On November 4, 1955 William Nelson, a short, stocky 55-year-old retiree who dabbled in stocks and bonds, left his suburban Phoenix tract home, waved good-bye to his wife, slid into his 1953 Ford pickup truck, turned on the ignition and was immediately blown through the top of the cab by a blast so powerful it ripped the door and roof off the nearby garage and rattled windows as far as a mile away. Nelson, with his worn pentagonal wire-rim spectacles and baggy jowls, had looked like a milquetoast, and according to his neighbors, he had lived among them for years without incident—an unobtrusive and quiet man. But Maricopa County sheriff L.C. Boles and his investigator Lieutenant Ralph Edmundson, who were assigned the case, nevertheless called the murder a “revenge killing” and said they were collecting leads from Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
That’s because Nelson wasn’t a retiree who dabbled in stocks and bonds, and he was anything but a milquetoast. He wasn’t even William Nelson. The name of the man whose limbs were scattered over the property was Willie Bioff (appropriately pronounced “buy off”), and in the 1930s he was the undisputed king of Hollywood—the man who terrified everyone in the film industry, from the lowliest stagehands to the most exalted actors to the studio heads themselves. Once, when Bioff arrived at the MGM gate and a guard there didn’t recognize him, he phoned MGM vice president Eddie Mannix and ordered him to come down and tell the guard who Bioff was. Mannix complied. When Bioff built a new house that befit his stature as Hollywood’s monarch, he told Columbia Pictures executive Leo Spitz that he expected the studio to pay for the furnishings. It did. When he declared to studio executives that he had decided he wanted even more power, he joked that they “jumped like scared cats. I guess I’m their bogeyman.”
He was that and more. To the Hollywood moguls, most of them Eastern European Jewish immigrants who aggressively promoted the American dream in their films for fear their adopted country might reject them as aliens, this bumpkin, himself an Eastern European Jew, was the American nightmare. He was cocky, defiant, ostentatious, full of braggadocio and bluster, and happily illiterate—an eccentric out of Damon Runyon but with bloody, bloody hands. Willie Bioff was the king of Hollywood because he was the Capone outfit’s operative in Hollywood. And he was the Capone outfit’s operative in Hollywood because he had found the secret of how to siphon money from the studios’ coffers—millions of dollars that flowed from the moguls through him and to the mob, with Bioff taking his cut. Had he been given the time, he later said, he would have owned a 50 percent stake in the studios. As it was, he all but ran them—for a while.
He lied. He lied about his name even before he became William Nelson. He was variously Morris Bloffsky, Morris Bioff, William Berg, Harry or Henry Martin and Mr. Bronson. He lied about his age. He was variously born in 1886 or 1899—or one of several years in between. He lied about his place of birth, saying he came to the States with his Russian Jewish parents when he was five or that he had been born in Chicago, where he grew up. As he later told it, lying or not, his mother died when he was eight, he left school after the third grade and six years later his father threw him out on the streets to fend for himself. By some accounts, he became a childhood pimp, charging boys a dime to fondle girls he paid with 10-cent candy. When one girl refused, young Willie allegedly said, “It’s a dime’s worth of acid in the face.” Among other things, he became a petty thief, stealing hams from Swift & Co. and, despite his kosher upbringing, eating them. (“An empty belly ain’t got no religion,” he would tell a reporter.) Scarcely out of his teens he ran a Chicago brothel, where, police reported, one of his girls serviced 13 men in a single day for a payment of $29. Of this period of his life he would say discreetly, “I peddled papers, run errands and so on, and met a lot of people.”
One of the people he met was Jerry Leahy, the Chicago agent for the Teamsters Union, for whom Bioff served as driver while Leahy made “collections"—the tribute businesses paid to avoid union strife. In time Bioff himself was making collections, strong-arming the kosher chicken dealers to organize their workers. It was during this activity in 1932 that he ran into a union agent named George E. Browne who was organizing the gentile chicken dealers. Thus began a partnership that would panic Hollywood.
The two new partners couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Where Bioff was colorful, Browne was nondescript. His most identifiable characteristic was that he began drinking beer in the morning and didn’t stop until he hit his bed at night. (Bioff, later asked to confirm if Browne actually drank 100 bottles of beer a day, quipped, "If you won’t hold me to 100, it might have been 101; it might have been 70.”) But if Browne was weaving drunkenly through life, he was actually a man of minor prominence in Chicago at the time he and Bioff met. Browne’s chicken organizing was a sideline to his main profession as the business agent of the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, the union that represented everyone from stagehands to projectionists to technicians in both theater and film. Browne always claimed he was legit until he met Bioff. It was Bioff, he said, who hatched the plan that would lead them to the Capone gang.
