Remembering Al Capone’s Hollywood Heavy

Author and film historian Neal Gabler has a rip-roaring piece in the July issue of Playboy about Willie Bioff, a Russian Jewish immigrant who wreaked havoc in 1930s era Hollywood. The article is chock-full of great anecdotes, beginning with the very cinematic way Bioff bid adieu to the world (his car was blown sky high in Phoenix).

The crux of Bioff’s rise to power was leveraging control of the country’s film projectionists through IATSE. After a corrupt pal was installed as union president in 1935, all bets were on. Consider for example a meeting held a year later in New York between Bioff and Loew’s chain chief Nicholas Schenck:

Bioff issued his demand: He wanted $2 million or he would pull the projectionists from every movie theater in the United States. “I want you to know I elected [George E.] Browne president, and I am his boss…”

Schenck remonstrated that even with the lax accounting practices of Hollywood, he would have a hard time raising $2 million in a single stash. So Bioff halved his demand and agreed to take the money in increments of $50,000 and $100,000. Thus did Bioff and, through him the remnants of the Capone gang, turn Hollywood into their personal bank.

Bioff eventually got too big for his britches, propping his feet up on the desks of Hollywood moguls and making unwelcome casting suggestions. As Gabler expertly details, the little runt finally made a couple of big mistakes that led to his downfall.

[Illustration by Roberto Parada]