[Added May 8, 2009: What did I think of the new Underbelly series?]
Underbelly, the Nine Network’s new multi-million dollar series debuting on February 13 at 8.30pm, is a dramatisation of the real life Melbourne crime wars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Blending the documented journalistic account from John Silvester and Andrew Rule’s series of books with no doubt a little dramatic licence, the film-makers have gathered an all-star quality cast of Australian actors for what looks like an amazing production.But how does it stack up to reality? In a gangland war that was played out very much in the mass media as much as anywhere else, many of these real-life criminal figures became quite well known. We compare the main real-life figures of Underbelly with their fictional counterparts:
(Note: We’ll avoid overt spoilers as to the fate of these “characters”, since it might ruin parts of the story for those of you not too familar with the real life events.)
Alphonse Gangitano was a bit of an enigma really — grew up in a crime-free family, educated at a private school, but drawn to a life of crime. He was a “show gangster”, deeply influenced by classic DeNiro movies and as interested in the image of gang life as the reality. Indeed, some police even dispute just how deeply involved he was in Carlton crew activities. His murder, like nearly all in the crime war, is unsolved, though it was suspected to be an inside job.
Gangitano is played by talented Aussie actor Vince Colosimo, who was been building a steady and impressive resume, including some US work on The Practice and recent work as an ultimately-corrupt cop on Seven’s City Homicide. Top marks to the makers of Underbelly for finding a top-notch actor who bears such a remarkable resemblance to Gangitano.
Carl Williams spent most of the Melbourne crime war as an unknown, only emerging near the end as a major player when so many of his adversaries were dead. He was the usurper that moved in on the Carlton crew’s territory, taking huge profits out of the anphetimines business. Short, fat and remarkably unnattractive, he was nevertheless easily prone to violence, and clearly attractive to women who crave power, if his string of leggy blonde girlfriends and later wives is anything to go by.
Gyton Grantley doesn’t have much of a profile in the acting world, despite a long resume in local soaps including Headland and Home and Away. But he’s a good choice again — if he can show the acting chops, he’s a dead ringer for the real Williams.
Jason Moran was the leading light of a major Melbourne crime family that went back several generations. He is probably the real badass of this story, with several convictions for violent attacks, a background in drug-dealing, and a seriously unpleasant streak of ruthlessness. He was suspected in the 1999 shooting attack on Carl Williams that really started the gangland war, and in return, Williams is suspected of wounding him several years later. Moran’s death in 2003 was a particularly brutal and public murder that became one of the more high-profile gang killings of all time in Australia.
Les Hill will be familiar to local TV viewers for his long stint in the early- to mid-1990s on Home and Away. Hardly a background for Australia’s great actors, Hill disappeared for a while, with some ads and more Home and Away guest appearances his only real work of note. However, with his casting in Underbelly, things seem to be picking up for him. Not the dead-ringer for his real life counterpart that Colosimo and Grantley are, but not a bad likeness, either.
Mark Moran was the quieter (relatively speaking) half brother of Jason Moran, and while he kept a much lower profile, he was said to be just as ruthless. His end also came a lot quicker in the Melbourne gang wars.
Callan Mulvey got his start with a long-term role on TV’s Heartbreak High, then had a serious setback after he was almost killed in a 2004 car crash near Byron Bay. Things seem to be looking up for him with this role, after a long rehabilitation process following that incident. He’s also got a big current role on Home and Away. Again, like Les Hill, not a massive likeness for Moran, but early reviews have him getting the mood for the character perfectly.
Condello was a lawyer who became as corrupt as the criminals he once defended. Intensely close to the Carlton crew and more adept and directing crime than committing it, his involvement ultimately led to his trial for attempted murder, but his own murder brought that trial to an end.
Former Blue Heelers star Martin Sacks plays Condello — a different role for an actor best known for playing a likeable TV cop. A pretty-good likeness for the real figure.
Tony Mokbel is a rare character in this story — he’s still alive. And for a time, he was even a free man, having fled Australia in 2006 during his trial for cocaine dealing. But that freedom was fleeting after his high-profile arrest in Greece last year. Still in jail in that country, his future is uncertain. What is even more uncertain is what kind of role the character of Mokbel would play in Underbelly — as the only significant player in the whole gangland war with criminal charges still pending, the show’s writers could face some legal troubles depending on what they choose to depict him as being involved with.