As Bioff told it, it was 1932 or 1933 and he was now working for Browne’s union as his personal representative. At the time, 250 of the union’s 400 members were out of work, so the local set up a soup kitchen. For Browne, it may have been a gesture of concern, but Bioff saw opportunity in the philanthropy. Bioff had made a great discovery: Whoever controlled the projectionists controlled Hollywood, and IATSE controlled the projectionists. So he brought Chicago theater magnate Barney Balaban to the hospital room where Browne was convalescing from an illness and asked for a donation to the soup kitchen in lieu of restoring pay cuts to his projectionists. Actually, Bioff warned Balaban to make the donation or else suffer a strike that would close his theaters. Balaban gave $20,000—$300 of which Bioff and Browne immediately skimmed so they could celebrate by drinking and gambling at the Club 100. (Bioff later said that they did buy a few cases of canned goods for the soup kitchen with the $20,000.) The club, however, just happened to be managed by Nick Circella—alias Nick Dean, alias Nickelodeon—who was a Capone soldier, and Circella got to wondering what these two bottom-feeders were doing with so much money. Bioff and Browne, unable to keep their mouths shut, bragged to Circella about how they had forced Balaban to give them the loot. The next day Frank Rio, one of Al Capone’s chief lieutenants, arranged to meet Browne, ordered him into the car and demanded a 50 percent cut of whatever he and Bioff were able to extort from Balaban.
And so began the first shakedown scheme. Bioff soon met with an executive of the Balaban and Katz theater chain and insisted that the chain add a second projectionist to each booth. The executive howled that this would be prohibitively expensive and ultimately bankrupt the company. To which Bioff quipped, “You’ll have two men or else. If that is going to kill Grandma, Grandma is going to die.” But there was an option, Bioff added. Balaban and Katz could make a payoff to him. Balaban chose the payoff. Soon Bioff and Browne were raking in $100,000 from Chicago exhibitors, which prompted Frank Rio and Frank Nitti, Capone’s successor after Capone was sent to prison for income tax evasion, to hold another meeting—this one at a downtown Chicago hotel. The mob now demanded two thirds of the take from Bioff and Browne or else. As Bioff later deadpanned, he thought it better not to discover the “or else.”
The mob’s greed, however, wasn’t slaked. In 1932 Browne had run for president of the national IATSE and been defeated. Now that Nitti saw how much money he could rake in from the movie industry just by intimidating the theater owners in a single city, he decided not to let that verdict stand. Nitti convened a meeting at the Riverside, Illinois home of mob enforcer Harry Hochstein and laid out the strategy. Nitti wanted to know which locals had opposed Browne in 1932. Browne mentioned New York City, New Jersey, Cleveland and St. Louis. Nitti told him there would be no problem. He would make certain these locals lined up behind him thanks to his “connections.”
In June 1934, IATSE gathered for its national convention in Louisville, and affable George E. Browne once again stood for the presidency. To assist his candidacy, a delegation of mobsters arrived from Chicago and ordered a complete media lockdown. Just before the vote, half a dozen men tapping white canes entered the hall—the blind men’s tool evidently a warning of what would happen to delegates who opposed Browne. He won. When members of one local complained of vote rigging, Bioff, who upon Browne’s election had immediately been appointed the president’s new special representative, arranged to have a gang of longshoremen rough them up.
But not everyone was amenable to Browne’s ascension, so now began the months of the long knives. When Tommy Maloy, the boss of Chicago Local 110 of the Motion Picture Operators Union, bridled at yielding power to the newcomers, he was shot and killed while cruising in his car on the Outer Drive. (In recounting the incident to an FBI agent, Capone would wink that Maloy had had a traffic accident.) When a man named Clyde Ostenberg threatened to start a rival union to organize projectionists, Bioff, according to Ostenberg’s bodyguard, warned him to desist. Ostenberg was later gunned down. So was a union organizer named Louie Alterie. When Bioff suspected union goon Fred “Bugs” Blacker, so nicknamed because he would release bedbugs in uncooperative theaters, of double-dealing, Bioff had him murdered. It was a tribute to Bioff’s incorrigibility that when a rival union circulated fliers accusing Bioff of these crimes, he hired the PR man who had distributed them.
