Imagine then what it was like when a Cuban-American FBI agent infiltrated the most feared crime family in America, posing as an Italian gangster.
Now that agent, Jack Garcia, comes out from undercover for the first time and tells CBS News correspondent Armen Keteyian how he did it, and how he was able to fool the wisest of the wiseguys by delivering an acting performance that was more believable than anything Hollywood could produce.
"I always played the big role. I mean my mantra was, you know, 'Think big, be big,'" Joaquin "Jack" Garcia tells Keteyian. "And I was able to be the type of guy that never in a million years would somebody suspect that I was an agent."
Garcia may be the most unlikely law enforcement figure in history - all 390 pounds of him - whose performance was so convincing that he was offered the Mafia's highest honor: to become a "made man" in the mob.
"In the mob world, in the mob culture, that is the holy grail. For an associate to be proposed for membership into La Cosa Nostra is what these criminals aspire to do," Garcia explains. "To become a made man. The fact that they allowed an FBI agent to infiltrate their organization, and add to that the fact that I'm Cuban born playing an Italian who was able to fool them, it's an amazing insult to them."
For Garcia, his invitation to become a sworn-member of the mob capped a career working a staggering 100 major undercover cases. But none compared with "Jack Falcone," the character he created in 2002 to get inside the Gambino crime family, playing the role of an investor in a strip club that the Gambinos, and one of their ruthless leaders, Greg DePalma, were muscling in on.
"Jack Falcone entered the scene in the Bronx, New York. He was a guy who was a jewel thief, and he was a guy who was an extortionist and a hijacker. I drove a fancy car at the time. I had the Rolex Presidents watch. I had the obligatory three-carat diamond pinky. I had the cross," Garcia remembers. "Then of, course, the suits. All gotta be Italian. You gotta get your Brionis, you gotta get your Zegna. Look, you got my size. There aren't too many Zegnas or Brionis in my size. It's this package that you wanna create. You don't play the role of this big money launderer, and then show up in a Yugo."
Garcia was the complete package: more than 20 years experience as an FBI agent, combined with a style and charm that mobsters could not resist. "I was this big guy with a lot of cash who everybody wanted to be around. I would disarm the person by always being nice. 'Hey, you're looking great today. Where did you get those nice threads, man? Look at you. You look like a million dollars.' 'Oh yeah, I look good. Oh yeah, I love those blue shoes.' Everybody loves a happy guy," he says.
New York FBI agent Nat Parisi handpicked Garcia for the job, becoming his "handler" in the case, his sole lifeline to the outside world during the two and a half year investigation. "When he enters a room full of wise guys, they're all gonna want to know, who is that man?" Parisi says.
Asked how he trains a Cuban-American to become an Italian-American and pass the "wiseguy test," Parisi tells Keteyian, "A lot of meetings with Big Jack. I'm an Italian-American and I shared with Jack my experiences growing up, but he and I were convinced that he could pull it off."
Garcia says they came up with a school that they called "mob school," a form of higher education that included, of all things, a trip to the grocery store, where Garcia learned one of the mob's golden rules: never carry your cash in a wallet. Wrap it in a rubber band, pulled from a head of broccoli.
"You would take this off, as you can see. And then you would just wrap it up, and there you are. This is the way you operated with your money. Everybody just simply carries a wad of cash," Garcia explains, demonstrating how to bundle bills with a broccoli band. "That was one of those little things that could be big things down the line if you didn't prepare right for your role. Because unlike, like I said, 'The Sopranos' were multiple takes. There was only one take. And that was it. And it had to be a good one."
The training also required Garcia to spend countless hours in front of the television, watching food programs for example.
"You pick up little phrases there, you know, 'Tuto bene,' because a lot of conversations all dealt with 'Eh, how's your food? How's your Pasta e fagioli?' 'Eh, it's good, you could add a little more of this a little bit of that.' And it was always like, everyone's a food critic in the mob. 'Forget about this. Go down the block this guy makes it better than this guy,'" Garcia says. "Being Cuban, I get caught up sometimes. Like I would say maniccoti. It's not manicotti, it's 'manigot.' You know, Parmigiano-Reggiano. I would, could make a mistake and say, yeah, give me a ham san… - give me some ham. Well, there's no ham. You know, Italians don't say ham. It's prosciut, you know."
Garcia says a single misstep or mispronunciation could set off alarm bells. "And I couldn't afford having alarm bells going off. I wanted things to constantly be without any suspicion."