They've been Mafia hangers-on, both as faithful "family" lieutenants and FBI rats.
They break arms, shoot off kneecaps. They leave the gun, take the cannoli. Sometimes they whack people -- burying the bodies in the Las Vegas desert, Connecticut woods or New Jersey meadowlands. Sometimes they are the ones whacked, usually when they least expect it, perhaps while downing a friendly demitasse of espresso or shot of anisette.
These, well, contract players, often seem expendable in the fiction of the film but unexpendable to the dozens of mobster movies they crowd. In a TNT documentary airing Tuesday at 8 and 10 p.m., "Family Values: The Mob & the Movies," this loosely structured stock company of half-a-dozen actors -- many of whom grew up in neighborhoods with mobsters -- call themselves the Gangsters Actors Guild.
Sometimes, the actors can be a bit too convincing on screen.
Frank Vincent, who hosts the TNT documentary and has had key parts in the films "GoodFellas" and "Casino" and the television movie "Gotti," said in an interview that he was on location for a film shoot in Rhode Island when a 12-year-old boy asked for his autograph.
"You know who I am?" Vincent said.
He wasn't prepared when the boy answered, "You're a made man."
The actor said he thought the kid should have been reading "Bambi" instead of making references to a Mafia rite of passage into its inner circle..
Another member of the Gangsters Actors Guild, Vincent Pastore of "The Sopranos," "Gotti" and "GoodFellas," insisted in an interview: "You've got to see us as actors."
That's part of what the two-hour TNT project purports to do. It even starts with the thespians in a skit about a man (played by Pastore) about to be "made." The program also shows authors, mob figures, mob attorneys and FBI agents talking about the reality of mob life.
Also addressed are the broader issues of Italian-American identity and Hollywood's unshrinking captivation with Mafia life during the last century.
"There's an incredible, innate fascination with a life you yourself can view from a safe distance in the theater," said Emmy-winning filmmaker Joseph Consentino, who produced and directed "Family Values."
But there was not that distance either in Consentino's own growing up in the Bronx or in the making of the documentary. During the year he spent researching the film with his wife, editor and director Sandra Consentino, he persuaded representatives of several mob families to let him use authentic Italian social clubs in New York to film scenes.
"I had to pay my respect to these people," said Consentino, 58, who lives in Ridgefield, Conn., about an hour's drive north of New York City. "Yeah, you're a little bit leery of these people, and you're a bit frightened. But [you have to] respect them for who they are. If you're looking them in the eye for half an hour, an hour, you better be serious about what you say. You can't play games."
Through author and journalist Jerry Capeci, who has written several books about the Mafia, Consentino met FBI agents and mob henchmen.
In a phone interview, a man identified as Dominick, a former Gambino family member and a turncoat who has left the FBI's witness protection program, said he agreed to talk on camera to Consentino because he trusted the filmmaker.
"What really appealed to me was that there were actors involved like Frank Vincent," said Dominick, 52, who would not reveal his last name or location. "I've seen him in a bunch of things. What's interesting to me is how they play and who they played, and I looked at what they did and said, `This is [untrue], this is true.' "
What Consentino saw in Dominick was honesty. "He's a very, very intelligent guy. He's an articulate person and a sensitive person," Consentino said, adding that Dominick does not try to blame others for his actions.
Dominick said he identified with Michael Corleone, the Al Pacino character in "The Godfather," because he also returned from a war and became increasingly involved in his family's criminal enterprises.
Still, reflecting on "The Godfather" in Consentino's film, Dominick said: "The movie `Godfather' was so different from what it's really like. This honor and respect, it's not there. It's money; it's greed. And it's killing for people you might not want to kill for, but you've got to do it or they're going to kill you.
"Every movie that I've seen, it's just played it up to be some type of glamorous situation, and it's far from that," he said. "You don't know when you're going to die and when luck will run out, who's screwing you, and when you're going to get screwed. You can't trust no one."
In essence, the actors said, the values of the Mafia are anathema to what the TNT documentary views as Italian-American virtues: respect, honor, love, loyalty, hard work and success.
In the documentary, actor Paul Sorvino cites FBI statistics showing 3,000 Mafiosi in the United States compared with a population of 25 million to 30 million Italian Americans. What happens, many of the actors point out on camera, is that movies focusing on this small and violent segment have distorted the image of the millions of others.
But just as significantly, many of those in the film said, for them, major lifestyle decisions might just have easily gone the other way -- and in some cases, they did.
Tony Sirico, who has been in dozens of films and plays Paulie Walnuts on "The Sopranos," says in the documentary his "friends were mob guys" and that he served "some time behind the wall."
After jail, he turned to acting the mob parts and found the trade "much more rewarding and much safer, too."
In a revealing remark about the influence of film on real life, Sirico says he learned how to "survive the streets" by watching James Cagney, who played gangsters and punks in "The Public Enemy" and other films of the 1930s. "He taught me how to walk like a tough guy, taught me how to talk like a tough guy," he said.
Others stayed a respectful distance from mob life, though. "They [gangsters] never impressed me," said Pastore, 53, who grew up in New Rochelle, north of New York City. "What's to be impressed [with] by a mobster? What's so heroic about it? My dad could have been a mobster."
"I play them, but I don't respect them," said Pastore, who portrays Pussy Bompensiero in "The Sopranos."
Frank Vincent, who grew up in Jersey City, N.J., said he spent his early adult life playing music in bars and lounges that sometimes catered to mob clientele.
"You got to see them at their best and their worst," Vincent said. "The best is that they have social grace, and they're accommodating and humorous and polite. . . . And they make you [think] they care about what you're feeling.
"And the worst is that they can turn on a dime," he said. "They're very sensitive to insult. Or if you said the wrong thing to them, you could get into a little bit of trouble."
Dominick said the appeal of the mob film, despite the unappealing people he says mobsters really are, largely has been an issue of vicarious pleasure.
"Even in Brooklyn," he said, "a kid could be a milkman all week and then on Friday night put on his pinky ring and borrow [his] father's Cadillac and cruise down 86th Street in Bensonhurst and look like a wiseguy and talk like a wiseguy."
"We had a nickname for them," he added. "We used to call them Dadillacs."
"Family Values: the Mob & the Movies" repeats Friday at midnight and Sept. 4 at noon. Turner Classic Movies is running a mob-movie marathon Tuesday.