James Gandolfin

Dan Gordon: Then I opened my window, got back into my apartment, made sure the door was locked and then got out a butcher knife. I thought: I’m going to die shortly. And shortly after that there are footsteps coming to my apartment and someone knocks on the door. And the guy had a New York accent and it’s like: oh shit, this is it. James Gandolfini is right outside my door! And he’s going [thick NY accent] “I wanna talk to Dan Gordon.” And I said [in a Spanish accent] “He no live here. He in Argentina right now.” The guys says, “Quit fucking around, I want to talk to Dan Gordon.” And I said, “Well, who are you?” He said, “What the fuck do you care?” “Well, whatever problems we have [laughing] we can work it out with the door closed.” And he said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I’m here to offer you a job.”

Blake J. Harris: What was the job?

Dan Gordon: The boyfriend was a DP who worked, like, in soft-core porn. I think he probably did hardcore porn too, but anyway his dream was to make a legitimate movie. And he thought he had the backers and he had an idea for a movie—which I thought was actually a pretty good idea for a movie—and he was willing to offer me five-hundred bucks under the table to write the screenplay. And I said, “I’ll only do that if I get to direct.” And he said, “Yeah, sure, what the fuck, yeah.”

Blake J. Harris: What was the movie?

Dan Gordon: It was really a fun movie. It was like a heist movie about a guy who was a low life dope dealer (which is what this guy sort of was) and he’s saving up money to buy a fast food restaurant but then he gets ripped off. You know, he wants to go legit but he gets ripped off and now he’s left without anything…he’s just in a world of hurt and he goes to this place called the Belmont Baths. Which was a real place in Brooklyn, that was really interesting because it’s where these old Jewish gangsters from Murder Incorporated used to go; they’d go there for the steam baths. And I got to know all these guys; I met them, we used them as extras in the film.

Blake J. Harris: Interesting…

Dan Gordon: Yeah, the guy who handed out the towels was named “Scorchy” Miroff. And the reason he was called “Scorchy” is because he was an arsonist. It was all these guys, these 70-year-old gangsters from Murder Incorporated, from the 1920s. And they’d go [in a crackly voice] “Remember that guy? I was trying to stick him with an ice pick, but I couldn’t find his fucking brain. His brain was so small I couldn’t fucking find it. I finally stuck it through his fucking ear. He died.” And I’m sitting there…these were interesting guys.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah!

Dan Gordon: So the scene that took place: the character Oliver stumbles in there, taking a steam bath and he meets this guy who is the general manager of EJ Korvettes department store in New York. EJ Korvettes was, you know, one of Macy’s competitors. And he tells Oliver that there’s a Brinks strike and no one has been picking up the money. They can’t transfer the money to the bank, so the department store has all this money on hand. There’s all this cash in there! So Oliver says, “You’re kidding me, there’s gotta be a way we can steal that fucking money.” And there is; there’s an air vent that goes to the money from the woman’s bathroom. So Oliver gets his gang of miscreants—this group of oddballs, like a garment cutter, who have also been ripped off—and on Christmas Eve, they’re all dressed up in drag, and they go to hit up the department store.

Blake J. Harris: That’s a great visual.

Dan Gordon: It was kind of an action heist comedy, it was a fun movie. I wrote it and forgot about it—went on to write other more serious things, trying to be an “artiste”—but then a little while later I get a phone call from Phil [the low-level mobster] and he says, “Pack your fucking bags, you’re going to New York. There’s a ticket at the airport waiting for you in your name.” And I asked for what? What are you talking about? And he said, “I found some guys. We’re making the movie!” He had gotten it fully financed and was ready to make the movie. I said, “But Phil, I can’t come to New York.” They wanted me to go there for 6 months. I had a lease, I had a life in LA, I couldn’t just go out there right away. But what I didn’t know was he had stolen a guy’s credit card and bought the ticket, so it was like: get here now before they catch up!

