“The Untouchables”: Robert De Niro’s bombastic Al Capone was one of the great movie villains

By on July 26, 2018

In this episode of “Night Flight Goes to the Movies — which originally aired on May 21, 1988, and you can now find streaming on Night Flight Plus — we took a look at few ’80s actors and their memorable turns as movie villains, including Robert De Niro’s portrayal of notorious real-life Chicago mobster Al Capone in Brian De Palma‘s The Untouchables.

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David Mamet’s overtly melodramatic screenplay for The Untouchables – released theaterically on June 3, 1987 —  was based on the real Eliot Ness’s 1957 book of the same name.

Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, Al Capone, the head of the Chicago Outfit, is becoming rich off the sales of black market booze.

The Chicago police can’t seem to put him behind bars, though, so the U.S. Treasury Department turns to Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), who assembles his enforcement team, “The Untouchables” — Andy Garcia (“George Stone/Giuseppe Petri”), Charles Martin Smith (“Oscar Wallace”) and Sean Connery (“Jimmy Malone”) — to help take Capone down.

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De Palma and De Niro had worked together several times, but by the mid-’80s De Niro was wanting to play smaller character roles.

He was reportedly paid $2 million for two weeks work on The Untouchables, resulting in about ten minutes of screen time.

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De Niro spent three months researching Capone, watching 1930s-era newsreels and gangster movies and reading books.

He also physically tried become Capone, who weighed 210 pounds, gaining 25 lbs. by eating pancakes every morning and even going to Italy on an eating tour. Still, he had to wear a padded suit to fill out his midsection.

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Read more about Robert De Niro and The Untouchables below.

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Capone — born in Brooklyn in 1899 — had worked in New York as a bar bouncer, and he was working the door at a Brooklyn nightclub when his face was slashed by the brother of a woman he’d insulted.

Those three hideous scars on his left cheek later earned him the nickname “Scarface.”

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Capone met a lot of underworld figures in those bars. Once he was in Chicago, he moved up the mob ranks by using violence to show his bosses he’d do whatever was needed.

Once, in a bar during broad daylight, Capone shot a man in the face six times because he was hassling Capone’s accountant.

No one wanted to be his next victim so eyewitnesses declined to testify and Capone went free.

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By 1925, the 26 year old Capone was Chicago’s leading organized crime figure, and a hero to many because, as he told newspaper reporters, he was a simple businessman selling a product that people wanted.

Whenever he had problems in his illegal bootleg booze biz, he took care of it quickly, in a flash of bloody violence.

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On February 14, 1929, Chicagoans was shocked to learn of the “St. Valentines Day Massacre.”

Seven gangsters — including members of the rival Bugs Moran gang — were lined up against a wall in a parking garage on the North Side of Chicago and machine gunned to death.

Capone wasn’t in town at the time, and even though his men were probably behind the assassinations, the crime ultimately went unsolved.

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On May 7, 1929, after learning two of his hit men, Albert Anselmi and John Scalise, were plotting against him, he invited them to a big dinner party, where he beat them to death with a baseball bat before shooting them both in the head.

By now, President Herbert Hoover was pressuring the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to find a way to get Capone.

Capone fled from Chicago, and ended up in Miami, but the feds continued wiretapping his phones and doing everything they could to continue harassing him.

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Enter Eliot Ness, who was so inept as a prohibition agent he wasn’t able to work undercover jobs anymore.

Ness disrupted Capone’s business by busting up illegal breweries and distilleries, but couldn’t find enough evidence to build a case against Capone.

Despite there being a final courtroom scene in The Untouchables, the real Capone and Ness never came face to face during their battles.

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Ness eventually moved to Cleveland, where he unsuccessfully ran for mayor, got busted for drunk driving and had additional problems when his extra-marital affairs became public.

His book, The Untouchables — written with help from Oscar Fraley — was based very loosely on what actually had happened in Chicago (it didn’t stay in print very long).

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In 1931, Al Capone was finally brought up on federal charges of income tax evasion.

He plead guilty and was sentenced to prison for two and a half years, later increased to eleven years, serving most of it in an Atlanta penitentiary, where an IQ test revealed he had an IQ of 95.

Towards the end of his life, he found out he’d been suffering from tertiary syphilis for decades.

He was transferred to the newly built prison on Alcatraz Island, and released after seven and a half years, batshit crazy, delusional and suffering from seizures.

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Capone moved to Miami, where he died at age 48 in 1947, still owing the government money.

Ness, meanwhile, became a broke alcoholic and died of a heart attack in 1957, age 54.

He was a largely forgotten figure until Hollywood discovered his Untouchables book, which, despite mostly made up of lies and half-truths, provided the source material for Brian De Palma’s movie.

Watch “Night Flight Goes to the Movies — we also profiled Dennis Hopper (read our previous post about his demented drug dealer Feck from River’s Edge), Henry Silva, James Woods and Rutger Hauer — now on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.