  He describes his namesake in glowing terms, saying “my father’s charisma - on scale of one to ten, it was an eleven.”  He recalls the moment, just after his father returns from jail, when he learned that their baseball fandom differed - his father was a Yankees fan, and Junior had a Mets poster hanging above his bed.  “He left the room and I tore the poster down.  I like what my father likes.”  While he idolizes his father, he also starts to suspect his family situation may not be normal, knowing his “father’s heart was in the street.” Junior contrasted his life with his other childhood friends, all of whom had fathers at home, not serving time in prison.  It’s here a contradiction emerges, showing two portraits of Senior - a dedicated family man who loves his wife and children dearly, and a ruthless member of an organized crime syndicate desperate to work his way to the top.  Eventually, Junior realizes this could become problematic, remarking that in the world of organized crime, “lies build upon lies build upon lies… and you wonder what is real.” 

The second episode of the series delves into Junior's teenage years, and as he becomes more involved in the “family business,” this contradiction pushes to the forefront.  He becomes a young man, finishes high school, and after an altercation at a local bar resulting in the death of another young man, his father forces him to work at the notorious Bergin Hunt & Fish Club in Ozone Park.  At the start, Junior bemoans the position, sharing his father’s desire for work on the streets, but relents because “there was always something happening.  It was full of life.”  As the years went by, a fondness grew toward the crowd. “As time went on, I wanted to be there.  So many interesting characters, colorful guys.”  Looking back, he assesses the situation more clearly, explaining that he “never went to college, never went to the military.  I stood right there and I never left.”  As one might guess, Junior’s progression leads to him becoming a ‘made’ man in the Gambino crime syndicate.  And it’s at that moment he receives the commendation he’s wanted most since his childhood.  After the initiation, Junior visits his father.  “His eyes widened and he whispered in my ear that he was proud of me.  Now I get it.”

The following two episodes take a look at Junior’s fall from grace, eventually leading to a conversation with his father, while incarcerated in Missouri, where he seeks permission to quit a life of organized crime.  In the Q&A following the screening, director Richard Stratton explains how a tape of this conversation pushed him to make the four-part series.  “It was ninety minutes of, without a doubt, the most emotionally charged meeting between a father and son that I had ever seen anywhere.  This was Shakespeare.  This was Julius Caesar meets Hamlet.”  But as the conversation wears on and Senior gives Junior his permission, Stratton saw what made him want to make the series so desperately.  “You can see the change, where he becomes not the Godfather, but a father who loved his son, and who respected his son, and was going to allow his son to make a change in his life.”

Because the series takes this intimate look at fatherhood, Stratton was forced to consider his own relationship with his children. “I’ve often felt that I’m not a good father.  And I feel like I spend too much time preoccupied with my own work.”  He continued, “When I look at the father that John was, sometimes I try to compare myself to him - I think maybe he’s a better father than I am, even though he spent all those years in prison.”  He appropriately ends that comment by saying “you never feel like you’ve been a good enough father for your kids… it’s a tough balance.”

That balance is part of what the four part series aims to achieve, depicting John the mercenary, soldier, and warrior of the Gambino crime family, and contrasting him with John the caretaker, protector, and provider of the Gotti home family.  The result is a fascinating exclusive look at one of the most visible - if not the most visible - mob bosses of the last fifty years.  Gotti: Godfather and son premieres June 9th at 10 PM on A&E Network.