Before You See Tom Hardy as CAPONE, Take a Look at These Other Al Capones From Hollywood History
The star-studded biopic CAPONE is due to be released via digital platforms on May 12th. Tom Hardy plays Al Capone in his later years in the movie and he looks fantastic. Linda Cardellini, Kyle MacLachlan, and Matt Dillon co-star. Al Capone is America’s best-known gangster and the single greatest symbol of the collapse of law and order in the United States during the 1920s Prohibition era. Capone had a leading role in the illegal activities that lent Chicago its reputation as a lawless city and an interesting variety of Hollywood stars have had the leading role as Al Capone in the many films that have been made that featured him as a character.
The first film about Capone was produced when he was still making headlines. The main character may be named Antonio Camonte, but there’s little doubt as to who producer Howard Hughes had in mind when he and director Howard Hawks filmed SCARFACE during the Great Depression. Camonte shares more than the same initials with one Al Capone, who was about to begin his eleven-year sentence for tax evasion when the movie was released in 1932. Legend has it that a pair of Capone’s enforcers paid an unannounced visit to screenwriter Ben Hecht’s Los Angeles Hotel room, demanding to know if the movie was indeed about their boss. When told that it was not, the pair was curious as to why the picture was titled SCARFACE while Capone had a famous facial scar, a souvenir from his days as a bouncer at a Coney Island speakeasy when he was 18. “If we call the movie SCARFACE, people will think it’s about Capone and come to see it” Hecht explained, “It’s part of the racket we call show business”. The two thugs were persuaded and left. Camonte is played by Paul Muni, in an over-the-top performance displaying ape-like maniacal behavior and prominent use of the Thompson submachine gun. George Raft and Boris Karloff appear in memorable supporting roles. Many similarities exist between the film’s characters and actual organized crime figures of the time. In addition to Tony Camonte being Al Capone, Johnny Lovo (played by Osgood Perkins, father of Tony) resembles crime figure Johnny Torrio, the Chicago-based mobster who helped build the criminal empire known as the Chicago Outfit before Capone took it over. The St. Valentine’s Day massacre, the hospital murder from the life of Legs Diamond, and the 1920 killing of Capone’s Irish, North Side enemy Deanie O’Bannion in a flower shop are also recreated in the film. At the end of SCARFACE, Camonte is slaughtered at the hands of the police force. The 1983 cocaine-era update of SCARFACE was more removed from Capone’s story. It followed the original’s plot closely but Al Pacino’s Tony Montana was Cuban and the action took place in Miami.
Actor Neville Brand was the 4th most decorated GI in WWII. He was a natural heavy with his gravelly voice and brutish facial features and was cast as Al Capone, a recurring character on The Untouchables TV series which ran on ABC from 1959 to 1963. The show was a spin-off of a 1959 TV movie THE SCARFACE MOB with Brand as Capone and Robert Stack as Elliott Ness. Brand had a lot of fun with the role of Capone, laughing and then turning furious and surly in a split second, as his cronies fearfully tried to keep up with his mood swings. Capone is killed at the end of THE SCARFACE MOB but came back for the subsequent show several times as did other real-life gangsters including Frank Nitti (played by Bruce Gordon) whose character was killed off no less than four times during the show’s run. The Untouchables became so popular that THE SCARFACE MOB was released in movie theaters in 1962 to cash in. A second season two-part Capone-centered episode The Big Train was edited together and released to theaters as THE ALCATRAZ EXPRESS in 1961. The plot follows Capone (Neville Brand) having been convicted and sentenced on the income tax charges. On his train ride to Alcatraz, transferring from the Federal pen near Atlanta where he began his sentence, members of his gang attempt to spring him loose. Notwithstanding the fact that Capone and Ness never really met, The Untouchables, with its memorable narration by Walter Winchell, was groundbreaking, power-packed TV crime drama that holds up well today
The most comprehensive and authentic film portrait of the notorious mob boss was the 1959 film AL CAPONE. The script by Malvin Wald and Henry F. Greenberg sticks mostly to the real story and the film crackles with hard-boiled dialogue as it charts Capone’s rise from New York City crime soldier to unchallenged head of the Chicago underworld. Method actor Rod Steiger, who bore a strong physical resemblance to the gangster, starred as Capone and gives the lively, larger-than-life performance that the subject deserves. Martin Balsam’s character in AL CAPONE, Mac Keeley, was based on real-life Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle who wrote mob-related stories for the paper. Lingle had close ties to Capone as well as the notoriously corrupt Chicago Police Department and was paid by both mobsters and a police commissioner as a middle man. Lingle was murdered in 1930 after “getting too big for his hat”, as Capone put it, and demanding too much for his services. Actor Nehemiah Persoff who portrays Capone’s boss, Johnny Torrio, had a recurring role in the TV series The Untouchables playing, among other roles, Capone’s bookkeeper, Jake “Greasy Thumbs” Guzik. AL CAPONE was nicely shot in noirish black and white by Lucien Ballard with a fine sense of period detail, and directed by longtime Orson Welles associate Richard Wilson. The final scene accurately depicts Capone’s assault by a fellow inmate while at Alcatraz.
