My “connection” to the Irishman
by Jay Johnson
I have told this story many times over dinner conversation. My friends know it as my “Mafia Story”. I never thought I would write about it, but if Scorsese can make a movie about it… I figure I am safe to tell my tale because most of the principals of the story have died.
It is not the whole saga. Strange things associated with this event in my life continued to play out for months in ways I only realized later were connected. There are just too many twists and turns to cover it all in an average blog.
For the sake of a time line here are some events that seem unrelated but connect:
Jimmy Hoffa disappears on July 30, 1975
Jay Johnson moves to Los Angeles on September 1, 1975
Show for the Italian American Civil Rights League at the Ballroom of the Gus Giancona Motor Lodge in Wilkesbury, Pesnsylvania October 1977
Starring: Andy Griffith, Frankie Avalon, Glen Ashe and Jay Johnson
Jay Johnson’s first Soap episode as Chuck and Bob airs November 1977
Russell Bufalino goes to jail in 1978 for extortion – served three years
Russell Bufalino goes back to jail in 1984 for attempted murder of the guy he extorted.
Russell Bufalino dies in 1994 at the age of 90.
I moved to Los Angeles to be represented by personal manager Richard O’ Linke. He was a mover and shaker in television and represented, among others, Andy Griffith, Frankie Avalon, Ken Berry, Jim Nabors and Glen Ashe. I was his newest client in a decade. The way the office worked: if you wanted to have Andy Griffith on your talk show you had to have Jay Johnson as well. Andy was very gracious to me and seemed proud to introduce me as his “new discovery”. We became friends and I got to travel as his opening act for a time. Everything was new to me at this level of the show biz pecking order.
I remember when Mr. Linke (I never called him Dick or Richard always Mister Linke) called and said he had booked me on a show in October with Andy, Glen and Frankie. None of us were being paid, but all expenses would be taken care of and I would be well treated. It was In the Limo while we were driving to the airport that Dick Linke gave us the low down. It was an admonition not only to me but seemingly for Andy as well, we were both in the dark about this show. He said, “The show is an old standing obligation, mainly for Frankie, but we are all doing this show as a favor. It’s for the mob…. you know what I mean. This is the real thing so no jokes or smart ass remarks about what you see and hear. Keep your head down, your mouths shut and it will be great. As long as we are doing them a favor we are not in danger….. you just never want to be in a position where you owe them a favor.. Get it?”
The minute our plane landed I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. Several large necked men met us at the end of the jetway and insisted they take whatever luggage we carried on. A guy named Louie tried to take my case. This is where Bob’s head travels and I don’t let anyone ever carry that case. I said it was okay, I would take this one myself. Louie backed off and said, “So that’s the goods, huh.”
“Absolutely the goods.” I joked back. Louie did not think it was a joke, every time a new guy would try to “help” me with that case Louie would jump in and say, “No, NO. That’s the goods.” And everyone would stand down.
Frankie Avalon arranged his schedule to do this show every year, and had been doing so for a long time. Everyone we met greeted Frankie like a long lost brother. Our show was not until Friday night but we arrived on Wednesday because we would be guests at a dinner on Thursday night. All Andy and I knew was what they said, “Russell is Cooking”. Russell liked to cook and we were having a special recipe of roasted goat. Russell was Russell Bufalino top of this organization. Frankie said, “When Marlon Brando signed on to play The Godfather in the movie of the same name… he wanted to meet Russell Bufalino, because he was considered one of the bosses of bosses and the typical soft spoken Godfather.” Some of Brando’s mannerisms in the movie were some what like Russells.
At the Thursday dinner, a few women greeted us and brought out the wine and food. Then all of them disappeared. When we got to the business of eating it was only men. At the dinner Frankie sat between Andy and me and across the table from Russell. Occasionally Frankie would give us a brief history the players at the table in a soto voce way. Frankie whispered to me, “Did you notice Russell’s right hand?” I had not noticed until then, but he was smoking a cigar held between the third and fourth fingers of that right hand. Three quarters of his thumb and more than half of his right index finger was missing. Frankie said, “I’ll tell you later…”. Good to his word as we were driving back to the hotel Frankie began to tell Andy and me some incredible stories about the people we just met. One was the under boss, another guy was a body guard, another a driver, a soldier, an enforcer and Russell Bufalino was the top of the top. Andy said, “One of the guys gave me a bear hug and I think I felt a gun under his jacket.”
Frankie said, “He wasn’t the only one, probably everyone was carrying at this party.” Then he said, “Russell’s finger and thumb? Well during a power struggle in the mid 50’s someone held his hand to a wall and shot his fingers off with a shot gun.” Frankie said it as normally as one might say, Grandma has dentures. He tagged the statement with… those guys were not around long after that.
Eventually the dinner was over and Frankie had plans. Andy and me were driven to Russells house. When dinner is involved I tell this part of the story. For now all I will say, the back wall of Russells bedroom closet was a large bank vault door.
The show went very well. Everyone paid respect to Russell and looked to see if he was laughing before they enjoyed the joke. After the show most of the audience mobbed Frankie. Andy and I were a little like fish out of the water so, we decided to hit the hotel bar. We ordered drinks and began to compare notes about what we saw, almost giggling at stereo types from old gangster movies. The Andy said, (in the North Carolina accent that made him famous), “Did you see how everyone was coming up to Russell to say good bye? I mean everyone… and some even kissed his ring. It was like he was the Pope or something ‘ ” At that moment both of us had a moment of clarity. Andy said, “Did you say goodnight to Russell?” I admitted that I didn’t. Andy said, “Neither did I.”
