Michael Madsen Refused To Audition For His Donnie Brasco Role

From 1976 to 1981, FBI agent Joe Pistone infiltrated the Bonnano crime family as "Donnie Brasco." His time undercover was spun into a 1997 movie, named for Pistone's alias and starring Johnny Depp.

The faces "Donnie" meets while undercover in the New York underworld are played by gangster film veterans. The true star of the movie, Al Pacino as Pistone's contact Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggerio. Michael Madsen, perhaps best known as Mr. Blonde in "Reservoir Dogs," plays "Sonny Black," real name Dominick Napolitano.

Their "Donnie Brasco" characters inverts their previous parts. Lefty, played by The Godfather himself, is a lowly soldier stuck in a dead-end job. Sonny Black may be a murderer, but he's also the calm and collected boss of the family, far from an unstable psychotic like Mr. Blonde. Speaking to the AV Club in 2015, Madsen said he considers "Donnie Brasco" one of the top five films he's made: "It was a pretty damned good film, and shooting in New York City wasn't bad, either." However, due to his stubborn reluctance to audition, Madsen almost lost out on the part.

Refusing to read

When Madsen was first offered to read for the part of Sonny Black, he said no. When the casting team made it clear he'd lose out if he didn't audition, Madsen fired back with self-deprecation: "If I come in and read, then I definitely won't get it." The back and forth didn't end there: Madsen felt if the casting team wanted him that badly, they should just offer him the part upfront.

After two weeks of radio silence, Madsen received an offer to visit Al Pacino in New York. He accepted, with stipulations.

"If you're trying to bait me in there to go read, please, it's not gonna happen. I'd love to say 'hi' to Al, and I understand he would probably like to meet me, considering the material, but I'm not gonna read for you guys. It's not gonna happen."

Madsen was put up at the St. Regis hotel and met Pacino. The actor recalled, "[Pacino] had guys with earplugs in and bodyguards walking up one hallway and down the other. It was a very secretive trail to get to Al."

So, how did the meeting go?

Meeting Al

According to Madsen, Pacino initially didn't even turn around to greet him. To break the awkwardness of standing still, Madsen looked at the office's bookshelf and pulled a book off it (he didn't mention what the book was). That's when Pacino started talking. He asked Madsen if he liked the book and Madsen, who'd never read it, answered yes. Then Pacino asked about Madsen's thoughts on the "Donnie Brasco" script. Madsen thought it was "a good story," but he had one stipulation. The real Sonny Black apparently had a bird-keeping hobby, and Madsen wanted to include that in the film to "dignify" his character. When he brought it up to Pacino, here's the response he got:

"I asked Al, 'How come the pigeons aren't in the screenplay?' And he said, 'Well, because if you have the birds, then your character will have too much sympathy. And nobody wants to have sympathy for Sonny Black, you understand? So you can't have the birds.'"

Madsen shrugged this off and that was it. The meeting concluded and once Madsen went back to the hotel, convinced he'd lost the part, he got a call: "Oh, Michael, geez, Al likes you. You're in. You're gonna do the film." Since he stuck to his guns and got the part, Madsen's thoughts on auditioning haven't changed:

"So I was very happy that I didn't read. I was very happy that I kept my position, because it's such an uncomfortable, horrible thing to do. But that's one I didn't read for, that I refused to read for."