July 2, 2020 – Velvet-voiced actor Robert Davi (Die Hard, The Goonies, James Bond franchise) had no idea he was considering going into business with a mob psychopath and his mafia don dad and lucky for him, the endeavor stalled before it ever really got started. The father-and-son tandem of mobsters killed a business partner of theirs they were getting into the nightclub business with at that same time and there’s little doubt they would not have hesitated murdering an actor or producer they had problems with.
In around 1990, Davi, a well-known character actor and crooner, took a series of meetings with Boston’s volatile mob prince Francis (Frankie Boy) Salemme, Jr. to discuss Salemme, Jr. rounding up a 2.5 million dollar budget to produce a starring vehicle for him in a romantic-comedy titled The Shark. The script had been written by veteran British director Michael Anderson’s wife Vera and Anderson was interested in helming the project.
Fast-fisted Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. was the sociopathic cowboy son of then New England mafia boss Francis (Cadillac Frank) Salemme. He had been sent west by his father to try to gain a foothold in the film industry and take shelter from a festering mob war.
Davi, 69, grew up Italian in Queens, New York of the 1960s, so he knew about the mob, its dangers, its influence. But Frankie Boy played his gangland affiliations close to the vest, bragging of his connections to a honey pot of cash via Teamsters union investment capital, not of any direct underworld ties.
“He never portrayed himself as a wiseguy and even if he had, it wouldn’t have meant much to me, I mean, everybody who comes out to L.A. from the east coast and gets into the entertainment industry says they’re connected to someone back home, not many actually are,” Davi said. “Like anybody in this business, my ears perked up when he said he had access to financing.”
When the pair met, Davi was riding a hot streak in his career, having just earned rave reviews for his portrayal as a memorable James Bond villain in 1989’s License To Kill. Davi met Salemme, Jr. through restaurant owner and FBI informant Robert (Fat Ralphie) Franchi, a transplant from Boston’s notoriously mobbed up North End.
Before coming out to California in the 1980s, Franchi ran errands for an up-and-coming mob soldier named Dennis (Champaign Denny) LePore out of a North End social club. LePore was a loyalist of Cadillac Frank Salemme’s and had helped Salemme stabilize the Patriarca crime family in the aftermath of the shooting war pitting Providence and Boston mob factions against each other. Upon the flashy and hip Salemme setting his sights on Hollywood, he tapped LePore to reach out to Fat Ralphie Franchi in Hermosa Beach to get things jumpstarted. Salemme then sent his son Frankie Boy to L.A. to do his bidding.
Unbeknownst to the Salemmes or Champaign Denny LePore, Fat Ralphie was working for the FBI trying to uncover mob activity in the television and film field. The feds stationed a wired-for-sound Franchi at Caffé Roma in Beverly Hills, a trendy restaurant and business-meeting location for industry hotshots.
“I used to see Ralphie Franchi at Caffe Roma all the time, kind of out of nowhere. He just appeared and was always around. He was loud, he’d always make it a thing when he saw me, ‘Hey Bobby, how you doing.’ I didn’t pay him much mind. But then one day, he said he’s got some guy back in Boston who has money to put into a project and now I’m listening because everybody, no matter who they are in this business, is always looking for financing for their projects.”
Davi, Fat Ralphie and Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. met at Caffe Roma the following week and continued conversations over the next few months with more meetings, one taking place at Davi’s home. Frankie Boy, through his dad, had connections in the Teamsters, getting union work on the set of the 1991 film Once Around, starring Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss and Oscar nominees Danny Aiello and Holly Hunter, about a tight-knit Italian family in Boston. He told Davi he had Teamsters money on-deck to invest into The Shark, a film Davi would star in as a loan shark who falls in love with a Las Vegas showgirl, and that he could get Aiello to co-star.
Cathy Moriarty, who collected an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1981 for her work on Raging Bull with Robert DeNiro, was secured by Davi as his female lead and the Andersons seemed eager to develop the project if the funding was there. Michael Anderson had directed Oscar-winning Best Picture Around The World In 80 Days in 1956 and the sci-fi classic Logan’s Run in 1976.
Things quickly began to fall apart though. Frankie Boy couldn’t come up with the investment capital he promised he had in the bag through the Teamsters. When his father questioned him about why he couldn’t get the movie made, Salemme, Jr. blamed it on Davi for not being able to get Danny Aiello on board even though it was Salemme, Jr. who had broached the subject and boasted of his alleged tie to Aiello in the first place.
Despite reports of a dustup between Davi and Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr., Davi says that kind of talk is more rooted in Hollywood mythology than actual fact.
