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The 'Ed Sullivan Show' With Felons : If it sells, a new TV program would bring mobsters and ex-cons into Middle American homes

November 27, 1988|KIM MURPHY

With the clock on the corner of the TV screen ticking madly away, Bob Adams adjusts the stethoscope to his ears and delicately applies a No. 80 drill bit to the lock of a bank-size combination safe. He's done this before. Adams came close to doing a few years in a state penitentiary for doing this. Before he went legit.

The wild cheering of the studio audience doesn't faze him as he delicately applies a thumb and forefinger to the lock.

"Come on, Bob, open that safe, baby!" screams host Shecky Green.

The audience takes up the chant: "Go Bob! Go Bob! Go Bob!"

With 23 seconds to go on the video clock, the door to the safe swings open. Adams takes a bow. The audience goes wild.

Cut to a kitchen on a Glendale sound stage. Aladena (Jimmy the Weasel) Fratianno is putting the finishing touches on a tray of lasagna. Nobody has to explain why this week's star of "Cooking With La Cosa Nostra" is wearing a burglar mask underneath his chef's hat. If you testified against the entire hierarchy of the West Coast Mafia and then went on TV, you'd wear a mask too.

"OK, here I am, I'm gonna put the sausage and pork chops into the sauce; that'll make the sauce richer," says Jimmy. You know that name. He confessed to involvement in 11 contract murders for the Mafia before he became the highest-level mobster ever to turn government witness. "I'm gonna wrap it in foil so the stove don't get all messy."

Cut to Wild Willy Parsons, the 6-foot-5 ex-biker-turned-stand-up-comic who glumly surveys the studio audience. "I'll be honest with you, folks," Willie says, almost tripping over the word. "There aren't a lot of jobs a guy like me can get. I mean, let's face it, would you want to go into Benihana and have me swinging knives at your table?"

Welcome to "Crime Time," a proposed weekly half-hour celebration of larceny, loan sharking, conniving and contract murder that features some of the most notorious gangsters in America in a combination talk show-comedy-variety format suitable for prime-time TV.

With a $400,000 pilot already making the rounds in network and syndication TV markets all over Hollywood, "Crime Time's" producers promise in future episodes such underworld talents as reputed Gambino crime family boss John Gotti reminiscing about the old neighborhoods of Brooklyn and a fellow who was convicted of chopping up his neighbor and Federal Expressing him to various parts of the U.S. reading testimony from his murder trial to the strains of "Some Enchanted Evening."

"Nobody in TV that I know of is trying to do a variety show, prime time," says creator and co-producer Mark Weinberg. "This is just an old-fashioned variety show. Basically, it's the 'Ed Sullivan Show' with felons."

Weinberg, 34, figured he had a unique insight when it came to bringing the mob into Middle American living rooms.

A former fund-raiser for District Atty. Ira Reiner and fund-raising host for Democratic Presidential candidate Walter Mondale and Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Weinberg earned his living as a commodities broker. His clients included Mayor Tom Bradley and a coterie of FBI agents, Secret Service agents, judges and bankers.

But his investment career hit a snag in 1984, when people like Matthew (Matty the Horse) Ianello, Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno and other purported luminaries of the Genovese crime family started showing up on his list of business contacts. The Commodities Futures Trading Commission didn't think much of Weinberg's New York business associates, even when Weinberg told them he had courted Mob figures only at the request of the FBI in Los Angeles as a secret informant.

The FBI in New York opened its own investigation to find out why so many of Weinberg's investment clients were losing money on silver options that went suddenly sour whenever Weinberg's New York and Las Vegas contacts became involved.

Weinberg blamed the Mob for looting his accounts. He blamed the FBI for refusing to publicly admit he had been working as an undercover source, secretly taping conversations with his underworld contacts at the FBI's request. He installed a security system on his Beverly Hills house and started talking about "getting whacked."

Finally, with civil suits claiming more than $10 million in losses from former clients and the loss of both his major trading licenses--none of the suits went to trial, with settlements made to most plaintiffs, Weinberg said--he went where any other down-on-his-luck Wall Street whiz kid would go: Hollywood.

Weinberg's business history appears to have prepared him to cash in on America's perennial fascination with its criminal underbelly.

But where most of the networks have focused on endless spinoffs of "The Untouchables" or real-life dramatizations of infamous crimes, Weinberg figured nobody had yet figured out a way to exploit robbery and mayhem for its obvious comedic potential.

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