Kill the Irishman – Local filmmaker brings the legend of Danny Greene back to life
The mafia wanted Danny Greene dead and they weren’t taking any chances.
He’d already been stabbed, shot at by a sniper, and run down by a drive-by shooter. He’d escaped several attempted car bombings, including one where he dismantled the explosive himself and then turned in the bomb’s caps over to a police acquaintance. When the policeman asked where the explosives were, Greene responded, “Those are going back to the son of a bitch who sent them to me.”
By some accounts, eight of the hit men who’d been sent to kill him died by the hand of Danny Greene.
By May of 1975, the mob had had enough. The Italian-run mafia decided to finish off this upstart thug who’d started as a longshoreman on the docks of Lake Erie and who now defiantly called himself “The Irishman” as he challenged La Cosa Nostra itself. They blew up his house.
The explosion rocked Cleveland. Former Cleveland Police Chief Ed Kovacic recalled hearing the rumble as he sat at breakfast. He immediately knew what had happened. “Danny Greene was just killed,” the chief told his wife, according to writer Rick Porrello’s subsequent account.
Miraculously, Greene and his girlfriend picked their way through the rubble and emerged from the wreckage of his home largely unscathed. He later told Kovacic that he’d grabbed his girl, run to a refrigerator, and rode it down through the explosion “like an elevator” as the two-story house collapsed.
When a television news crew showed up, Greene went on camera. The reporter asked him how he kept surviving attempts on his life. Greene smiled.
“You want to hear the Irish version?” he said. “The guy upstairs pulls the string, you’re gone. There is no other way.”
After the rubble had been cleared out, Greene installed two trailers – living quarters and an office – where his house used to stand. He then erected a flag pole and flew the Republic of Ireland tricolor flag. A sign announced that the site was the “future home of the Celtic Club.” He took to sitting on the sidewalk out front in lawn chairs with his friends, often bare-chested and wearing a gold Celtic cross.
Later, after a friend and close associate had just died in a car bombing, the television news cameras showed up again. Greene was asked if he was still a mafia target.
“I have no axe to grind, but if these maggots in this so-called Mafia want to come after me, I’m over here by the Celtic Club,” he said. “I’m not hard to find.”
Long live the Irishman
They would find him. But not until Greene and his “Celtic Club” had waged a fierce counter-offensive in an intense two-year war with the mafia. In 1976 alone, 36 bombs exploded as Cleveland became known as “Bomb City, U.S.A.”
Danny Greene was killed by a massive car bomb on May 6, 1977, as he left an appointment with a dentist. His death led to several arrests that eventually managed to achieve his life’s work – taking down the Italian mafia in Cleveland – in what many law enforcement observers believe was the beginning of the end of the mob in America.
But a strange thing happened as time wore on: the legend of the Irishman became more urban myth than actual history. The exploits of Danny Greene lived on through tales people told, but outside Cleveland, the man himself faded into obscurity.
Manhattan Beach resident Tommy Reid was in college at Ohio State when he first heard about the Irishman. Reid grew up in New Jersey, a big fan of such mafia movies as the Godfather and Goodfellas, and he aspired to be a filmmaker himself. He was three-quarters Irish and a quarter Italian, and he always dreamed of finding a tale to tell that would relate to both sides of his ancestry.
Reid didn’t really believe what his roommates in Ohio were telling him about Greene. It seemed that if such a man had existed he’d already be a household name.
“I grew up with Gotti and Sammy the Bull in the news all the time,” he said. “Then to have these roommates from Northern Ohio, from Cleveland, talk about this guy Danny Greene – I’d never have believed it. I’d never heard of him, never thought there was mafia in Cleveland. To me, New York, Chicago, and Boston – those were the three Meccas of mafia crime.”
There wasn’t much documentation outside old news clippings. But Reid couldn’t forget the story. He studied at the New York Film Academy and then took a job with a talent/literary agency in Los Angeles. In 1997, he heard that a policeman in Ohio named Rick Porrello was about to publish a book about Greene called To Kill the Irishman. He flew back to Ohio and met Porrello – whose grandfather had been a leading Cleveland Mafioso in prohibition days – and the two immediately hit it off.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1998, they signed a deal for the film rights to Porrello’s book. Reid felt sure he’d struck gold.
“I wanted to be a part of this,” he said. “I wanted to bring this story to the screen. There is only one story like this. Everyone is trying to find original material. I knew this was the one. I never wanted to settle for a TV movie of the week. I dreamt of this as a big movie.”
