Back in Brooklyn, Mr. Franzese, a muscular 5-foot-9, prided himself as an amateur boxer and rugged brawler. His street swagger attracted the attention of gangsters in the Profaci organization, one of New York’s five original Mafia families. With a blood oath he was inducted at age 33 as a “made” soldier in 1950. He soon earned a reputation as a “workhorse” and a “big earner” in the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra (Our Thing), running extortion, bookmaking and loan-sharking rings in Brooklyn and Queens and on Long Island.
Joseph Profaci, the head of the organization, died of cancer in 1962, and the next year Joseph Colombo became boss of the family. One of Mr. Colombo’s first moves was to promote Mr. Franzese to capo, or captain, putting him in charge of a so-called crew of 10 soldiers and scores of criminal followers known as associates.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Franzese, who listed his occupation as owner of a dry-cleaning store in Brooklyn, was known for hosting parties for show business luminaries, including Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan.
An avid boxing fan, he was frequently at nightclubs in the company of Rocky Graziano and another middleweight boxing champion, Jake LaMotta, who was the central character of the 1980 Martin Scorsese film “Raging Bull.”
Another favorite dining place was the Russian Tea Room, next to Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, where Mr. Franzese met with movie producers, talent agents and music record executives. He obtained financial stakes in the enormously profitable 1972 pornographic film “Deep Throat,” the 2003 feature film “This Thing of Ours” and the Buddah Record Company.
The district attorneys of Nassau and Suffolk Counties in the 1960s branded Mr. Franzese the czar of bookmaking and loan sharking on Long Island after raids on illegal operations. The New York State Liquor Authority said he was suspected of extorting protection money from nightclubs and bars in Queens and on Long Island. And the New York State Commission of Investigation said he had muscled in to extract payoffs from pornographic peep show suppliers. None of these allegations led to criminal charges against him.