My First Producer Was a Mafia Hitman

A fresh college graduate, I believed the sweet but surprisingly political “demented street hustler” would produce my first film

In the spring of 1971, during my last semester at Rutgers, I shared an apartment with my friend Theo.

We were both busy finishing our course requirements and partying as much as possible before serious adult life started after graduation. I had just finished my first video production entitled “9 to 5.”

My professor thought it showed an aptitude for making films, so I was jazzed to find my next project. This was the very first time that filmmaking percolated in my head as a possible endeavor. And just as I was hungry for anything to lead me in that direction, JJ came into my life.

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Jerome Johnson was a slick, friendly, well-dressed, and outspoken black man. We met just by chance through a mutual friend. JJ was looking — get ready for this — for a new, young director to shoot his movie script. Inexplicably, he wanted me!

Imagine my luck! A film producer was looking for a promising film director in New Brunswick, New (fokkers) Jersey (if a studio can say it in the film "Meet the Fokkers," I can too!). When we met he hired me on the spot without asking to see my work. What work?

When I told Jerome about my just-completed production, he told me he could “just tell” I was very talented and I was “his guy.” I was in!

Hey, people win the lottery, no? The only thing he courteously asked was if he could stay at our place whenever he was in town. His home was in New York City, and living with us would save him a commute.

My producer who was giving me my first shot at directing a feature film was asking to crash on my sofa? No problem whatsoever, and peace/love, my brother!

During the next few weeks Jerome came and went. Theo and I fed him whenever he was crashing at our place, and shared whatever weed or booze we had at the time. Whenever we started to wonder if Jerome was legitimate or a professional moocher, he would come up with something totally convincing and legitimate to reassure us.

Once, he opened his producer-looking leather briefcase and showed us photo proofs of his new movie, which was shooting in New York City. They were publicity shots of a movie set that included pictures of the star Billy Barty, of all people! Barty was the most successful dwarf actor in the movie world; his credits included hundreds of movies.

Well, if Jerome was making a movie in New York with Billy B. and had the stills to prove it, I’d give him a big thumbs up, and cook him an expensive steak dinner complete with a Jamaican doobie and all the booze he could drink. I’d even put fresh bedding on the couch!

One day, JJ announced that he was setting up a press conference to launch “our movie” and that he was going to have the star of “our film” fly in on a private helicopter to attend this media event.

Stunningly, he then announced this star was none other than his good friend Diana Ross! Yup, the legendary diva star of The Supremes. It don’t get better than that!

Our Jerome then talked the city of New (fokkers) Brunswick into providing a meeting hall to hold this media bash, and he made a deal with a caterer to provide an elaborate food spread for the event. He even hired a pianist to create an elegant mood. Jerome used my typewriter (remember those?) to write his press release to local and state media folks to announce the launch of a new movie—directed by newcomer Guy Magar and starring the one and only Diana Ross, who would be at this press bash, live and in person!

On the fateful day, I was excited and ready to start my film career in grand style. I had to borrow a tie and jacket (hippies had none) so I could look good at my first movie’s press launch. Theo helped me put jelly ointment in my long hair so we could comb it down and make it look shorter than it really was without having to snip it off (God forbid!). After all, I was about to join the world of moviemaking, and this was my official entrée into Hollywood!

And I was about to meet my star, Diana darlin’. After JJ’s Billy Barty movie, it was time for the Guy and Diana movie! Who knew a three-minute student dance video would lead to my first feature film right in the middle of the Garden (fokkers) State? I never even had to travel to Los Angeles or New York!

It was certainly a day I will never forget. Jerome looked sharp in a tan suit and tie, and was expertly blah-blah-blahing a mile a minute to all the entertainment reporters who showed up with video cameramen in tow. There were about 50 people at the press conference and JJ went on and on about the movie, its unprecedented commercial potential, and his beaming new director discovered from — of all places — the Rutgers philosophy department! He just kept talking while checking his watch, wondering what could be keeping his dear friend Diana from arriving.

He excused himself a number of times to “call the heliport” to check on her arrival. Only the fact that it was pouring rain outside made everyone buy the hours-long delay. JJ managed to keep the media guests there until all the appetizers were gone, but no helicopter or Diana ever showed.

Though Jerome kept telling us how disappointed he was that Diana let him down, needless to say, after this humiliating debacle, even two dimwitted college guys had had enough BS, and the free ride living at our apartment was over. That very same evening, we told crazy brother Jerome to pack his suitcase and hit the road—and he did, amicably. We never saw him again.

Two months later, on June 28, 1971, the Italian-American Civil Rights League was having a rally in Columbus Circle in the heart of Manhattan, which was attended by 50,000 members and sympathizers. This was the very same anti-defamation league that had infamously secured an agreement from The Godfather producer Al Ruddy to omit the words “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” from the film’s dialogue.

They also succeeded, with the help of the virtuous yet sometimes over-the-top rights protector ACLU, in forcing Macy’s stores to stop selling the board game The Godfather Game.

Hard to believe? All true, and only in America! The Mafia as the Red Cross!

The leader of this Italian “civic group” was none other than infamous big-time mobster Joseph Colombo, boss of one of New York City’s big five Mafia families. On this hot June day at Columbus Circle, with cannoli vendors having a busy day, Colombo was about to address the huge crowd when gunshots rang out and all hell broke loose. His assassin, who put three bullets in Colombo’s head, was in turn shot in the back and instantly killed by another shooter, who was never caught.

The next day, as I sipped my morning coffee, I read the front-page article about the shooting. The newspaper featured a mug shot of the dead assassin, and later the police photo was broadcast on every TV newscast.

To my shock and amazement, I saw that Colombo’s assassin was a black man (unusual in an Italian mob hit) and…and…I instantly recognized him! It was my very own couch moocher, my angel film producer, the now-revealed ex-con hired by some mob boss to assassinate another mob boss!

It was Jerome Johnson himself. My fokkers JJ? Diana Ross’s pal? Billy Barty’s producer? My first feature film hero? And there was his name under his picture in the paper and on every TV breaking news story!

The police described Jerome as “a demented street hustler” who had somehow been provided false press credentials so he could get close enough to the parade’s stage area to shoot Colombo when he started his speech. The investigation went on forever but they were never able to prove who had hired my good buddy, the producer. No arrests were ever made, and the cops finally declared him “a crazed lone gunman.”

JJ? A crazed gunman? Living on my couch, eating my food, smoking my weed, and hiring me to make my first feature epic? I immediately realized this movie business was going to be a hell of a lot harder to crack and much wackier than I ever thought!

For all who have ever been disappointed or screwed or lied to or ripped off in the film world — in or outside Hollywood — remember my slick buddy and freeloader roommie, Jerome Johnson. He was the best movie hustler I ever met. And the dumbest assassin ever born.

From Guy Magar's memoir KISS ME QUICK BEFORE I SHOOT: A Filmmaker’s Journey into the Lights of Hollywood and True Love.