We both knew that was a big mistake and we immediately paid the check and decided we should go back to the banquet room and make amends. As we got up from the table in walks Russell Bufalino with three big guys shadowing. He said, “What happened to you guys…. you didn’t say good bye. You don’t just entertain us and leave like that.” Andy quickly made a gracious apology for both of us and said we were just heading back to find him. Russell said, “Come with us…. we are going out for Pizza. It’s a little place Louie owns.” With that we were flanked and escorted with Russell out to a waiting Limo.
Waiting at the curb for the limo while Andy and I flanked Russell Bufalino there was a man who jumped out of a crowd of people and said, “Mr. Griffith, Mr. Bufalino, Mr Johnson…. a quick photo over here.” By the time we looked he had snapped the picture and literally disappeared into the crowd again. Frankie was standing on the other side of Andy. As we are climbing into the limo, Frankie said quietly…” did you smile, that was your FBI photo.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking so I said, “Not really.”
“Really..” he said, then continued, “Did that seem like a fan photo op to you? They didn’t call out my name. They have many pictures of me and Russell together. This is the first time you and Andy have been seen with him.” The more I thought about it…. SOAP had not aired yet… there really was no reason that this “fan” would know my name. And he took just one photo not several and he was in a hurry.
The pizza joint was a 20 minute drive from the hotel. Russell was a big fan of Andy Griffith and the conversation on the way was mainly about Andy Stories of Mayberry. We finally got to the Pizza place. It was very low key and not outstanding nor remarkable in any way. It was crammed full of people but, like the Red Sea, the mob parted and a table for Andy and me was suddenly available. Russell talked with us for a while, then he was called away. Andy and I didn’t say much..1) Because Dick Linke had told us to keep our mouths shut and 2) It was very loud and hard to converse. Russell returned after about an hour with a big guy in tow. He said, “I have to go to bed… besides it’s too noisy in here. You guys stay as long as you want to as my guest. I’m leaving the limo for you….”. He turns to the big guy and says, “Stay with them and when they are ready take them anywhere they want to go.” The big guy nodded.
Andy and I stayed for another half hour before deciding it was time for us to go back to the hotel. We were like two kids at our first prom as we settled into the back of the limo. The big guy lowers the privacy window and says, “Where to Gentlemen?” Again in that very recognizable accent Andy said… mostly as a routine for my benefit. “Well, Jay. Russell said to take us anywhere we want to go…Well….I know this little place in New York City, 5th and 55th… it’s open all night. How about there.”
I played along with the joke and said. “Sounds lovely.” The privacy window went back up the driver drove and Andy and I started to quietly relive our evening. At the time Andy was like a mentor to me and I was in heaven talking to a guy I had been watching on TV all my life. Time got away from both of us. We realized we had been driving for a very long time and it was farm land all around us, no sign of a city. We had been in the car much longer than it took to get to the pizza place from the hotel. I have seen enough mob movies to know something was not right. Andy finally lowered the privacy window to the driver and said, “Have we missed the hotel? Where are we going.?”
There was a pause before the big guy answered… then he said, “We’re heading to 5th and 55th, New York City.”
Andy, said… “Oh that was just a joke, we wanted to go back to the hotel” Without saying a word, the driver makes a difficult 3 point U turn in a limo on a two lane country road and we drive back to the hotel. The big guy took his orders very seriously and had Andy not spoken up we would have arrived in NYC later that day.
I never saw Russell Bufalino again, but occasionally I would get a “message” from him. People I didn’t know would come to me and simply say, “Russell says thanks again for the show.” I followed the news about Russell Bufalino through the years. Everyone who knew Russell said, when Jimmy Hoffa disappeared the FBI knocked on Russell’s door the next morning. Until I saw “The Irishman” last weekend, I never knew his story. I could not see Russell Bufalino in Pesci’s portrayal on screen. The man I met was much more low key, much more soft spoken, and with a little more of a middle age grandfather body type. In the movie I kept trying to see if Pesci had all his fingers but there was never a really good angle to see.
There is much more to this story, but the full version has been my meal ticket for a long time. I plan to stamp that ticket again.
As you were,
Jay Johnson is a ventriloquist and actor, best known for his role on the television show Soap. He played Chuck Campbell, a ventriloquist who believed his puppet Bob was real and demanded everyone treat Bob as human. He has also appeared extensively on television as a ventriloquist, actor and celebrity guest on game shows. He hosted two series of his own, So You Think You Got Troubles (1983) and Celebrity Charades (1979).
Jay Johnson: The Two & Only! written and performed by Jay Johnson, opened on Broadway to rave reviews at the Helen Hayes Theatre on September 28, 2006. The show earlier had an acclaimed off-Broadway runs in New York and was also performed in Cambridge, MA, and in Los Angeles. The Massachusetts performance garnered the New England Critics Award, and in Los Angeles Johnson received the 2006 Ovation Award for Best Solo Performance. Jay Johnson: The Two & Only! deconstructs and demonstrates Johnson’s lifelong obsession with the art of ventriloquism. The show is a Valentine, not only to the art, but also to his mentor and friend Arthur Sieving, who created Johnson’s first professional puppet. The show is aided and abetted by a cast of ventriloquated characters, including his Soap alter ego, Bob. Johnson won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event for the show. He is the only ventriloquist to ever be nominated and win an American Theatre Wing Tony Award or an Ovation Award. The show is available on DVD HERE. This article is from his blog The World is a Stage. He also has a lot of videos on You Tube.