“He (Salemme, Jr.) was fine at first, cordial enough guy… after a little while, there was something off, he was acting squirrelly, he wasn’t making a lot of sense,” he said. “We never had some big blowout. I never thought there was any bad blood. I just never saw the guy again.”
Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. was caught on Fat Ralphie’s wire threatening to physically harm Davi.
“I don’t want to get into a fucking pissing contest, whose the toughest guy on the block, that sort of thing …..But if he keeps on, we’ll have a problem……we’ll wait in the back alley there and I’ll fuck him up, you know, put him in the trash dumpster. I’d say, ‘Who the fuck you think you are? You 007?’”
According to his FBI file, Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. was a combustible individual, even for someone in his line of work. Reports of Salemme Jr. brawling, stealing, scamming, snorting and screwing his way through Boston like a deranged mafia-prince pirate on a rampage were frequent throughout the 1980s and first half of the 1990s. The FBI considered him a suspect in a number of gangland slayings during his dad’s topsy-turvy mob reign.
“Frankie Boy had all of his dad’s worst characteristics and none of his good ones,” remarked one former FBI agent who worked the Salemme crew. “People were drawn in by Cadillac Frank. He knew how to seduce people, tell people what they wanted to hear, make them feel like he was doing them a favor by letting him shake them down. He finessed his way through that whole era. His kid on the other hand was a junkie hot head who lived off drugs, hookers and steroids and bullied his way around town for years on his dad’s reputation. Cadillac Frank was a likeable sociopath, Frank Boy wasn’t, it’s pretty cut and dry like that.”
At a dinner in a chic Boston bistro to discuss the sale of the iconic Channel nightclub in South Boston, Frankie Boy grew so mad at the state of negotiations he jumped over the table and broke a plate over a potential buyer’s head, according to one FBI report from the early 1990s. The Salemmes staged a takeover and classic mob bustout of the legendary music venue using Frankie Boy’s friend, nightclub owner Stevie DiSarro, as a frontman. DiSarro soon wound up dead, killed by the Salemmes.
Davi obviously dodged a bullet when Frankie Boy couldn’t deliver the scratch for a budget. Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr., his dad and their mob pals went on to focus on a different victim in the movie biz – unfortunately for them an undercover FBI agent – and Davi went on to act in many more movies and television shows and even recorded a Top 10-charting album singing Frank Sinatra classics in 2011.
“I didn’t think anything of it for maybe two years, it was just one of those projects that didn’t work out and you move right past it,” Davi said. “But then out of nowhere, I’m on a movie set and I got served with a subpoena to appear in front of a federal grand jury investigating the Salemmes.”
The grand jury was being convened as a result of Operation Dramex, the FBI’s probe of Hollywood mob links sparked by Fat Ralphie Franchi’s cooperation deal. Franchi had introduced undercover FBI agent Garland Schwiekhardt, parading as an aspiring film producer named David Rudder, to the Salemmes and they shook him down for $65,000 to grease Teamsters union officials for a proposed movie shoot in Rhode Island with non-union labor funded by government money.
The movie, which was set to be a sequel to the 1979 Dracula comedy Love At First Bite, like The Shark a year earlier, never got off the ground. Operation Dramex finally landed in July 1992. A movie that did get off the ground was 2004’d The Last Shot, starring Alec Baldwin as an FBI agent and Tony Shalhoub as an New England mobster, and is loosely based on the Operation Dramex case.
Frankie Boy Salemme, Jr. died in 1995 at 38 years old awaiting trial in Operation Dramex, stricken with AIDS-related leukemia. Cadillac Frank Salemme was indicted that same year in a giant racketeering case and eventually entered the Witness Protection Program.
The 86-year old Salemme was pulled out of the Program four years ago living under an assumed identity in Atlanta and put on trial for the May 1993 murder of Stevie DiSarro. An elderly and slower-moving Cadillac Frank was convicted in the DiSarro slaying and is currently serving a life sentence in a prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri.
The Salemmes feared DiSarro was cooperating with the FBI and Frankie Boy strangled him to death inside the Salemme family home in Sharon, Massachusetts after Cadillac Frank called him to a meeting. DiSarro’s body was finally unearthed in March 2016 buried under a converted textile mill in Providence owned by a former Salemme-connected drug dealer and bookie.
Davi never knew what happened to the Salemmes until recently. The quality of the artwork that existed in their never-consummated film project was undeniable in his mind.
“It’s a shame it never made it to the screen, it was a great script,” he said.
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