We attended several other New Yorker Festival events in addition to Justice Breyer’s talk with Jeffrey Toobin (which we discussed here and here). One of these was a fascinating panel about representations of the Mafia in popular culture, entitled TV, Movies, and the Mob.
The panel, moderated by Jeffrey Goldberg, was star-studded. It included the magnificent Lorraine Bracco, aka Dr. Jennifer Melfi of “The Sopranos”; Paul Haggis, who won the best screenplay Oscar for “Crash” (and is working on a new TV series about the criminal underworld); Harold Ramis, director and co-writer of “Analyze This” and “Analyze That”; and Frank Vincent, who plays Phil Leotardo on “The Sopranos.”
But the panelist of the greatest interest to us was a lawyer: Gerald Shargel, one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the country. Shargel has represented numerous high-profile defendants, including the Mafia boss John Gotti and various members of the Gambino family. As Goldberg drily described Shargel during the introductions: “He’s the sort of lawyer you got to when you have BIG problems. Not just regular-size problems….”
A more detailed discussion of the panel, after the jump.
As you can see from the photo above (courtesy of Startraks), Shargel did not show up to the panel in a double-breasted sharkskin suit. Instead, he was wearing blue jeans, a blazer that was an intriguing shade of purple-brown, and a dapper, dark purple shirt with orange boxes. His feat were shod in mahogany-colored ankle boots. On the whole, Shargel’s aura was more brainy — think “professor at a small liberal arts college” — than flashy (which is what one might expect from a high-profile lawyer with Mafia clients, such as Bruce Cutler and Eddie Hayes).
The main theme that Shargel sounded during the panel was that Mob life isn’t as fabulous or sexy as it’s made out to be in the movies and on TV. He stressed that “it’s not a glamorous life,” and real-life mobsters “don’t have the kind of wealth displayed in ‘The Godfather.’” At times it sounded like Shargel was calling for made men to unionize: “They have terrible working conditions, long hours, no benefits, dangerous work.”
(We can agree with all of this, except for the “No benefits” part. Life as a wiseguy comes with all sorts of perks. Just think of the great swag they get from those stolen trucks! And what about all the free food from Artie Bucco?)
Shargel also questioned the Mob-leaders-going-to-shrinks premise of “The Sopranos” and “Analyze This.” “If someone [in the Mafia] were seeing a psychiatrist, nobody would know about it. It would be perceived as a sign of weakness.”
(But there is an exception, Shargel noted: “Unless it’s post-indictment. Post-indictment, then you CAN see a psychiatrist.” HA. There’s no better fig leaf for seeking the help of a mental health care professional than a 55-count RICO indictment.)
During the Q-and-A session, we got up to ask Shargel about whether he thinks lawyers are accurately portrayed in films and television shows about the Mafia. Shargel pointed out that it’s hard question to answer, because most Mob movies don’t focus on the role of the lawyer and how he relates to his clients.
(The way Shargel made this observation, it sounded like he was lamenting a gap in the genre of Mob movies — lack of films about the Mafia lawyer. Perhaps Shargel should write a screenplay? He certainly has enough material; he would just have to be careful in how he uses it…)
Two other quick highlights. First, some practical advice from Shargel for all you aspiring organized crime defense attorneys:
“When you defend a murder case, the first thing you show is that the guy needed killing.”
The audience laughed at this, and the matter-of-fact way in which Shargel said it. But there is definitely some truth to it. Back when we worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office, we watched portions of one organized crime trial in which the defense took just this tack. They went to great lengths to make the victim out to be, well, a less than savory character. In the end, the jury acquitted on all counts.
Second, a funny exchange between Shargel and Jeffrey Goldberg, the panel moderator. The background is that throughout the panel discussion, Shargel kept on prefacing his remarks with caveats like “this is all in the public record” or “this was said in testimony at trial.”
Shargel (about to begin another story): Now, this is all public testimony…
Goldberg: You don’t need to keep saying that!
Shargel: After today, I’ll need the remote starter for my car.
You said it, Gerry, not us…
Disclosure: We went to law school with Shargel’s daughter, Johanna Shargel, who has followed her father’s footsteps into the law. Johanna currently works as a litigatrix at Akin Gump in Los Angeles. When we were in law school, it was widely known that she had a famous father. But the petite, pretty, polite and polished Johanna wasn’t the tough-talking, elbows-out broad one would expect her to be, as the daughter of a top Mafia lawyer.
TV, Movies, and the Mob [New Yorker Festival]
The Law Offices of Gerald L. Shargel [official website]
Johanna R. Shargel bio [Akin Gump]
Photograph of Gerald Shargel [Startraks Photo]