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The cop who sang is no fan of 'The Sopranos'

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Twenty-seven years after a movie starring Al Pacino made him a household name, Frank Serpico had a reason to slip into Pittsburgh. I didn't expect the crusader against police corruption in the NYPD to look like the young Pacino, but I always assumed he'd have the same dark eyes, undiminished by years of uninterrupted disappointment with the system.

Driving to LeMont on Mount Washington for a reception in Frank Serpico's honor Thursday night, I imagined shaking hands with the sleep-deprived cop in "Insomnia" or the mischievous blind man with the deeply lined face in "Scent of a Woman," two films in which Pacino's weather-beaten countenance was a main character.

The real Frank Serpico looks nothing like my unconscious fantasies. His eyes are bright and fierce, befitting a "young" 66-year-old. His salt-and-pepper hair is short and well-trimmed. In lieu of a ponytail, he wears silver earrings in each lobe.

Frank Serpico's long face is more reminiscent of a Swede's than an Italian's and is punctuated by a goatee. Bullet fragments still imbedded in his skull three decades after he was shot in the face by a drug dealer don't inhibit his smile. A faded spot on his left cheek shows where the .22 hollow-point bullet entered.

Frank Serpico is a man of anecdotes and enthusiasm for life. His handshake is as firm as his convictions that the system remains thoroughly corrupt. In the course of the evening, he quoted from the Declaration of Independence and contemporary political philosophers while making the point that American democracy is on the auction block.

At Primo magazine's reception for Serpico at LeMont, nearly two dozen people jockeyed to shake hands with the man of the hour. The Pittsburgh-based magazine with a national circulation is negotiating with the former cop about becoming a contributing writer to a publication that celebrates the positive side of Italian-American life.

Serpico frequently cupped his right ear and leaned forward to hear. His left ear no longer works thanks to the bullet fragments that ricocheted through his head the night he was shot, severing an auditory nerve.

Asked why he wore a magnifying glass around his neck like a decorative medallion, Frank Serpico laughed. "The better to see the fine print with," he said mysteriously. Later, he admitted that he used the magnifying glass to read nutrition information on food packaging. He's picky about what goes into his trim, athletic body.

As hors d'oeuvres and wine made the rounds, Serpico kept his consumption to a minimum. He was too engaged in whatever conversation he was drawn into at the moment to eat. He willingly answered questions about the enmity he encountered while on the NYPD and the bitterness that followed him to Switzerland and back to America. Since his shooting, he's never been invited to share his experience with a New York police academy class, though police chiefs in other cities have invited him to talk to their recruits.

"I'm not a rat," he told one gentleman. "I locked up criminals who wore badges. If that makes me a rat, so be it, but you have to wonder about the values of police chiefs who think cops are above the law."

These days, Serpico is more concerned about the coming war with Iraq and what he considers the president's wholesale annexation of our civil rights.

At a lunch in his honor at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center last Friday, Serpico waded into another controversy that was far from the intricacies of terrorism, but just as close to his heart. While salad was being served, someone announced that cast members of "The Sopranos" -- whom New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had invited to march with him in the Columbus Day parade -- had been "disinvited" by the march's organizers.

Serpico and several people at the table applauded. For once, I kept my mouth shut. I couldn't bring myself to tell a man I've admired since I was a teenager how much I enjoy a show he apparently holds in contempt.

Serpico never explained why he found "The Sopranos" so distasteful. It was as if the reasons were too obvious to go into, especially at a table full of Italian-Americans. Corrupt cops and politicians who pander to fears of terrorism were another story.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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