By the end of 1935, with their rivals dispatched, Browne and Bioff controlled IATSE. Now it was just a matter of time before IATSE would control Hollywood.
As Bioff would later describe it, he was merely Browne’s assistant, at a salary of $22,000 a year. “Me? I ain’t an important guy. I work only for our president, George E. Browne,” he told a reporter. “I do what I’m told to do and go where I’m sent.” But like so much else that Bioff said, this wasn’t true, and he privately boasted that he was the real power and Browne was just a figurehead. In fact, the vainglorious Bioff quickly instituted a pay cut for his union’s members, then had the studios kick back their savings to him, which he distributed to himself and the mob, and he instituted a two percent levy on members’ wages, which accumulated to $1.5 million more for himself, Browne and their Mafia partners.
Originally the idea was simply to use the projectionists they now represented across the country to launch a national version of the shakedown scheme Bioff had deployed so successfully in Chicago, and the mob was satisfied with the take. But Bioff quickly realized they could collect even more largesse if they represented not only projectionists but virtually all the employees in Hollywood itself. Unfortunately for Bioff, IATSE had staged a disastrous strike in 1933 during which it withdrew from the Basic Studio Agreement between labor and the studios. As a result, its Hollywood membership had dwindled to 150 from 6,000. So the first thing IATSE had to do was enlarge its membership.
For this, Bioff needed the connivance of the studios. Some time in late 1934 or early 1935 he and Browne met with Patrick Casey, the labor liaison for the Hollywood producers, and floated an idea. He proposed that the Chicago projectionists strike on some flimsy pretext. The producers would then meet with Bioff and Browne in an “emergency” session to settle the strike, and in the process they would recognize IATSE again. To make the deal sweeter, the producers would also give it a “closed shop” agreement, meaning it would be the sole bargaining agent for most of the technicians in Hollywood. Other unions were understandably apoplectic at this deal, but they reluctantly went along because Bioff paid them off and because they too feared the “or else.”
It was, Bioff said, a eureka moment for him. He realized the plan they had hatched after Louisville to make IATSE the main bargaining agent had worked better than they could possibly have imagined. He had one stick to keep the studios in line via the projectionists, and now with his control of their own labor force he had another. But Bioff had even grander ambitions than doing a little skimming from union dues or getting a few kickbacks for saving the studios money. He would go to the source of the big money, to Hollywood itself, where there were millions more dollars to be wrung from the timorous studios. And Bioff had an idea of how to do it. So he headed West.
THE POWER AND THE GLORY
After all the events of 1935—the murders, the extortion, the consolidation of his power within the unions, the Basic Studio Agreement that gave him his opening to parlay that power—pudgy Willie Bioff, who once said he could lift with one arm any man, met Nicholas Schenck, arguably the most powerful figure in the film hierarchy, armed with his new plan, which was simplicity itself. Schenck was, like Bioff, a Russian Jewish immigrant who, with his older brother Joseph, had opened a pharmacy in New York before moving into the amusement park business, where he caught the attention of Marcus Loew. Loew was the head of Loew’s, the parent company of MGM. When Loew died in 1927, Nick Schenck assumed control of Loew’s empire. Schenck was gruff, unsophisticated and bullying, but when Bioff met him in Schenck’s New York office in April 1936, the two, as Bioff put it, exchanged pleasantries for a minute before 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 Browne president, and I am his boss. He is to do whatever I want him to do. Now your industry is a prosperous industry, and I must get $2 million out of it,” Schenck would later quote Bioff as saying, adding that Bioff said if he pulled the projectionists, “In two or three weeks there will be no motion-picture industry. It will be destroyed.” 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.
By the time he moved to Hollywood later that year he was in the shakedown business full time and on a much larger scale. He went from studio head to studio head, demanding money in return for his promise that IATSE wouldn’t strike. Soon he wasn’t going to them; they were coming to his hotel room. The other moguls followed Nick Schenck’s lead, handing Bioff bundles of cash, always cash, in plain brown wrappers—bundles he would stuff into his jacket pocket. In time the main conduit of the graft would be Nick’s brother, Joe Schenck, easily the more popular of the Schencks and the chief executive of 20th Century Fox. As Bioff described it, he would sit in Joe’s office munching apples while Joe doled out the money that was now, for efficiency’s sake, often funneled through him from the other studios. Bioff was blithe about it all. “The boys in Chicago were expecting a Christmas present,” he casually told Harry Warner at the end of 1937. They got one in more bundles of cash, which Bioff fanned on his bed to count.
