South Florida is littered with Al Capone history – the Miami mansion where he took his last breath, his reputed riverside hideout in Fort Lauderdale, his casino dreams in Deerfield Beach – and every restaurant and watering hole as old as your grandparents seems to have a story about how “Al Capone drank here.”
While “Al Capone: Icon,” airing 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS stations WPBT and WXEL, is light on local myth-busting, it is an illuminating examination of how cynical politics, a divisive economy, and the dawn of “popular culture” created a complicated folk hero whose symbolism endures more than 60 years after his death.
“There are kids growing up today who can’t name the last three presidents, but who know the name Al Capone,” says Vince Gilligan, creator of the TV hit “Breaking Bad.”
“Al Capone: Icon” uses a string of archival photos and video to dramatize Capone’s rise from hustling son of Brooklyn immigrants to Chicago mob boss in the late 1920s, when the growing popularity of radio, news reels and movies created an insatiable appetite for celebrity scoop that the tabloid media and a charismatic "Robin Hood" figure were happy to fill.
The program also follows the public backlash that began in 1929 after newspapers published pictures of the bloody scene at the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Once out of fashion, Capone plummeted from Public Enemy No. 1 to income-tax deadbeat, to Alcatraz prisoner being treated for syphilis-related dementia and Palm Island corpse at age 48.
But the strength of the hourlong program comes from the eclectic group of cops, academics, ex-mobsters and pop-culture figures who fill in the chalk outline of Capone's larger-than-life persona.
In addition to Gilligan, they include “Get Capone” author Jonathan Eig; Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reports Tim Weiner; Thomas Reppetto, a former commander of detectives in the Chicago Police Department (with a doctorate from Harvard); tough guy Frank Calabrese Jr. (“I was born and raised into the Chicago mob”); Scott F. Stoddart, professor of cinema studies and dean of liberal arts at the Fashion Institute of Technology; and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, whose father grew up in Chicago during Prohibition.
“Without Prohibition, there would have been no Al Capone,” we are reminded.
In a section on Chicago’s speakeasy culture, Wilson characterizes Capone as “a patron for black jazz musicians. … It was the place where jazz is able to bloom.”
Gilligan can also recite the influence of Capone on film and TV, from “Scarface” (both Paul Muni's in 1932 and Al Pacino's in 1983) to his own show. The buzzed-about “Breaking Bad” finale included a hail of bullets that Gilligan says was “something of a modern-day version of the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Maybe I was channeling a little bit of that nasty history in my brain.”