Reid could not have fathomed the journey he was about to undertake. Hollywood is a town of false handshakes. Over and over again, he left meetings after shaking on a deal to have his movie made, only to slowly see the money men fade away. On more than one occasion, he made even more shocking discoveries – the script he’d commissioned, word-for-word, except attached to a cover that listed a different screenwriter and producer.
“That was Wake Up 101 – alright, this is Hollywood,” Reid said. “I know who they are – the guys that don’t look you in the eyes.”
His father, Tom Reid Jr., had a saying he had told Tommy throughout his life: “Show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
“That is very much the same in Hollywood,” Reid said. “Which is why I live down here [in Manhattan Beach], and my friends and family are in the South Bay – we like to keep it more real.”
The years began to pass by, and Reid despaired of every getting his movie made. Renewing the option became increasingly costly. He worked at a series of jobs – as a production assistant on a few independent movies, and development executive for a production company – but his passion remained getting the Irishman made.
“I spent over six figures of my own personal and family money,” Reid recalled. “It gets to the point when enough is enough. When can you walk away? This is a true testament to my father being Irish. He is not a quitter. He said, “You’ve invested this much, this long, you’ve got to ride it out, stick it out.’ And my Dad always said, have the three P’s’: persistence, patience, and most of all, you’ve got to have a full tank of passion.”
His family – which also includes the actress Tara Reid – is an intensely proud Irish family. The Reids were collectively not about to let this dream die.
“Let me tell you, I bleed green, and it’s a passion for country and family – that is what it’s always been about, and so I believe if you can’t help your family, who are you going to help?” Tom Reid Jr. said.
The senior Reid likes to tell the tale of his grandfather, John Reid, an Irishman who lived in England and found himself fighting for the British Army in the Boer War in 1899. On St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish soldiers among the troops wore green shamrock armbands to commemorate the holiday. An officer instructed the soldiers to remove this “wearing of the green” from their uniforms, but Reid’s grandfather refused.
“He was the littlest guy, and the sergeant of arms, or one of his flunkies, came down and said, ‘Take off those armbands,’ Tom Reid Jr. said. “And he said, ‘If you want this armband, come over and take it off.’ That is the wearing of the green.”
John Reid later came to the United States aboard a whaler. And though uneducated, he purchased and read the complete Harvard Classics library, which he bequeathed to Tom Reid Sr. (Tommy’s grandfather) on one condition.
“He told my father, ‘One thing I ask of you is provide an education for your children,’” Tom Reid Jr. said. “‘After that, don’t worry about anything.’” That has been our pride. I am a common man, from a blue collar background, and I take great pride in the common man to this day.”
Which helps explain why the man called “the Robin Hood of Collinwood” would resonate with both Reid and his son.
Robin Hood of Collinwood
Ed Kovavic would always remember the first time he met Danny Greene.
Kovavic was a young policeman investigating trouble on the waterfront in the form of unruly longshoremen and a pandemic of violence that nobody seemed willing to prosecute. As he later told Tommy Reid, he and his partner paid a visit to the longshoremen’s union headquarters.
“Many years have passed. My impressions are still the same,” Kovacic said. “I walked into an ocean, I walked into a sea of green. Everything was green – the walls were green, the desks were green, he was dressed in green. He had this blondish red hair – of course, it was Danny Greene. He at that time was the head of the longshoremen’s union. And he asked why we were there, and we told him what was going on. We asked for his help stopping it… Whew! He started telling us about the Italians. He used every ethnic slur I could ever imagine, and I think he made some up, in describing these Italians from Collinwood.”
Greene had grown up in the working class waterfront neighborhood of Collinwood in Cleveland. His mother died only days after he was born, and he spent six years in an orphanage until his father remarried. Danny and his new stepmother did not get along, however, and he left to live with his grandfather at age of seven. He thereafter largely raised himself in the streets. Collinwood was controlled by the Mafia, and throughout his childhood Greene fought with roving gangs of young Italian kids.
He dropped out of high school to join the Marines, returned to Cleveland in 1954 to work on the railroads and soon entrenched himself on the waterfront as a longshoreman. He quickly rose to power in the longshoremen’s union and for a brief time obtained what by appearances, at least, was middle class success, as he and his young wife and two children moved into an upscale Cleveland suburb populated by bankers, businessmen and the city’s political elite.