But Bioff had one more scam up his sleeve. It was actually Nick Schenck who suggested that Bioff become the sales agent for DuPont, which manufactured raw film stock, and take a seven percent commission. Schenck then ordered Louis B. Mayer to buy half of MGM’s film stock from Bioff, even though Kodak had been supplying the stock for years and the studios had been perfectly satisfied. Bioff agreed…as long as DuPont didn’t tell his Capone gang liaison, Johnny Rosselli. Then Bioff gave the ultimatum to the other studio heads, and they all began buying DuPont’s raw film, sending more than $150,000 in “commissions” Bioff’s way.
They said they didn’t have a choice. They paid to pacify the union, and they paid because they were afraid of what Bioff and his mob friends might do to them if they didn’t. Schenck said that after debating whether to meet Bioff’s demands, he reached a decision when a bomb was found under the roof of a Loew’s theater, and he recalled Bioff’s threat to MGM head Louis B. Mayer, the previous king of Hollywood, that “there was no room for both of them in this world.” Harry Warner said that when he hesitated to give in to yet another of Bioff’s requests for money, he hired himself two bodyguards before finally deciding to pay up. Actor George Raft remembered a visit Bioff paid to the set of Each Dawn I Die on the Warner Bros. lot when Bioff was muscling the studio. As Raft told it, Bioff eyed Raft’s co-star Jimmy Cagney “with obvious dislike,” stared at the klieg lights above Cagney and exchanged glances with the mobsters who accompanied the union boss. Later, Raft said, Bioff told him they were going to drop the light on Cagney but decided not to because they liked Raft. Raft never knew Bioff’s motive.
Bioff was both blunt and cavalier about his power over the moguls. He described his negotiating technique this way: “You get in a room with them, and they start yelling and hollering about how they’re being held up and robbed. That goes on and on. Me, I’m a busy man and don’t get too much sleep. I always go to sleep when that roaring starts. After a while it dies down, and the quiet wakes me up. And I say, ‘All right, gentlemen, do we get the money?’ ” He always did.
But even as Bioff was threatening and extorting them, the moguls had an odd symbiosis with their nemesis because, in the final analysis, he protected them. In 1939 a group of disgruntled workers was attempting to oust IATSE as its union; when the National Labor Relations Board granted the workers the right to hold an election to determine who would represent them, producers met with Bioff across a long table, with both sides in obvious panic. “IATSE better win,” Bioff told the assembled group. “You’re damned right it must. You’ve got to win,” Joe Schenck seconded. Of course, Bioff did, partly through intimidation, partly through making sure the members were temporarily taken care of. He defeated John L. Lewis, the legendary beetle-browed almighty head of the United Mine Workers, who supported and financed the opposing United Studio Technicians Guild, by a vote of 4,460 to 1,967. In effect, Willie Bioff had become not only Hollywood’s new king; he had become its very own Huey Long, a populist dictator.
As it turned out, Bioff loved the power as much as he loved the money, which contributed to his undoing. He would enter local union meetings flanked by two armed mob goons and announce that the national officers had taken over. Or he would sit in the studio heads’ offices and make suggestions on the casting of pictures with his feet up on their desks, then demand his bags of cash. The executives all “dance to my music,” he would boast while they quaked. And he loved the style of Hollywood. He now took to dressing in flashy tailor-made Western suits that he thought were fashionable. And he carried a special gold-plated, diamond-studded union card in his wallet, a symbol of what made it all possible.
But just as his power was cresting, the king of Hollywood did two things he would come to regret. The first came when he saw 80 acres in the San Fernando Valley and decided he wanted to build a house there. Bioff already had the money for the ranch—$100,000—from his various scams in Hollywood, but he was afraid that if he bought the house himself, the Internal Revenue Service would ask where he had gotten the resources since everyone knew Bioff didn’t make nearly enough money from his salary to buy land and build a mansion—at least not legally and on the books. So Bioff asked Joe Schenck for a $100,000 loan to cover his tracks, with the understanding that Bioff would pay back the loan immediately. Schenck balked, not because he didn’t want to give Bioff whatever Bioff wanted but because he was afraid a direct transfer of cash from a studio head to the top union leader in Hollywood would clearly seem suspicious. Bioff was unmoved by that explanation. He wanted his house. So Schenck and Bioff devised a plan.
