After the end of the FBI undercover operation in the mob in 1981, agent Joseph Pistone changed his life to another form of undercover – life in a shadow. Within the next six years, he participated in multiple legal prosecutions against the American Mafia (Cosa Nostra) not only in New York but all over the United States. Joe Pistone had started to take notes on his own both to refresh memory and to fulfill his great amount of time, being a witness. Former FBI agent Joe Pistone emphasizes that during his work he had to remember and keep in mind the maximum of events and details, as it was too dangerous to make notes at that time. It was the first step of the future book. The writings were to be edited by Richard Woodley. The main part of the Donnie Brasco: My undercover life in Mafia” book was finished in 1986. Joe Pistone reflected his memory on a paper. The book starts with an epilogue, written in 1988 – it was the year the memoir was published. Within the next thirty years, memorable Joseph Pistone Donnie Brasco’s book has overleaped dozens of editions. Starting from 1997 and Donnie Brasco movie, most of the editions’ covers are illustrated with images from the film.

Donnie Brasco: My undercover life in the Mafia book Joe Pistone
Joe Pistone book

The Whirlwind

Former FBI undercover agent Joseph Pistone starts his real Donnie Brasco true story from the end – with the events, which followed after the end of the FBI operation. Joe Pistone describes details of how he and his family went under the full protection of the bureau with the Witness Protection Program. Stories about the period between coming out of the mafia and prosecutions all over the country as a witness. Famous 500 000 rewards for the head of Donnie Brasco – a contract made by mafia bosses in 1981 to eliminate the traitor. Pistone states the incidents when some strangers made visual threatens to him during the criminal cases in courts and how people he knew from the mob, reacted him, now an FBI agent.

The beginning

This chapter of the JOE PISTONE book describes the life of Joe Pistone before it was closely connected with American mafia and among the criminals. Former FBI agent shares his feelings on the first steps within law enforcement of the USA already in college. As FBI agent Joseph Pistone managed his own net of informants on the street. The first real case was the penetration to crime organization, which succeeded in car theft within the South-East of the US. They took different vehicles from Cadillac’s to dumping trucks and gas trucks. Agent Joseph Pistone spent a five-month undercover inside this organization and finally participated in big court trials, which resulted in an elimination of the crime empire with millions of dollars profit. It was the case that had made Joe Pistone’s reputation within the FBI.

Preparations & Hitting the street

The author Joe Pistone reveals why he has managed to use a nickname (pseudonym) Donnie Brasco, which he took for his first mission, from the deep memories of old movies or TV-series. That it was a whole new practice for the FBI in the 1970s to maintain long-term undercover operations with the agents inside organized crime structures. At that time a period of only six months was determined for Donnie Brasco operation. Joseph Pistone describes, why the FBI decided to protect the image with jewelry cover story – he then has studied for months of this kind of work on behalf of the famous jewelry company.  Donnie Brasco’s operation was initially so sophisticated that only a few FBI inmates were aware. The fourth chapter of the book reveals a long and thorough process of hitting the street and adaptation. Real Donnie Brasco, Joe Pistone was extremely careful not to attract unnecessary attention to himself from the mob. The agent had to maintain the balance between the necessity to become more and more acknowledgeable on the street and avoiding suspicious from the wiseguys.

Brooklyn: The Colombos

An important period of undercover work for Joe Pisone before getting acquainted with the Lefty (Benjamin Ruggiero), that has not been reflected in the Donnie Brasco movie. By means of indirect connections, Joseph Pistone was introduced to a man, called Jilly. He was a connected guy, who had some deals with the Colombo family in New York but was not himself a made guy. Jilly operated his own gang robbing stores, auto trucks, warehouses, and private accommodations. Next, Joe Pistone continues his book with the overall structure of American Mafia. Each mob family has its chief – boss, who operates the whole business with the help of captains or capos. Their power is divided by means of city districts. Capos have to give a part of the earnings up to the boss, which they manage to have on their own territory. Captains, therefore, manage multiple mafia soldiers (made-guys or wiseguys), who are the basis of making money. Soldiers have to give up to half of the profit to their capo.

The Bonannos

The sixth chapter of the Donnie Brasco book gets acquainted with the Lefty (Benjamin ‘two guns’ Ruggiero), who operates a small restaurant in Little Italy. The book does not give us a kind of spontaneous getting to know each other between real Donnie Brasco, Joe Pistone, and Lefty, as it has been described in the 1997 movie. Benjamin Ruggiero initially did not have a major part in the book. In 1977 Joseph Pistone kept doing business with Jilly gang and started his run a scam with Bonanno family from Little Italy. As Donnie Brasco was just a connected guy, he could do business with guys from different families. Within the period Donnie Brasco becomes acknowledgeable as “Don the jeweler”.