Green was forced to resign from the union in 1964 after the Cleveland Plain Dealer uncovered an embezzling scheme that authorities subsequently prosecuted. He mysteriously avoided jail time and his fines were reduced from $10,000 to $2,000; the F.B.I. years later would acknowledge that he had agreed to become an informant.
Greene went to work for the mob. He is believed to have worked as hired muscle for the famed Jewish racketeer Shondor Birns, and he went into the waste hauling business – the mob’s newly discovered profit center – with another former longshoreman, Frank Brancato, a man who also happened to be closely aligned with the don of the Cleveland Mafia, John Scalish.
Over the next decade, Greene would emerge as The Irishman. He returned home to Collinwood and became known as the neighborhood’s protector. He gave money to families in need, scholarships to kids who were struggling, and during holidays he and his crew would distribute turkeys and hams throughout the neighborhood. He even policed the area, in a fashion. At one point, The Hell’s Angels moved into the neighborhood and threatened somebody Greene knew. He showed up on their doorstep, alone, holding three sticks of dynamite.
“He knocked on the door,” Kovavic recalled. “Smoking a cigar, he lit the fuse. He stood there, and when the fellow came to the door, he said, ‘If anything happens to this man, I’m going to blow you up, blow your house up, I’m going to blow up every Hell’s Angel I can find.’ Looking at this fuse, Danny pulled it out, he threw it over the edge of the porch, and when the blasting cap went off, he said, ‘Next time, buddy, that is going to be up your butt.”
Sister Barbara Eppich, who had known Greene since they were classmates in elementary school, told Tommy Reid that she never prayed for The Irishman – she prayed to him in the communion of saints.
“No one ever got hurt, even though the Mafia was there,” Sister Barbara said. “If ever trouble came down those streets, Danny took care of it….Danny looked after the neighborhood.”
“He had no money,” Kovacic said. “He gave it all away. If he heard of a neighbor, one of the kids who played football, couldn’t pay his high school tuition, Danny paid it. I had a woman one time come up to me. ‘I heard you after Danny! What’s the matter with you? He’s the nicest man in the world…’ She really reamed me out, and she ended up telling me that her washing machine had broken and Danny had bought her a new washing machine. People all over the neighborhood would get food from him.”
Kovacic, who was climbing through the ranks of the police department, followed the rise of the Irishman from a distance. Then, at one point, the young policeman was assigned to investigate organized crime and moved into Collinwood. He found himself living two blocks from Greene.
“Danny and I became friends – sort of friends, sort of had a working relationship,” Kovacic said. “Did I like him? Yes. Did I like what he did? No. Did I want to put him in the penitentiary? Yes.”
“He was one unique person,” Kovacic added. “He was not a run-of-the-mill hoodlum of the type that I was used to dealing with. He was different.”
The rise and fall
Danny Greene read. Though he’d never finished high school, he consumed books, and his favorites were on the topic of Irish history. He considered himself a Celtic warrior.
The Celts were indeed a people who excelled at warfare. Though the rise of the Roman Empire has somewhat enshrouded their history, the Celts by 275 B.C. had expanded from their origins in Eastern Europe to control much of the continent and the islands of Ireland and Great Britain. The Irish Celts were particularly gleeful in battle.
“The Irish, like all Celts, stripped naked before battle and rushed their enemy naked, carrying sword and shield but wearing only sandals and torc – a twisted, golden neck ornament,” writes historian Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization. “….The Romans, in their first encounters with these exposed, insane warriors, were shocked and frightened. Not only were the men naked, they were howling and, it seemed, possessed by demons, so outrageous were their strength and verve. Urged on by the infernal skirl of pipers, they presented to the unaccustomed and throbbing Roman sensorium a multimedia event featuring all the terrors of hell itself.”
But if the Celts were great in battle, they were less inclined towards administration. They tended toward disarray. Their westward expansion had no central authority, no awareness of itself, and was thus soon dimmed by the punctilious, highly organized Roman Empire.
Danny Greene would fare no better when he picked a battle with the Italians. His dispute with the Mafia began when he borrowed money, through Shondor Birns, from the New York Mafia. Greene was trying to build his first iteration of the Celtic Club, but Birns insisted on including one of his associates in the deal. When the man spent the money on a large cocaine purchase and was arrested, Greene found himself owing the mob $60,000 that he’d never laid hands on. He and Birns went to war with each other. Birns put out a $25,000 hit on Greene – thus the car bomb that Greene himself dismantled, and a sniper attack that occurred one day while Greene was out jogging (Greene pulled a pistol from his waistband and ran directly at the sniper firing, chasing him all the way to his getaway car).
