Actor Robert Mammone had to shave part of his head to get Tony Mokbel’s look right for Fat Tony & Co. The old gang is back … Les Hill as Jason Moran and Vince Colosimo as Alphonse Gangitano.
Cross Keys Reserve is an ordinary footy oval in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, a forgettable expanse of car park and playing fields but for its dubious claim to fame as the site of a chilling double-murder 11 years ago.
It was here in 2003 that underworld figures Jason Moran and Pasquale Barbaro were shot dead in broad daylight. There were children in the back of the van where the two men were executed, while other children kicked footballs on a Saturday morning.
The chilling scene was vividly captured in the original Underbelly, and once again a crew is here for the filming of the latest chapter in the Screentime-Nine true-crime saga.
Ominously, a pair of policemen who could easily be mistaken for actors are in the process of apprehending a man right next to the tents where catering and production crews are installed.
For various reasons, Fat Tony & Co isn’t branded ”Underbelly”, though its roots are unmistakably in the original 2008 drama.
Key events of Melbourne’s so-called gangland wars that were central to Underbelly are revisited here, while many Underbelly actors reprise what amount to career-defining roles: Vince Colosimo as Alphonse Gangitano, Gyton Grantley as Carl Williams, Les Hill as Jason Moran, Madeleine West as Danielle McGuire and Simon Westaway as Mick Gatto.
The eponymous character of Fat Tony & Co is convicted drug trafficker Tony Mokbel, who was largely excised from Underbelly on account of pending criminal trials at the time of its broadcast.
Even after a major re-edit, the character played by Robert Mammone was identified only as ”Larry” in the original.
With equal measures of humour and caution, Mammone recalls that ”changes had to be made once a certain gentleman who was wanted by the police was apprehended”.
Mokbel was famously arrested wearing a punchline-worthy wig in Greece in 2007 after ”disappearing” from Melbourne while on trial the year before.
Implicated in several murders, he was finally sentenced in 2012 to 30 years in prison for his involvement in drug trafficking.
The wig makes a brief appearance in later episodes of Fat Tony & Co, but what surprised Mammone during his months-long stay in Melbourne for the shoot was how much people knew about ”that guy with the wig”.
”When I ventured out … everyone had a story, either an encounter with Mokbel himself or one of his brothers or someone related to them, from a horse trainer that trained horses that he apparently didn’t own but really did, to cafe guys and sports people. He was quite a character in this city. Up in Sydney, where I live, there’s also no shortage of conversation about him”.
Born in Kuwait to Lebanese parents who emigrated to Australia in the mid-1970s, the young Tony Mokbel was a milk bar owner and pizza chef before turning to the manufacture and importation of drugs.
Many parts of Mokbel’s colourful story remain open to conjecture, and Mammone goes to great lengths to emphasise Fat Tony & Co is a fictional story based around certain known events.
”I looked for footage of him walking, talking, all those characteristics that give me a clue of the character and it was hard to find anything, in fact I couldn’t. I realised then that in line with what Screentime and Channel Nine wanted, that it’s a drama. I decided to take a few little cues from there and re-create my own (character) because it’s not a documentary and, while I’m portraying a real person, I think it best we take dramatic licence and create an entity that may or may not be exact. As far as this show is concerned I don’t think it needs to be exact”.
For Mammone, the death of Mokbel’s father when Tony was 15 was a key to the strong work ethic that was thrust upon him. ”He was certainly determined to be successful and to be wealthy and (trafficking was) the best way he knew how to do that. He was uneducated, so what the hell, if he didn’t do it someone else would. And he was smart enough to actually generate and turn over the sort of dollars that big, big, big business generates, not just guys who deal pills in nightclubs, which was way beneath him.
”When I spoke to some police officers some years ago they were begrudgingly admiring of what he got up to and the level he operated at and were in no doubt that had he chosen to go down a legal path business-wise he’d have been successful. His drive, his work ethic, there’s no way he could fail.”
Despite amassing considerable wealth, Mammone’s Mokbel doesn’t rest on his laurels. ”It was always onwards and upwards. I have a line (in the show), ‘I’m a shark, always moving’, and it’s true, for me anyway.”
Apart from news footage of Mokbel entering and leaving court, Mammone was unable to find any significant films or recordings that Mokbel left behind.The only time he’s heard Mokbel’s voice was a recorded phone call that Mokbel made to an Australian journalist from a Greek prison.
”Even that conversation I heard five years ago, there was a lot of thought in it. It wasn’t just babbling. Every sentence had a motive.”
The task of ”creating” Mokbel’s receding hairline fell upon hair and make-up supervisor Helen Magelaki. Mammone’s head was partially shaved so that the hand-stitched wig could be fitted. The sides of Mammone’s scalp were shaved daily and make-up applied to cover the white area on his forehead, a process that took two people 90 minutes every day.
Knowing that the real Tony Mokbel will be watching his portrayal of him will weigh on him.
”I’d really hope that he watches it and enjoys it. He’ll probably think most of it’s bullshit because it is a drama, but I do hope he appreciates the effort everyone has put in.”
Fat Tony & Co premieres on Sunday at 8.40pm on Nine.