Tony Mirra

Joseph Pistone describes the five New York families: Gambino, Lucchese, Genovese, Colombo, and Bonanno. Tony Mirra was a made-guy within the Bonanno family and was known for his bad temper even among mobs. At the same time, Joe Pistone got closer connections with the Lefty (Benjamin Ruggiero) with some involvement in a business. After all, Joe Pistone and FBI supervisors decided to continue closing with Lefty with more mafia connections. Benjamin Ruggiero gave more trust to Donnie Brasco and said that he is now under his control and responsibility. Author debates on the qualities that every undercover agent must have to perform this kind of work without revealing the truth. Joe Pistone ignored smoking and drugs as pleasures with women – he was always faithful to his wife.


This chapter of Joe Pistone book reveals the detailed nature of the relations between real Donnie Brasco (Joe Pistone) and Benjamin Lefty Guns Ruggiero. At the time of their first acquaintance in 1977, Lefty was just recently officially appointed as a made-guy within the Bonanno family. Despite long-term service and authority, Lefty had problems with gambling and debts which had postponed his official acceptance to the Bonanno family as a wiseguy. The curious thing is that for a long period of time Donnie Brasco and Lefty did not say their second names to each other – getting out such information is taboo inside the mafia. Joseph Pistone describes an apartment where Benjamin Lefty Guns Ruggiero lived for years. His drug-addicted son, two daughters (ignored in Donnie Brasco movie). After only a few months after doing mutual business, Joe Pistone was the best man at a Lefty’s wedding. The book also describes Lefty’s restaurant in Little Italy – how it was operated and who attended it. The author also thoroughly explains the meaning of such formulations as Forget about it, A friend of mine, A friend of ours – of vital importance for the mob.


Milwaukee / The accident / Frank Balistrieri

Within these three chapters, Donnie Brasco’s true story steps aside from the events, depicted in the 1997 movie. As fast as Lefty gives more trust to Donnie, he is getting out information on his former business before coming to New York. The FBI decided not to lose the opportunity and the bureau involved another agent with a Tony Conte pseudonym, who operates in Milwaukee. The city belongs to the dominance of Chicago mafia families and the FBI decided to try to connect two separate groups of the mob. Benjamin Lefty Guns Ruggiero had to obtain permission not only from his capo but even from the Bonanno family boss. Ultimately, the case with car business failed and Lefty describes this attempt as a shameful incident. At the same time, Joe Pistone’s wife got into a serious car accident, while getting to the airport to meet her husband. For some period of time, she lost her sense of sight and had to breathe by means of special medical equipment.

Sonny Black / King’s Court / Coldwater

This chapter of the Donnie Brasco book starts with the assassination of Carmine Galante – Bonanno family boss. In the true story, Sonny Black had no relevance to this important event. He was not a member of the same group Lefty was, as it was depicted in the Donnie Brasco movie. Sonny Black used to operate in Brooklyn – not in Little Italy. Sonny was appointed as a captain instead of Mike Sabella, former Lefty’s capo. At the same time, Donnie Brasco and Lefty moved to Florida to initiate a kind of business with a local guy, who operates the restaurant. This person is also an undercover FBI agent. The aim of the whole operation to connect New York mobs with Santo Trafficante – local boss for 25 years. In Joe Pistone’s book book Benjamin Lefty Guns Ruggiero did not hide this business from Sonny Black to operate on its own – he obtains agreement. Donnie Brasco was in fact introduced to Santo Trafficante as “A friend of ours’’ but there was no conflict between Donnie (Joe Pistone) and Lefty, no envelope and different parts of a boat – no betrayal.

Drugs and Guns

Sonny Black and Donnie Brasco came closer. They used to spend time together, even lifting weights at Sonny’s apartment and did arm-wrestling with Donnie forever winner. While Lefty stepped aside, Sonny Black gave more and more important instructions to Donnie Brasco, despite his new subordinate was just a connected guy. Sonny Black (Michael Madsen in Donnie Brasco movie) forced drugs income – from weed to heroin. His soldiers delivered samples all over the country by aircraft and Joe Pistone had to be involved. It was Sonny Black who told Donnie Brasco that he is ready to ask for him to be a made guy during the next mafia sittings.

The Raid

The chapter describes two important events, also depicted in Donnie Brasco movie. The raid itself – it was the end of the King’s Court restaurant in Florida, managed by the police. Police crushed the bar and took only 20 000 dollars – common evening earnings and property of those who were there at the time. In fact, this raid had no connections with Santo Trafficante and Sonny Red. Lefty was not at the site. There was no money bag, hidden by Joe Pistone, shown in a movie. The second important event connected with the boat called Left Hand. Lefty shows newspaper to a Donnie Brasco and emphasizes that it was FBI property. But there was no drama, no gun and big conflict between Donnie and Lefty.