Robert Mammone must be getting used to playing criminal figures now, having played chief villain Craig Lukevic in Foxtel’s well received drama Dangerous last year. The usually suave Mammone is only a basic likeness for Mokbel, but apparently he put on 15kg for the role to get into character.
Domenic “Mick” Gatto
Mick Gatto really is the lucky one in this whole story. Despite having a string of convictions and serving jail time for offenses including burglary, assaulting police and illegal firearms, he is currently a free man and likely to stay that way unless he does something really stupid. Best known for a 2004 restaurant shoot out that led to murder charges. He was ultimately found not guilty on the grounds of self defense, a judgement that still has some police seething.
As a former cop, best known for playing cops on TV, it must be interesting for Simon Westaway to be turning to the other side of the law, playing the definitely shady, but obviously clever Gatto. Familar in the past for his suave and dark-haired good looks, Westaway turns in a chameleonic performance here, looking much older, and with a grey, receding hairline — a good resemblence for Gatto. Mick was probably impressed, as he was the only figure in this story in any position to provide technical advice to the production.
A veteran of the Melbourne crime scene, Lewis Moran was the patriarch of a crime clan starring his son Jason and stepson Mark. He didn’t look like a criminal, but his crime past stretched back to the 1960s. His shooting death in 2004 was the most public of all the gangland war murders, and caused police to seriously ramp up their efforts to end the spree.
Lewis Moran is played by the versatile Kevin Harrington, not the first actor anyone would associate with playing a crime figure, but maybe that’s fitting for a figure such as the senior Moran. Harrington is best known for his comedic role in the successful 2000 feature The Dish as layback Dish technician Mitch. Not a massive likeness for Moran, but he should have the acting chops and create the right mood to pull it off.
Graham “Munster” Kinniburgh
Graham Kinniburgh was the elder statesman of Melbourne crime, with decades of involvement with both the infamous Painters and Dockers union, and later the Carlton crew. He lived through several gang wars and saw a lot of friends or associates die by the bullet before he met his end the same way in 2003.
Kinniburgh is played by TV legend Gerard Kennedy, another actor best known for his work in police dramas. He’s been on Australian TV almost since the beginning, and this is his highest profile TV role in several years. Conveying the same elder statesman image, Kennedy isn’t enormously similar-looking to Kinniburgh, but there’s no questioning his skill as an actor.
Andrew “Benji” Veniamin
Andrew “Benji” Veniamin was one of the nastiest and most dangerous characters involved in the whole Melbourne crime war. Put simply, he was a hitman for Carl Williams, and is personally believed to have committed a number of the murders during the war. He met his end equally violently, and even more controversially.
The heavily-tatooed, ultra-violent Benji Veniamin is played by Damien Walshe-Howling, best known for his multiyear stint on Blue Heelers as local copper Adam Cooper. So this will be a big change for him — and he seems to bear a pretty good resemblance to Veniamin.
As the matriarch of the Moran clan, Judy Moran was one tough lady, always involved but never directly implicated in the activities of her husband and children. She was close enough to the war to have been targeted by associates of Carl Williams, but to date she remains unscathed.
Caroline Gillmer is a veteran of Australian TV, first coming to prominence in the classic women’s jail drama Prisoner. More recently, she’s been seen in Brides of Christ, Neighbours and MDA. She’s a fairly good likeness for Moran, and has been one of the few cast members to deal with criticism from the real person she’s playing.
Carl Williams attracted a constant parade of attractive young women to his side, drawn by his power, money and ruthlessness more than his looks. Roberta Williams reached the top of the heap and became his wife, but in the last few years, even she has been thrown aside as Carl faced trial with a new, younger, buxom blonde by his side. She’s also had her fair share of high-profile, if relatively minor, legal problems.
Kat Stewart has been keeping close to crime recently with her major role in last year’s City Homicide. Also seen in SBS’s drama Kick and comedy Newstopia, this should be a major break for her. She’s again, quite a good likeness for the now bitter Roberta Williams, and has had to deal with a lot from her real life doppleganger.
(Note: Pictures come from Nine’s Underbelly Web site, and various news media sources, which I believe should count as fair use in this context. If you don’t like that, just ask me to remove it.)Related posts:Underbelly: Now Channel Nine could be in a bit of troubleUnderbelly: Ridiculous media suppression