Blake J. Harris: [laughing]

Dan Gordon: Phil said, “I’m giving you the opportunity of a lifetime and you’re giving me bullshit…you wanna be a director? Come get the ticket and come to New York. If you don’t, I’ll find someone else.” So I pack my duffel bag and I flew to New York that night. And I wound up making this independent film called Potluck. But what I didn’t know was it was a money-laundering operation for a crew—it was a mixed crew of the Gambino and Genovese crime families—and they were looking for the youngest, stupidest kid they could find and I was the jackpot.

Blake J. Harris: [cracking up]

Dan Gordon: They gave me a hundred grand to make the movie. They told me that was the budget. But they had another budget, which they would submit to the IRS, saying that the budget of the movie was a million dollars. Then they were gonna tell the IRS they had made a mistake, hired this kid who didn’t know what the hell he was doing and they were out a million bucks.

Blake J. Harris: And they found the perfect sucker: a true artiste.

Dan Gordon: Yeah, and this was in 1972—in the middle of the Colombo/Gallo War—and people were getting whacked in New York like crazy. So I get to New York and Johnny, who was the head of this crew said to me, “I wanna introduce you to your best friend.” “But Johnny,” I said, “I already know my best friend. Why would you need to introduce me?” “No,” Johnny says, “this is your new best friend.” Okay…and he introduced me to a guy who was known as “Muff the Button Man.”

Blake J. Harris: Muff the Button Man?

Dan Gordon: Yeah, and Muff the Button Man was about 6’4” bald-headed, weighed about 240 and carried three guns on him at all times.  And Johnny said, “He’s gonna be with you, he’s gonna protect you.” I asked why do I need someone to protect me. “Eh, it’s this fucking Crazy Joey Gallo. They don’t call him Crazy Joey Gallo because he’s not crazy. He’s fucking crazy. He’s fucking killing everybody.”

Blake J. Harris: Wow.

Dan Gordon: He said, “We’re not involved, it’s a Colombo/Gallo War, it’s not us, but what happens if he wants to send us a message? He’s gonna hit one of us…he’s gonna hit an investment of ours to send a message. You’re an investment, I want you protected.” And I went: WHAT. THE FUCK. HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO? And then I lived with Muff the Button Man for nine months…

Blake J. Harris: How was he? Was he a good roommate?

Dan Gordon: Yeah, he was a great guy. Actually, he wanted to get out of the killing business and he wanted to be a hairdresser; he wanted to do hair and makeup in movies.

Blake J. Harris: No way. Really?

Copacabana from goodfellas

Dan Gordon: Yeah. And he was actually pretty good! He’d gone to barber’s college and ended up doing hair and makeup in the film. And he was a very nice guy, very funny guy. All these guys were really funny. And we did live…it was straight out of Goodfellas. It was exactly at that time and I knew a lot of those guys. We went into the Copacabana exactly like in that shot. We went in through the kitchen, we never went in through the front door. And if there wasn’t a table, a table appeared. Just like in the Scorsese tracking shot.

Blake J. Harris: Right, right, right.

Dan Gordon: Our crew hung out at a place called The Pyrenees, which was a really nice restaurant next to Mark Hellinger Theatre. And we were hooked up, it was extraordinarily exciting. But it was also scary and shit.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah.

Dan Gordon: Once I said to Muff, “I don’t mean any disrespect, but I grew in in Bell Gardens, California and in the valley of Israel. I’ve never been to New York in my life. So I don’t know a lot…you’re a “Button Man.” What is that? What does that mean exactly.” And there used to be a guy, I won’t say his last name, but they used to call him Johnny Spic because he was so dark that he looked Puerto Rican. And Muff said [in a mumbled, Lenny-from-Mice-and-Men-like voice], “Let’s say Johnny Spic wants to push the button on somebody. I’m the guy who pushes the button.” And I said, “Oh, okay. Okay. Okay. Now you and I, Muff, we are friends, right?” And he said, “What the fuck are you talking about friends? We’re fucking brovers.” He couldn’t say “th,” he always made it a “v.” So he said, “We’re fucking brovers.”

Blake J. Harris: Amazing.