Schenck had his nephew, J. Arthur Stebbins, loan Bioff the $100,000, with Schenck guaranteeing the loan. Meanwhile, Bioff agreed to pay back the $100,000 to Stebbins, and he did so secretly while leaving the note in force so the government didn’t know Bioff had the money from his own stash.
Bioff then built his ranch, which he named the Laurie A., after his beloved wife, the daughter of a Chicago furniture-store owner. The centerpiece of the mansion was a massive library with expensive first editions—ironic for a man who had less than a third grade education. Sitting in his library in his mansion and wearing his loud bespoke suits, Willie Bioff, like the immigrant Jewish moguls from whom he extorted his money, must have thought he had arrived.
But there was a catch. The effect of the transaction that financed Bioff’s palace was that Joe Schenck, by guaranteeing the $100,000, seemed to have $100,000 on which he had not paid taxes. That was Schenck’s (and Bioff’s) first mistake. When a brave IATSE dissident got wind of the “loan,” Bioff felt compelled to announce his resignation from the union—though it was only an announcement, not a fact.
Bioff’s second mistake was lusting to take over one of the few unions in Hollywood he didn’t control: the Screen Actors Guild. Dumpy little Bioff liked the star-studded glamour of the SAG as much as he liked the glamour of his ranch. SAG, however, didn’t like Bioff. Of course he didn’t let that deter him. Instead Bioff showed up uninvited to a negotiating session between SAG and MGM production head Louis B. Mayer at Mayer’s lavish Santa Monica beach house and so frightened Mayer and the other executives with his appearance that they quickly acceded to SAG’s wishes.
Bioff may have thought this would endear him to the actors and bring them into his fold. He was wrong. Bioff’s announcement that IATSE was going to lay claim to SAG, the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild only made him the target of more opprobrium in Hollywood, especially when he granted a charter to a SAG splinter group as a way to usurp the union. In November 1939, after Bioff’s victory over John L. Lewis, Daily Variety editor Arthur Ungar began running editorials warning of Bioff’s pernicious influence on the industry. (Ungar asked for and received a bodyguard from the Los Angeles Police Department.) More significant, that same month, popular syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler, a journalistic firebrand, began running his own series about Mafia infiltration into the unions, and he singled out Willie Bioff as Exhibit A, hammering away at Bioff’s disreputable past and mob ties. At the same time, a group of disgruntled left-wing unionists who thought Bioff was too cozy with the studio heads and who feared his mob connections began its own counteroffensive, forming a group called the White Rats to challenge Bioff’s power. For the first time since his arrival in Hollywood in 1935, nearly five years earlier, Willie Bioff was under siege.
The prime mover against him, however, was actor Robert Montgomery, the sturdy Republican leader of SAG. Terrified that Bioff and his friends might actually succeed in taking over his union, Montgomery had been tipped by an informant, possibly a bookkeeper, that something might be amiss with Bioff’s loan from J. Arthur Stebbins. Working with the White Rats, Montgomery somehow got hold of Stebbins’s check to Bioff and notified Attorney General Frank Murphy, who was under increasing pressure from Pegler’s columns to do something about Bioff. Alerted that he was being investigated, Schenck called Bioff to his office and recommended that he go away for a while. Bioff declined the offer.
Meanwhile, Pegler had dredged up an old pandering conviction of Bioff’s from Chicago and discovered that he had served only a few days of his six-month sentence before jumping bail. Bioff was arrested for this infraction on the very day he was to sit down with the producers to discuss how to stave off another projectionists’ strike, and he insisted he was the victim of plutocrats. “Maybe I have been doing too much for the working man,” he told reporters as he flew to Chicago to appear at a hearing on the pandering charge. Eventually, he was forced to serve the remainder of his sentence.
While all this was going on, the attorney general’s investigation of the Schenck loan proceeded. Tracing the money proved a slow, painstaking process, taking more than a year of poring over accounting records and ledgers, but in the end Murphy dispatched a special assistant, Charles Carr, to Hollywood to determine if the undeclared $100,000 had been a payoff to Bioff. Carr impaneled a grand jury, which wound up indicting not Bioff but Joe Schenck for income tax evasion.
