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Joe Pistone: Staying alive

By THOMAS FERRARO, UPI Feature Writer

WASHINGTON -- 'Hello, this is Joe Pistone,' the man on the other end of the phone says in a husky voice with a New Jersey accent that the Mafia wants silenced.

It's 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday and Pistone, author of a book on his six years as an undercover FBI agent in the Mafia, is calling nearly three hours late.

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'Hey, I'm really sorry. I'm a very punctual guy. I just got tied up with these attorneys for a Senate committee,' says Pistone. He explains that the panel wants him to appear at a hearing on organized crime.

Joe Pistone is a hot property.

Congress wants to talk to him about mobsters, Hollywood is talking to him about turning his book into a movie and the news media are lined up to talk to him about Pistone.

Pistone infiltrated the Mafia in 1976 and got deeper into the organization than any other lawman. His testimony led to more than 100 convictions of mobsters, several of them top figures in New York and Milwaukee crime families.

The Mafia responded in 1981 by issuing a $500,000 murder contract on Pistone, who they had long known and trusted as 'Donnie Brasco.'

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Today, Pistone, who left the FBI in 1986, packs a .38-caliber gun, often travels with bodyguards and, for relaxation, pumps iron. He lives under a new identity in an undiscloseld location and he sets the rules when he talks to anybody -- from the time to the place of the conversation.

This day, Pistone, 46, called United Press International from an undisclosed spot to talk about his life and book, 'Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia,' which reached book shelves Jan. 29.

UPI: Congratulations, your book just made the bestseller list.

Pistone: 'That's not bad, right out of the blocks. ... I figured it'd be a good seller because of the subject matter, the Mafia, the undercover aspects ... and the aspect of being an FBI agent ....'

UPI: But doesn't the book and your promotion of it -- the interviews, appearances on TV -- all increase your exposure and chance of being killed?

Pistone: 'Sure, I recognize that. I accept that. But there are certain things you have to do in life. I've maintained throughout this whole ordeal -- it might sound cuckoo to you -- but I'm the good guy. You know what I mean? There are certain things you have to do. You just can't run and hide.'

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UPI: Do you think the Mafia, at this point, still would try to murder you or will, as FBI agents advised them, 'leave him alone, he beat you, it's over?'

Pistone: 'I don't know. They have long memories. I just have to hope we can wait out the guys in jail. Or their might be a young cowboy who wants to make a name for himself.'

UPI: Do you live in fear?

Pistone: 'You can't lead your life thinking, every day, that somebody is going to whack you. You know. I take precautions, a lot of precautions. The way I travel, the way I meet people, the places I go. I just don't waltz around ... but I don't constantly worry about it. My feeling is that there are people in the world worse off than me. I got a 5-year-old nephew with cancer. This kid has more problems than I have. You follow what I'm saying?'

UPI: You wrote in your book that if somebody comes after you, he'll have to be 'better than I was.'

Pistone: 'That's right. That's the attitude you have to have. You just can't roll over, you know. It's no different than a fighter in the ring.... When the time comes, I'll deal with it.'

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UPI: What's your wife's and (three grown) daughters' reaction when they hear such talk?

Pistone: 'They get upset, you know. But they know their father. She knows her husband. They know his capabilities.'

UPI: What did you learn about your life in the Mafia that surprised you the most?

Pistone: 'Not much. I grew up in a city (Paterson, N.J.) where I had contact with Mafia guys just by virtue of growing up there. You always knew that guys got killed and whacked out. But the one thing that really got to me that I saw while being close to the situation, was how someone could kill somebody they knew for years and not even be fazed by it -- because it was business. They could kill somebody and then go on - like have a bowl of pasta that night.

'They go to his funeral, give condolences ... and it doesn't bother them one bit. They never talk about the guy again, like he never existed. That's cold.'

UPI: Were there some people in the Mafia who you actually liked?

Pistone: 'Sure, like anything, some guys you like, some guys you don't like. Just like normal life. But that doesn't take away from the fact that these guys are stone killers, you know.'

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UPI: Was going undercover in the Mafia, considering its toll on you and members of your family (who also had to change their identities) worth it?

Pistone: 'It was worth it, professionally. But was it worth it personally? I'd have to say no. It wasn't worth the time I spent away from my family, the time I missed the kids growing up. That wasn't worth it.'

UPI: If you had a chance to do it over again, would you do it?

Pistone: 'Yeah. If I knew it was going to come out the way it did, probably yeah, because it did so much for law enforcement and the FBI's fight against organized crime and the FBI's undercover program. You know, the whole operation was a great boom.'

UPI: Why did you decide to do a book?

Pistone: 'I felt I had a good story to tell. I wanted to get out to the American public what the Mafia is really like. It's not this romantic thing people see on TV and in the movies. And it was a way to give credit to people, other FBI agents behind the scene, who wouldn't normally get credit.'

UPI: Was part of the motivation, also, a desire to take a bow? I got the impression from an interview by your wife that she felt frustration that she couldn't tell anyone, 'Hey, do you know what my Joe did?'

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Pistone: 'Yes, that frustration was a factor. I had done something that my family was proud of, but that they couldn't brag about. It was frustrating for my wife and my daughters.... But they still can't tell anyone -- outside friends that they have known for years.'

UPI: Why didn't you allow the FBI to review the book, as it likes to do with those written by former agents?

Pistone: 'Because it's my book, written about an individual, me. I didn't want any other editing. I didn't want anyone to say afterwards, 'You didn't write anything negative about the FBI 'cause you knew they were going to review it.''

UPI: What's the FBI's reaction to your book?

Pistone: 'The street agents, they absolutely love it. The guys who worked the case with me, they congratulated me. They said it was factual - the way it happened. Officially, from the bureau, I haven't heard anything, one way or the other.'

(An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau would have no comment on the book.)

UPI: Are there plans to turn the book into a movie?

Pistone: 'We got all kinds of offers. We're sorting them out right now. Offers for a major motion picture and also for TV. No commitments.'

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UPI: Who would you like to play you in a movie?

Pistone: 'Me. (He lets out with a hearty laugh). I'm just kidding. I don't know.'

UPI: Would you be on the scene of the production of the movie, providing expertise?

Pistone: 'Probably not.'

UPI: Why, safety?

Pistone: 'Yeah. You wouldn't have that much control. There would be so many people.'

UPI: Was it difficult shifting gears from life in the Mafia to life back in the FBI?

Pistone: 'I didn't have a tough time readjusting because I know me, the kind of individual I am. To be a good undercover agent, you have to have a strong personality, you've got to have a strong character, a little bit of an ego. ... If need be, the operation could have gone on longer, but when it ended, it ended. It was time to move to the prosecurial stage.'

UPI: How do you spend your time now?

Pistone: 'I keep pretty busy. I still consult with the government on some cases. I've lectured at the FBI Academy at Quantico (Virginia). I'm also preparing for another book ....

'I work out daily. I've worked out for years on weights. That's basically my recreation, working out.'

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UPI: Thanks for your time. Take care.

Pistone: 'Hey, no problem. Thank you very much.'

As 'Donnie Brasco,' a street-wise, street-tough Joe Pistone rose in the ranks of the Mafia from being an acquaintance of low-level mobsters to being a respected associate of the mob's hierarchy.

He sat in on crime meetings and exchanged Christmas and birthday gifts with gangsters, attended Mafia weddings and funerals and learned about its businesses -- extortion, bribery, gambling and drugs.

The former undercover agent is now considering entering a new line of work -- joining other former lawmen in consulting big businesses about how to avoid mob infiltration.

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