Dan Gordon: So I said again, “I don’t meant any disrespect, but I just don’t know this world. If Johnny told you to push the button on me—and we are, fucking brovers—you’d do it, right?” And he looked at me and said, “Jesus fucking Christ. Talk about posing a moral fucking dilemma.”

Blake J. Harris: [cracking up]

Dan Gordon: He said, “I’ll tell you the truth. If I had anything to say about it, whatsofuckingever at all, you wouldn’t feel a thing. It’d be so fucking quick man.” And, you know, that was the best deal he could cut me.

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

Dan Gordon: And after a while he wasn’t there to protect. He was there to keep me from running. Because everybody knew I was getting really squirrelly.

Blake J. Harris: Well, at what point, and in what way, did you find out the scheme that was going on? That this was not…the movie that you had signed up for.

Dan Gordon: It started with “these are mob guys.” [laughing] That was the first penny that dropped. But took a while.

Blake J. Harris: Sure.

Dan Gordon: Our offices were on 11th and 48th. I don’t know if you know that neighborhood, but it’s Hell’s Kitchen, it’s right near the docks and everything. And they had ostensibly—well, no, they did really have it—a film services company. In those days, you used to have messenger services to take your dailies from the set to the lab so they had a business that would do that. They had a negative-cutting business there. And once again they did a lot of porn, making a pretty good living; it was 1972 and the mob was heavy into porn in New York…

Blake J. Harris: Okay.

Dan Gordon: So that’s where we would have our production meetings. And there would be these guys, rolling dollies with electronic goods or clothes through the office. Uh, what does that have to do with the film production business?

Blake J. Harris: Right.

Dan Gordon: So it dawns on me: these guys are stealing shit from the docks. Actually, they’re not stealing, they had a deal worked out. But still: I’m involved with a criminal enterprise!

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

Dan Gordon: In fact, they were pushing a rack of coats and…they used to call me the “Orange” because I was from California. So that became my nickname, the Orange. And I remember Johnny said to me, “Hey, Orange, you don’t have a good winter coat. Give the Orange that leather jacket, he’d look good in it. It’s yours. From now on, it’s yours.” So it’s like: okay, I’m dealing with mobsters.

Blake J. Harris: [laughs]


Dan Gordon: And The Godfather had not yet come out. In fact, The Godfather was shooting while we were shooting there and some of our guys were extras in it. So that was the first penny that dropped. And then the second penny that dropped was they pulled the plug on the picture. They pulled the plug not just because I was bringing it in on time and on budget, but actually under time and under budget, which in retrospect was the worst thing that I could do! Because that threw their whole scheme off. Their scheme hinged on them saying to the IRS, “We hired this putz director and the kid couldn’t complete it and we lost all our money.”

Blake J. Harris: Right.

Dan Gordon: So they came and pulled the plug on the picture. And I’m saying, “Johnny? Why? The performances are great and the dailies look great.” He said, “I didn’t ask for any fucking dialogue. It’s done, that’s it. I’m pulling the plug on the picture.” And we were all distraught. Phil, the producer, this was his dream. And Muff The Button Man, he was doing hair and makeup and all this shit.

Blake J. Harris: [laughs]

Dan Gordon: We thought they had just run out of money. It never dawned on me that it was a money-laundering operation. So we were looking for ways to hustle up the money. So Phil and I started hustling doctors.

Blake J. Harris: Hustling doctors?

Dan Gordon: We said, “Hey, we’ll put your wife in this movie—she’ll have a part in this movie!—if you invest $10,000.” So I would write up a fake scene. And sometimes we wouldn’t have film in the camera. We’d shoot the scene and take the doctor down for ten grand.

Blake J. Harris: [cracking up]

Dan Gordon: And there was a company that hired me, DTI (Drivers Training Institute), and I was directing the commercial and acting in it. And the only way I got the gig was I told them I’d do it for, like, a hundred bucks. They were like: oh sure, that’s so cheap, this kid’s an idiot! Well, I did it because the commercial was supposed to take place in a diner, and we had a scene in the movie that took place in a diner. So we knocked out the commercial in about four minutes, and then we shot three hours of our movie.

Blake J. Harris: So funny.

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