Schenck stood trial in New York federal court in the spring of 1941, some six months after Bioff had been released from prison in Chicago. It was a star-studded prosecution. Among his character witnesses were Chico and Harpo Marx and Charlie Chaplin. Nevertheless, Schenck was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. In hopes of lessening his sentence, he decided to cooperate with the authorities trying to nab Bioff and admitted that Bioff had been extorting money from the industry for years. (He also told Murphy that Bioff was worth every cent he paid him and more.) For his cooperation, his sentence was reduced to 13 months, and he would serve only four of those. Now it was Bioff’s turn.
Five weeks after Schenck’s conviction, Bioff was finally indicted for extortion along with George Browne and Nick Circella, who promptly went on the lam. “I never extorted a dime from anybody,” Bioff growled. In fact, on the very day the indictment was handed down, Bioff was in Hollywood up to his usual tricks. A rival union, the Conference of Studio Unions, headed by Herbert Sorrell, a former stevedore who was almost as stiff-backed as Bioff, was trying to organize the notoriously union-averse Walt Disney Studio and had authorized a strike. Bioff, trying to weasel his way into the situation, struck a deal with Disney by which he agreed to settle the issue, even though his own union wasn’t involved, then had his henchmen approach the union leaders outside a rally, order them into a car and essentially kidnap them to Bioff’s San Fernando Valley ranch, where Walt’s brother, Roy, and several other Disney executives were waiting. Bioff told them that if the strikers signed with IATSE they would be back at work in the morning with raises. And he offered the strike leaders a $50 bonus and time off whenever they wanted it. The leaders refused, aghast that Walt would have brought the notorious racketeer into their consultations.
Bioff and Browne went to trial in New York in October 1941, with the Schenck brothers as the primary witnesses against them. Bioff took the stand in his own defense, chipper, blasé and as defiant as ever. While in prison serving his pandering sentence, he had come up with an explanation for why he received money from the moguls. He insisted he never extorted money, that he was in fact only helping the Schencks, who had told him they were being sandbagged by various state legislatures that were passing laws inimical to the interests of the film industry and that in order to fight these forces, they needed lots of money, which they asked Bioff to collect from other executives and then ferry across the country because the money couldn’t be shown on their books. Bioff, being the nice fellow he was, actually did them a favor. And that’s how, he said, he came into the bundles of cash.
The jury believed saturnine Joe Schenck rather than shifty Willie Bioff, and Bioff and his nominal boss, George Browne, were both convicted. It took the jurors less than two hours of deliberation. Browne’s eyes welled with tears when the verdict was read, but Bioff just sat there benignly, stroking a scar on his chin. “If these racketeers, these Chicago hoodlums, can get to a place where they can cast their shadows on the lives of 125,000 American workers [the total membership of IATSE] and their families,” the presiding judge told the jury in commendation, “it constitutes in my mind, gentlemen, a national scandal.” Browne and Bioff were fined $30,000 and sentenced to eight and 10 years, respectively, in federal prison.
And that could have been the end of the Willie Bioff saga if he hadn’t had what he called a jailhouse conversion shortly after the attack against Pearl Harbor, prompting him to petition the court for his release so he could fight and, failing that, telling the court he was willing to cooperate with the federal authorities in convicting the Chicago mobsters to whom Bioff had sent—or at least was supposed to have sent—two thirds of what he extorted. The truth, as Bioff advised another potential witness, was that the feds already had the goods on the Capone gang extortion scheme and “don’t you go to jail for anybody.”
Now terrified, the mob had Louis “the Butcher” Buchalter transferred to Bioff’s cell block so he could kill Bioff before he could testify, but Bioff was tipped off and told the prosecutor. Foiled, the mob next demanded that Nitti himself do the honors since he had been responsible for bringing Bioff into the outfit. Nitti never got the chance. On March 19, 1943, the New York U.S. attorney Matthias Correa brought indictments against eight members of the old Capone gang—including Johnny Rosselli, Bioff’s L.A. contact, and Frank Nitti—for having skimmed or extorted $2.5 million from Hollywood. Nitti avoided trial by putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger alongside a railroad track near his home in Riverside, Illinois in full view of a trainload of passengers.
