In the latest of his revealing documentaries, Sir Trevor McDonald enters the secret world of mobsters. Susan Griffin finds out how he kept his cool
Sir Trevor McDonald’s latest documentary sees him rubbing shoulders with members of the mafia, but meeting mobsters was nothing compared to reading the news for the first time.
All these horrible memories
“I was wetting myself with anxiety over that one!” confesses the veteran news broadcaster, laughing.
McDonald, who was knighted in 1999 for services to journalism and received the Bafta Fellowship in 2011, has seen and heard a fair few things in his time, and it takes a lot to shock him.
But he admits he was left speechless when interviewing Michael Franzese, one of history’s most successful mafia men, for the new two-part series.
In the Seventies and Eighties, Franzese posed as a major Hollywood film producer so he could launder large amounts of stolen money, and at one point in the documentary, reveals he was making 10million US dollars a week.
“That did make my face tweak,” admits 75-year-old McDonald, who spent three months travelling across the United States as he sought access to the secretive world of the Cosa Nostra.
Franzese was finally indicted but struck a deal with the FBI and served seven years in prison. He’s now turned his back on the organisation, but his past haunts him.
“All these horrible memories,” explains McDonald, who’s fronted numerous documentaries, including a series on death row inmates, in which he spoke to some of America’s most notorious criminals. “One of his problems is that a lot of the people he ratted on don’t believe the money’s just disappeared.”
Another guy he meets is John Alite, known as ‘The Sheriff’, who grew up in Queens, New York. In the Eighties and Nineties, he worked for John Gotti Senior, the Godfather of the notorious Gambino crime family, and rose through the ranks by carrying out brutal orders.
“You thought you knew what stories about the mafia would be like, but confronted by the reality of what these people were telling you, it was much more extraordinary than you could’ve dreamed of,” adds McDonald, who retired from presenting the ITV news in 2008.
“Journalistically [you think], ‘Wow, thanks for telling me this’, but it’s absolutely shocking, the number of people they’ve killed.”
McDonald witnessed the “clear and present danger” when driving around New York’s Little Italy with Michael Di Leonardo, nicknamed Mikey Scars. A former high-ranking member of the Gambino family, who testified against the men he worked with to save himself from a life behind bars, he now lives in permanent fear of a revenge attack - and that fear is evident when he spots two mafia members at a roadside bar.
“It was the only moment where I thought I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time,” admits McDonald. “I was scared by the fact that he was scared. He’s a hard man, and if he’s worried, then I suspect you should be too.”
McDonald credits the series producer and his team for achieving unprecedented access.
“If I may make one boast about myself, I spend an enormous amount of time thinking how to structure these interviews to get people to just talk.
“One of the keys is a non-judgemental approach. The people in prison and the mafia, they have done what they have done and probably been convicted and paid a price for it. It’s not for me to inflict my own judgements. . You just want them to tell you about their lives, so you don’t have to shout at them. That might be counter-productive. Or they might punch you.”
He’s particularly proud of his final encounter with Mikey Scars, at the grave of his brother who was killed by the mafia in 1981.
“We walked out of the car, did it and walked back to the car. It’s untouched, there were no re-asks, or questions edited in and I wouldn’t change a comma. But I must tell you, it had as much to do with him as it had to do with me. He was magnificent.”
The Mafia With Trevor McDonald is a two-part documentary starting on ITV on Monday, March 23