This battle ended when Birns was blown sky high outside a bar located a block from St. Malachi’s church in Cleveland. But the war had just begun: Greene was a marked man from that point forward.
Greene had verve. He likely knew he was fighting a battle he could never win. But this was in keeping with an Irish proclivity for unwinnable battles, from the time of the mythical hero Cuchulain and his Fight With the Sea (he would not win) to Michael Collins and the original ragtag Irish Republic Army taking on the British Empire at the height of its power (they would win, in a battle waged with bicycles and bombs, thus creating the Republic of Ireland after 800 years of English rule).
Tommy Reid likewise found himself fighting what seemed like an unwinnable battle to bring The Irishman’s story to life in a movie. After repeated disappointments, he decided to take matters into his own hands and make his own movie, a documentary called Danny Greene: the Rise and Fall of the Irishman. Hermosa Beach resident William Fletcher helped him finance the venture, and in 2008 Reid went to Cleveland and interviewed many of the sources Porrello had used in his book, To Kill the Irishman, including Kovacic, former mob enforcer Tony Hughes, Sister Barbara, and Greene’s surviving family.
“I thought at least I can go to my grave saying I tried, and at least I made this documentary,” Reid said.
Then one day in 2009, with 17 hours of the documentary already shot, Reid received the news that the movie itself had finally and very officially been green-lighted. He’d joined forces with a production company called Core Entertainment in 2006, and they finally had managed to do what needed to be done to get the movie made: first, they got a “bankable” director, Jonathan Hensleigh, to sign on to the project; then, in quick succession, they were able to attach actors Val Kilmer and Christopher Walken to the movie.
“Once those two names were attached, it was a done deal,” Reid said.
The cast quickly filled out with some likewise stellar names – notably, Vincent D’Onofrio (Law & Order), Paul Sorvino (who played the Mafia don in Goodfellas), and the well-respected but relatively little known Irish actor Ray Stevenson, who agreed to play the Irishman himself. The film was shot in seven weeks, mostly in Detroit (which gave tax credits Cleveland did not match, much to the chagrin of Reid) and a $12 million budget. Reid and his wife, Dawn, were on the set and saw this vision 13 years in the making come to very vivid fruition.
It really hit home how far they had come when they watched the filming of the movie’s final scene, the explosion that kills Danny Greene.
“We couldn’t afford to do it twice, so when the bomb blew up the car, there was only one shot to do it,” Reid said. “It succeeded. My wife had tears in her eyes. That is a moment I will never forget. It was the end of Danny Greene, the end of a legend….”
It was also the beginning, perhaps, of a larger legend of Danny Greene. Both the documentary and the movie have now been released – they will be packaged together when the movie completes its current theatrical run – and the early returns are extremely positive. Kill the Irishman opened in select theaters in New York, Cleveland, and Santa Monica (where it is still playing at the AMC Loews on the Third Street Promenade) on March 11, and last weekend was the top grossing movie in every theater it showed in. As a result, the movie was released in several more markets this week, including such Irish-heavy places as Boston and Chicago. If it continues to succeed, it may yet win wide release.
Author Rick Porrello, who is also a police chief in suburban Cleveland, said that the movie has already succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. He credited Reid’s unwavering persistence.
“Tommy is one of the most ambitious and motivated persons I’ve ever met,” Porrello said. “His ambition is infectious. You catch it, and it doesn’t come across as hype, because I’ve known a lot of people that are all about hype. Tommy was never about hype, because he really believed in the story. I’d been a cop a long time by the first time I met him, probably 15 years, and I really believed that he was genuine when he said this was his baby and he was going to make this film.”
Cleveland itself is taking some pride in the fact that the legend of Danny Greene has finally reached a larger audience. Greene had many less-than-heroic qualities – he was an extortionist and a murderer, for starters – but he was one of their own. A young member of Greene’s “Celtic Club” once wrote a ballad about Greene that puts him in Irish mythical context:
“A modern warrior known as Greene
Was very quick and smart, and mean.
He scrambled hard and fought like hell,
And led a charmed existence.
They shot him down and blew him up
With most regular persistence.
Through guile and luck and skill
Danny Greene is with us still….”
“He was vicious, he was a killer, but he managed to be a killer and have the gratitude of people in his community,” Porrello said. “He had a ballad written about him, kids liked him, and, you know, a lot of things that Hollywood would be looking for.”