BOOKS " Getting a Read on Redemption

NEW YORK " Like so many wiseguys before him, Lou Ferrante finally got pinched. After years of hijackings, beatings and other violent crimes, he was busted for armed robbery and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison. Life behind bars was a shock to the smart-aleck kid from Queens who had joined the Gambino crime family. But even more shocking was how he spent his time.

While other prisoners slept, Ferrante would rise early to daven, reciting prayers of his newfound Jewish faith. He wore a yarmulke in the exercise yard and followed kosher dietary laws. He spent months in an upstate prison writing a Torah commentary but shoved it under his mattress when the Sabbath began on Friday night.

Desperate to pass the days, Ferrante began reading books for the first time. He took up writing and cranked out a 1,200-page novel that he now admits is terrible. As his sentence ended, he told anyone who would listen that he was a changed man and that Judaism was his rock.

"I figured that with Judaism, you don't go through a middleman, you go right to the top guy and talk to him," Ferrante said. "That's how I used to handle business on the streets. It made a lot of sense."

Released from prison two years ago, Ferrante, 38, began writing about his experiences. That memoir, "Unlocked: A Journey From Prison to Proust," will be published in March by HarperCollins. When he sent a copy of it to "Sopranos" star Lorraine Bracco " contacting her through friends of a friend " he hoped to get a blurb. But she called him immediately after reading it and made a pitch for the film rights.

"This story has shades of 'Goodfellas' and 'Shawshank Redemption,' " said Bracco, who played Dr. Jennifer Melfi, the shrink to gangster Tony Soprano, on the HBO show. "And for whatever reason, these mob stories always seem to find me. This is the first book I've ever optioned for a film, and I'm very excited about it."

Bracco, who also played the wife of gangster Henry Hill in "Goodfellas," can't help but see the irony: Here she is, helping a real-life mobster redeem himself after playing a similar role on television. To fully explore Ferrante's tale, she said she'll be seeking creative advice from David Chase, who created "The Sopranos," and Nick Pileggi, the author of "Wiseguy" and "Casino."

"Imagine all the things he (Ferrante) has been through, the changes he underwent in prison," the actress said. "And then think about the fact that it's not just a great movie story, it's true."

Some might be tempted to dismiss Ferrante's book, because the image of a tough guy reading the Talmud invites obvious jokes. But to hear Ferrante speak about his life is to hear the story of a man who once brutalized others " and vows to change. He has moved into a home in upstate New York and hopes to make a living as a writer.

Unlike most mob memoirs, "Unlocked" doesn't dwell unduly on criminal exploits, nor does it name many names. Although the author spent time with both John and Peter Gotti, they are rarely mentioned. Instead, he tries to provide some insight into his own behavior. Indeed, Ferrante makes no excuses for his violent actions and begins his memoir with the story of a truck hijacking in which he and his crew terrorized an innocent driver who begged for his life.

Let the therapy begin: "He wasn't just robbing money, he was robbing the souls of other people," said Bracco, describing Ferrante's past. "When you stand with a gun and tell someone what to do, you're putting fear into their lives. You're destroying something. It's almost like a molester stealing the soul of a child."

It took nearly a decade in prison for Ferrante to realize that his career in organized crime was a physical and spiritual dead end.

He saw other prisoners slowly losing their minds behind bars and said he turned to reading, writing and religion as an escape from daily life. But what he found was the cornerstone of a new identity.

"I thought about my life," he wrote. "Why did I end up here, living with animals? I beat men up. I shoved guns in their mouths. I even bit people. I lived like an animal on the street. I didn't realize it until I was placed in this zoo. I hated myself for being one of them."

The path back to self-respect included religion, and Ferrante explored several. Shedding Catholicism for Judaism took guts, because fellow Italians viewed him as a traitor and wondered if he was snitching on them. Others saw him lose the protection of a larger group and decided he was ripe for attack.

"In jail, most American Jews are not considered dangerous," he said. "The dozen or so I did time with were all there for nonviolent crime. I don't think anybody ever checked into protective custody saying, 'I'm scared for my life; the Jews are after me.' "

When he was released, Ferrante's friends were impressed with his interest in writing. A few, including screenwriter David Black ("Law & Order"), introduced him to other authors and agents, but none was interested in his novel. They all urged him to tell his own story. Reluctant at first to revisit the past, he finally relented.

Ferrante sent a few early chapters to literary agent Lisa Queen, whom he had met through a mutual friend. She was impressed with the fluid, poetic quality of his writing and signed him on the spot. "I sold the book about two weeks later, and it all happened very quickly," Queen said. "The book was obviously true to life. But he is also quite funny. Humor helps him tell his stories."

Like the time, shortly after his release, he ran into a Mafia big shot who was slurping matzo ball soup in a kosher diner. Ferrante realized the guy was high on the list of mobsters with whom he couldn't associate, according to his probation guidelines.

"The guy gives me a big hug, but my first question is whether he thinks he's being watched by the feds," Ferrante recalled. "He said he probably was. So I tell him: 'I'm going to have to report this whole thing to my probation officer.' That much I understood. But why he was there in a kosher restaurant, I couldn't begin to tell you."


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