At trial Bioff was the star witness. In nine and a half days of testimony, he told the story of how the mob, worried about Pegler’s denunciations of Nick Circella, had ordered Circella to cut his ties with IATSE lest the union be connected to the mob and how he had said he would quit IATSE if Circella was forced to leave. For which he was advised that the only way anyone left the business with the mob was “feet first.” He confessed that he had “lied and lied and lied” and that he was now prepared to tell the truth, though there didn’t seem to be much soul-searching in his testimony. He called himself “ruthless” in the pursuit of money and a “low uncouth person…a despicable man.” He recounted the story of how he had demanded the two projectionists per booth, and then, when asked by the prosecutor if two men were necessary, he said, “To be honest with you, I was never inside a booth. I wouldn’t know.” He described how he had asked a local union leader to up his demands to the employers to apply pressure on them and how he then cut a deal with the frightened employers for a $150,000 payoff. He crowed that he could get a raise for himself any time he wanted and “I wouldn’t have had to ask Browne.” And he joked that while the Chicago mob had thought it was getting its two-thirds cut of his action, he was actually cheating them. “That’s one spot I beat them, but I understand they intend to sue me,” he joked.
For once Bioff was convincing. On December 22, 1943, after 81 witnesses and 750,000 words of testimony, the seven defendants were found guilty of extortion. Like Bioff, they received 10-year sentences . Reports cited Bioff as the primary reason for the verdict. Just like that, the Capone gang was out of the movie business.
Exactly one year after the verdict, Willie Bioff and George E. Browne, who had collapsed during his testimony at the Capone gang trial, were released from the federal prison at Sandstone, Minnesota. The announcement came two days after a federal appeals court upheld the convictions of the seven Chicago mobsters against whom Bioff had testified. In issuing his parole order, Judge Knox said Bioff and Browne would be “permitted to live quietly, anonymously and safe from retribution by their former associates.”
But quietly and anonymously did not describe how Willie Bioff had ever lived, and he wasn’t about to change. He returned to Hollywood, where he was welcomed with open arms by the studio heads. By one account, he sashayed through the industry’s favored watering holes with a starlet on each arm, though this may have been decoration since Bioff was always faithful to his wife and she was deeply devoted to him. According to other accounts, he began dabbling in union politics again, though IATSE, at its 1948 convention, completely severed its ties with him by formally voting him out of the organization.
At least that is what he was doing when four of the Capone defendants were released from prison in 1947—after the sudden and highly suspicious intervention of several Truman Justice Department attorneys with ties to the Missouri mob. Still, Bioff seemed unconcerned. With his nemeses out, he and wife Laurie retreated to Arizona, where he assumed the alias William Nelson, the surname his wife’s maiden name. Even then Bioff had a hard time receding. He relocated to Las Vegas for a time, working under manager Gus Greenbaum as a social director at the mob-owned Riviera Casino—hardly the place to be inconspicuous. When he returned to Arizona, the onetime terror of Hollywood, now posing as a retired businessman, got involved in Republican politics, befriending conservative Barry Goldwater, a 1952 GOP candidate for U.S. senator, who later professed to have absolutely no idea who William Nelson really was. Bioff raised funds for Goldwater, traveled on Goldwater’s campaign plane, even went into business briefly with Goldwater’s nephew. William Nelson was now part of the white-shoe Republican establishment.
Despite the thin hedge of “William Nelson,” Bioff must have thought bygones were bygones, that his testimony was ancient history, that all had been forgiven. Obviously it wasn’t. Though his murder was never solved—"We have to learn a lot about Bioff we didn’t know,“ Maricopa County policeman Ralph Edmundson said at the time—someone obviously still harbored bitter memories, bitter enough to blow Bioff 25 feet out of the roof of his pickup.
And so Willie Bioff disappeared. His estate was estimated at $60,000, less than his yearly take from a single studio during his heyday, and an auction of the paintings and sculptures he had proudly collected fetched next to nothing. But authorities did find one vestige of Bioff’s glory years: At the time of the explosion, Bioff had been wearing a seven-carat diamond ring that had blown clear off his finger and was later recovered. It was the kind of gaudy trinket Bioff would have loved. Then again, it was the kind of thing his marks among the Hollywood moguls would have loved too. And that may have been the point of Bioff’s sojourn there. In Hollywood, the dream and nightmare, America’s romance with illusion and her romance with power, her soft idealism and her hard pragmatism all commingled until it was hard to tell the difference between them. Willie Bioff may have appeared to be the darkness that encroached on Hollywood’s bright light, but in the end he was just another ambitious immigrant trying to live out his country’s high promise.