REEL-TO-REAL: Paul Newman Played A Role Based On Detroit Mafia Don Jack Tocco In Absence Of Malice

The 1981 film Absence of Malice, starring Paul Newman and penned by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Kurt Leudtke, was inspired by the early years of deceased Detroit mob boss Giacomo (Black Jack) Tocco and his treatment by and relationship with the press. Newman’s character, Michael (Little Mike) Gallagher, the son and nephew of notorious Mafiosi and a suspect in the disappearance and murder of a fictional famous labor union leader, was allegedly based on Tocco, who matched a similar description at the time the movie was released.

The term ‘absence of malice’ refers to the legal definition of one of the primary requirements of proof against a libel claim in court. Leudtke became familiar with Tocco, the son and nephew of Detroit mafia “founding fathers” Vito (Black Bill) Tocco and Giuseppe (Joe Uno) Zerilli and a main suspect in the still-unsolved and forever-iconic gangland slaying of Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, while working as a reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press, the city’s No. 1 daily newspaper periodical.

Through his first 40 years in the underworld, Jack Tocco became known for suing media entities that referred to him as a mobster (a litigation total that reached into the double digits in amount), considerably more than any thuggish antics of his on the street. Those law suits and his contention of being mislabeled all because of his family’s reputation all came to a screeching halt in 1998 when he was convicted in a giant federal racketeering case for being the don of the mafia in the Motor City. FBI agents snapped photos of Tocco’s inauguration as Godfather in the summer of 1979 at a luxury hunting lodge near Ann Arbor, Michigan which became evidence at his trial almost 20 years later.

Tocco controversially served less two years in prison and was free by 2002. He died peacefully of heart failure in July 2014, the longest reigning mob boss outside of New York at the time of his death. Before officially taking the reins of the “family business” in 1979, the college-educated Black Jack (business degree from the University of Detroit-Mercy) was looking after things in an acting boss capacity from around 1973.

The FBI believes he was in on the planning of Hoffa’s kidnapping and murder and names him as a main suspect in the crime in the infamous HoffEx memo. Hoffa vanished from a Metro Detroit restaurant parking lot en route to a meeting with a pair of mob chiefs tied to Tocco. A former underboss of his (first cousin Anthony “Tony Z” Zerilli, Joe Uno’s only son) told authorities that Hoffa was taken to and slain at farm property Tocco owned back then in Northern Oakland County, a half-hour driving distance from where Hoffa was last seen alive on the afternoon of July 30, 1975 at the Machus Red Fox in Bloomfield Twp., Michigan.

The younger Zerilli was in an open beef with Tocco when he spilled the beans about what he knew to the feds in 2012. A search of the property in 2013 came up empty. FBI surveillance logs place Tocco at the Southfield Athletic Club, the headquarters of Detroit mob street boss Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone, a protégé of his dad’s and uncle’s and one of the men scheduled to rendezvous with Hoffa the day he went missing, meeting with Giacalone behind closed doors in the hours after Hoffa departed the Red Fox parking lot around 2:45 p.m. never to be seen again.

Jack Tocco doing his best Paul Newman

Jack Tocco doing his best Paul Newman

Black Jack’s father, Black Bill, was Detroit’s first modern-day Italian mafia don, assuming command of the Midwest Borgata in 1931 after he and his brother-in-law and best friend, Joe Zerilli, Black Jack’s uncle, fought and won the Crosstown Mob War by defeating Cesare (Big Chet) LaMare, averting numerous assassination attempts and finally arranging for LaMare’s murder in his own mansion by his own men. Following Black Bill Tocco’s conviction on federal tax evasion charges in 1936, before his son Jack was even 10 years old, he handed the mantle of the crime family to Zerilli, who headed the notoriously stealthy and stable syndicate for the next 41 years until he died of natural causes in October 1977. Black Bill Tocco died of a heart attack in 1972, around the same time his son, Black Jack was being tapped by his uncle as his successor.

Despite his rapid ascension up the Michigan mob ranks – first becoming a button man in 1949 after according to testimony in front of the U.S. Senate, “making his bones” two years prior by strangling Greek wiseguy Gus Andromulous to death, by the end of the next decade getting upped to a caporegime post and then finally becoming acting boss and boss, respectively in the 1970s -, Jack Tocco never incurred any felony convictions.

His lone infraction? – attending an illegal cockfight in a westisde Detroit alley in 1965.

This lack of criminal record gave him legs to stand on when making an argument that he was being unfairly targeted by the media. Those legs led to mass litigation. The only problem in the end is that it was all hogwash. Jack Tocco was a huge racketeer and influential member of the American Italian mafia, unlike the character based on him in the movie Absence of Malice, Little Mike Gallagher, portrayed in an Oscar-nominated performance by consummate leading man, Newman, who was genuinely a victim of guilt by association.

In the movie, Gallagher is the legitimate businessman son of deceased Miami mob enforcer Thomas (Big Tom) Gallagher and the nephew of current Florida mafia boss Santos Malderone and basely solely on those blood links, becomes a top suspect in the investigation into the disappearance and murder of Miami Longshoremen’s Union President Joey Diaz. When a reporter played by Sally Field, also nominated by the Academy for her role in the film, gets information from sources in the government that Newman’s Mike Gallagher is a suspect in the Diaz hit and prints it, she draws Gallagher’s ire and eventually joins forces with him to uncover the truth behind a smear campaign launched against him by the government for the purpose of getting him to “flip” on his immediate family.

The Santos Malderone character is based partially on real-life Detroit mob boss Joe Zerilli and partially on real-life Tampa Godfather Santos Trafficante, Jr. (d. 1987). Zerilli is believed by authorities to have acted as the final sanctioning in the Hoffa execution, being that the volcanic-tempered labor union czar had been operating under Zerilli’s Motown mafia banner since as far back as the late 1930s. Trafficante was closely aligned with Hoffa as well.

Although Leudtke would be nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay in 1981 for Absence of Malice, he wouldn’t win the award until four years later when he took home the trophy for his writing of Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Both movies were directed by Sydney Pollack, another Oscar regular (he won Best Director for Out of Africa). Pollack and Newman died less than six months apart in 2008.



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