Director Roger Corman was criticized for casting a gaunt Jason Robards as Al Capone in THE ST. VALENTINES DAY MASSACRE, the 1967 film that centers on the rivalry between Capone and Bugs Moran. Corman originally planned on casting Orson Welles as Capone and Robards as Moran, but he was directing the film for Twentieth Century Fox (one of the few times he would direct for a major studio), and did not have the control over the film that he was used to. Fox vetoed Welles so Robards became Capone and Ralph Meeker was brought on to play Moran. Robards looked nothing like the real Capone but gives the gangster a menacing, mercurial persona. THE ST. VALENTINES DAY MASSACRE was an intelligent gangster film presented mostly with documentary precision and factual accuracy, focusing on the Sicilian nature of the Mafia and its relations with non-Sicilians like Capone. While we will never know what the film could have been with the added talents of Orson Welles on board, it is nevertheless an outstanding example of Corman’s versatility as a director.
Ben Gazzara entered the gangster cinematic sweepstakes in 1975, ably playing Al Capone in the Roger Corman production CAPONE directed by Steve Carver. Clearly intended as exploitation – with liberal doses of nudity and foul language to embellish the blood-soaked exploits, the Fox film was one of many gangster sagas produced in the wake of THE GODFATHER. Gazzara’s interpretation of the gangster borders on parody at times and the film gives little insight into Capone’s early years. While it sometimes has characters describing him as an animal, it also depicts him as the sympathetic lover of a hard-living (but totally fictional) flapper played by Susan Blakely. Don’t look to CAPONE for the historical accuracy though – for example, Frank Nitti (played by a pre-ROCKY Sylvester Stallone) is seen giving the eulogy at his boss’s funeral despite having died four years earlier. John Cassavettes has a small role as Capone’s New York-era boss Frankie Yale and Harry Guardino costars as Johnny Torrio.
Actor Bob Hoskins, a dead ringer for Al Capone, was paid $200,000 to play the mobster in Brian DePalma’s 1987 big-budget updating of THE UNTOUCHABLES. Unfortunately for Hoskins, the studio’s first choice for the part was Robert DeNiro, who had passed on the role earlier but was persuaded to star after Hoskins had been signed. Hoskins took his $200k “Play or Pay”money and went home while DeNiro gained a few pounds (and padded himself with pillows) to play Capone. DeNiro, always the method man, insisted on wearing the same style of silk underwear that Capone wore, even though it would never be seen on camera. Set in 1930, the film, from a screenplay by David Mamet, is centered on Elliott Ness (played by Kevin Costner) and his Untouchables, who work tirelessly to bring down the ruthless Capone and his criminal empire. DeNiro’s Capone is a larger-than-life, cartoonish interpretation – with his chest puffed out in front of him, he creates a satire on the idea of Capone as villain – so black-hearted that it’s impossible to root for him. It’s an over-the-top portrayal that’s perfect in the context of the film. The memorable scene in THE UNTOUCHABLES where Capone takes a baseball bat to the skull of one of his crew is based on a true incident from 1929. Two of Capone’s most feared hitmen, Albert Anselmi and John Scalise, had hatched a plot to kill Capone and take over the outfit. Capone got wind of this plan and invited all his associates to a dinner party. In the middle of the soup, Capone pulled out a bat and clubbed Anselmi and Scalise to death, then shot them both in the head. DePalma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES is a great adventure movie, with at least a half-dozen tremendous action scenes and a script that delivers one quotable line after another. “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.”
There have been many other portrayals of Capon in the movies and on television. The 1995 film DILLINGER AND CAPONE theorized that John Dillinger (played by Martin Sheen) was not killed outside the Biograph in 1934 but lived to team up with Capone (F Murray Abraham) for a bank heist. Abraham played Capone again the next year in BABY FACE NELSON opposite C. Thomas Howell as the titular gangster. Ray Sharkey was Capone in 1989’s THE REVENGE OF AL CAPONE and Eric Roberts took the role in 1990’s THE LOST CAPONE. When The Untouchables was revived for television in 1993, William Forsyth was well-cast as Capone and most recently Jon Bernthal, star of the popular Walking Dead TV show played Capone in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN. Currently, British actor Stephen Graham, who portrayed Baby Face Nelson in PUBLIC ENEMIES, played Capone on the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Capone’s fame is lodged permanently in the consciousness of Americans and there will no doubt be many future films about the man who held the imagination of the public as few figures ever do. In his forty-eight years, Capone left his mark on the rackets, on Chicago, and on Hollywood.