Underbelly: articles

Stepping into Black Prince's shoes

Vince Colosimo had a rare chance to study his character, Australian gangster Alphonse Gangitano - he'd shared a few drinks with him. By Jane Bowron.

He knows it sounds strange but Vince Colosimo says he had a sixth sense that one day he was going to end up playing Alphonse Gangitano, the real-life gangland thug he portrays in the Aussie TV thriller Underbelly.

Based on the notorious gangland killings that took place in Melbourne between 1995 and 2004, the 13-part drama is currently making a "killing" in the Australian television ratings, according to Colosimo.

Colosimo lives in Melbourne, where he grew up, and came across Gangitano several times socially and shared a few drinks with him.

The actor took note of the private school educated gangster's expensive shoes and suits and recalls being blown away by the charisma Gangitano exuded when he walked into a room.

"At the end of the day you've got to like your character and play it like that rather than be judgmental, and so I tried to make him charismatic, eccentric, classy - a family man with elements of a psychopathic personality."

The first two episodes focus almost entirely on Gangitano, who in real life would have been thrilled and flattered to have been immortalised on the small screen.

He was obsessed with gangster genre films, especially those starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, and was apparently egocentric enough to fantasise about Andy Garcia playing him one day.

Colosimo depicts the Black Prince of Lygon Street (as Gangitano was known), as a narcissistic outlaw acting out his gangster fantasies as if he was starring in his own movie. His casual and violent acts spark a spiral of gang murders and Colosimo's out of control bad boy portrayal of the reckless Gangitano gives The Sopranos boys a run for their money.

The actor isn't too disappointed that he only appears in two episodes of the drama that has reportedly brought Australia's Nine Network back from the brink.

"People keep coming up to me and saying, 'Aren't you mad you were only in it for the first two?' But I tell them that's the story line, the way it tracked and played out. And I always say better to leave them wanting more rather than outstaying your welcome."

At least with Gangitano now dead and buried Colosimo doesn't have to worry about looking over his shoulder and getting a bad TV review from the man himself.

Colosimo is quick to point out that with the body count from the gangland killings standing at 29 and with those still living locked away for 50-plus years, the other actors and writers can breathe easy too.

Colosimo also met gang associate Mick Gatto - who was acquitted of murder and offered his services to appear on the series for a fee - and describes him as a very charming man.

However, Colosimo didn't feel the need to talk with any of the Purana police task force responsible for putting what was left of the gangsters away, choosing instead to rely on his own recollections of events as they went down in the Carlton neighborhood where he hung out.

Gangitano, along with associate Jason Moran, entered a Melbourne nightclub in 1995 and attacked and caused grievous bodily harm to 13 victims. The re-enactment of that grossly violent incident was no problem for Colosimo.

"It may sound macabre but I enjoy these scenes because of the physicality required and the effort put into making stuff work so it looks real.

"The great thing is that it's all fact. If you said hey, these two guys go into a billiards room and lay about them with pool cues and 13 people are hospitalised, no one would believe you."

THE son of Italian immigrants, Colosimo was spotted at the age of 12 by talent agents and chosen to act in the coming-of-age story Moving Out.

"I was so gullible back then, I just said yes to everything. If someone said 'come for a walk along here' I'd go. I'm lucky I have no regrets."

He rocketed to fame in the comedy The Wog Boy, and is probably best known to New Zealand audiences for his appearance in the film Lantana, on television as Dr Rex Mariani in The Secret Life of Us, and as another drug dealing gangster in the film Chopper.

He has also appeared in episodes of US dramas The Practice and Without a Trace, but downplays any ambition to crack the American market, saying he will continue to work there when and if it fits in with his busy schedule.

At the moment he's flying back and forth between Sydney and Melbourne while he plays the part of a burns doctor in a TV mini-series set in the future called Scorched about how to fight Australian bush fires with a water shortage.

I tell him that with global warming it won't be long before we Kiwis will have to post the Lucky Country glasses of water over the ditch in the mail and I hear him laugh for the first time during the interview.

Maybe he's still in character because it sounds like a gangster's chuckle.

By Jane Bowron
The Dominion Post (NZ)
March 27, 2008