Sittings / Hits

Anthony Mirra, former Donnie Brasco’s mentor accuses him of the concealment of assets. It is the second biggest sin in Mafia after being a rat or informant. A special commission on this occasion involved representatives of all five New York families. Joe Pistone does not have access to the information from the inside of the situation, but only some foggy hints from Lefty. Sonny Black was also deeply involved in sittings. At that time, he became the major and most powerful captain within the Bonanno family and he even made Benjamin Lefty Guns Ruggiero a captain. The conflict inside the family between different groups resulted in the assassination of Sonny Red. In fact, Joe Pistone has never assisted this murder and has not sliced men into pieces. The contract was performed by Lefty and another three guys.

The Contract

Sonny Red was not cut into pieces in his own basement. Bonanno captain was shot with a firearm and buried in hastily dug pitch in New York’s park. Sonny’s Red body was found by children, who had noticed leather boots, sticking out the ground. But his inmates were killed and their bodies disappeared within plastic bags. Joseph Pistone evaluates both the advantages and negatives of the possibility to become a made guy. Who could it influence the case? Instead, the situation worried the FBI supervisors and they decided to finish Donnie Brasco’s operation and get Joe Pistone out the mob. Thus, in 1981 he initiated his last finishing phase of work as an agent within the Bonanno family, which had to be ended in only six weeks. Agent Joe Pistone had an order to collect as much information he could, without revealing his true personality and dangerous suspicious upon his curiosity. At that time Sonny Black frankly tells Donnie that he was the only person he could trust.

Coming out

The real Donnie Brasco story did not have a dramatic scene of getting out during the contract with Lefty, as it was depicted in the Donnie Brasco movie. Agent Joseph Pistone remained undercover until his last day as Donnie Brasco. On the appointed day he has just disappeared and ended all contacts with the mob guys. Soon after, another FBI agent came to Sonny Black to tell the real Donnie Brasco story and reveal some general details of the operation inside the Mafia. For another ten days, Sonny did not accept the news, but then he realized the scale of the catastrophe and revealed the situation to his boss – Paul Castellano and also to Santo Trafficante. A week after, Sonny Black was called to the settings and did not come back. His decomposed body with hands cut was found inside the plastic bag a year after. Tony Mirra, who was a person who had introduced Donnie Brasco to the mafia, was also whacked with multiple gunshots. The FBI arrested Benjamin Lefty Guns Ruggiero and in this way, save him from being killed.


Within the last epilogue chapter, former FBI agent Joe Pistone sums up six years spent inside the mob and makes moral conclusions. At the end of his book, Pistone gives a number of names. Connected guys, wiseguys and bosses, who were mentioned within the text and their further destiny. Some were whacked by own inmates – others were sentenced to prison. Joe Pistone again reveals details on his testimonies in courts, travels all over the country and changing names. In 1988 author added an update for his epilogue. By that time the former agent had visited some TV programs to do interviews. Donnie Brasco book is finished with almost rhetorical thoughts about a possible meeting between Joseph Pistone and Benjamin Lefty Guns Ruggiero.

Donnie Brasco fact vs fiction
joe pistone movie



Soon after the first Joe Pistone’s book edition in 1988, rights for screen adaptation were bought by Barry Levinson’s producer company. At that time Al Pacino was the only candidate for Lefty role and Tom Cruise considered to act as Joe Pistone and Donnie Brasco. The stunning success of ”Goodfellas” by Martin Scorsese in 1990 raises an issue on the future of another crime drama about a mafia. Donnie Brasco movie project was reanimated in 1996 with the change of director and actor for a leading role – Johnny Depp.

‘Donnie Brasco’ movie gives us an amazing atmosphere of the 1970s which has become remarkable in a long perspective. Criminal New York, controlled by mafia families, sunny Florida as a place where wiseguys from NY manage their business. Automobiles, fashion, and hairstyle, the performance of leading and secondary characters, requisite. Contrast color balance between warm Florida and cold New York. ‘Donnie Brasco’ movie creatively absorbed the inspiration from “Godfather”, “Goodfellas” and “Scarface”, but still is not so famous.

Fiction movies, even on the basis of real events, should not pretend to be a documentary, but Donnie Brasco movie is quite close to the true story behind the scenes. Apart from all obvious facts from the real Donnie Brasco story, it is a pleasure to see details. For example, scenes, where Lefty (Al Pacino) tells Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) usually untold truth on how wiseguys should act themselves: ignore bar checks, introduce each other, sayforget about it, twist money packs. In one scene Al Pacino checks Donnie’s car for wires almost destroying the front panel. In his book, Joe Pistone emphasizes such accidents when some mob guys checked his vehicle. Or a comedian fear of Lefty to freeze even in Florida – guys spoiled conditioner to have fun. Although Johnny Depp was not so similar to real Donnie Brasco, he acted perfectly, as well as Al Pacino (Benjamin Lefty Guns Ruggiero) and Michael Madsen (Sonny Black).

Donnie Brasco movie 1997 Johnny Depp and Al Pacino

Donnie Brasco movie vs real life and Joe Pistone book