Throughout his career, Greek-American actor Theo Pagones has been typecast as an Israeli tough guy, a Russian henchman, an Armenian thug.
As someone who idolized mafia and mob classics like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos, Pagones eventually found inspiration—and an opportunity—to tap his own roots and flip the stereotype.
Hollywood, he discovered, hadn’t delved into the rivalry between Greek and Albanian criminal organizations. The two countries that share a border also have a complicated historical tie.
So Pagones made a decision: “I’m just going to write a story set in Greece and New York,” he said in an interview last week. “I’m not going to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Mafia genre. I’m just going to use two different cultures that haven’t been depicted before in present day society and life.”
Years in the making, Pagones has now created Astoria: The Saga of the Antonopoulos Oikoyéneia. The planned TV series takes place in the historically Greek neighborhood of Queens, New York and in Athens.
The show follows the Antonopoulos clan, a powerful Greek crime family fighting for control of a drug and shipping cartel against “the more ruthless and deadly Albanian Mafia,” according to its summary.
Pagones, 55, plays Aristotle Antonopoulos, the mob boss’ son, as he rises to head of the family in New York. In addition to fending off Albanian gang advances, Aristotle fights for control amid a power play in his own family from his “drug-crazed, alienated older sister Chrysanthi,” who is sent to Greece.
For that role, Pagones turned to Greek-Italian actress Sofia Milos, an established TV presence who was on CSI: Miami for seven seasons, had a recurring role in The Sopranos and has been in a number of sitcoms and dramas. She is now on Amazon Prime’s drama Gravesend about a member of an Italian mob family in 1980s Brooklyn. Milos, 52, recently joined the cast of Astoria along with Greek standup comic and actor Angelo Tsarouchas, a friend of Pagones, who plays a bar owner.
In an Instagram post following a June 10th article in Deadline about Milos’ arrival, Pagones wrote: “I’m very excited to announce Sofia Milos has joined the cast of Astoria!!”
Milos told Greek Reporter in an email that she and Pagones spoke at “length about the important role of women today, and the culturally and traditionally Greek contrast imposed to it. Chrysanthi is a complex woman, beautifully flawed,” she said. “We spoke about their journey, her power but also her struggles, her fears and incredible inspirational strength and rebellion for better or worse.”
Pagones, who hasn’t found a home for the show yet, says he is in negotiations with several interested cable and streaming companies. He’s aiming for an early 2023 production start, adding that the series will likely split about 60 – 40 between New York and Athens locations. He has written a pilot episode and has a four-season arc—or series bible—in place. The series takes place in the present day but will include flashbacks to the 1970s.
Pagones talked to Greek Reporter by phone on a recent morning from the roof of the Soho House West Hollywood in Los Angeles. He lives in LA but has family in Greece and travels there annually.
In his research for Astoria, Pagones heard people tell him, “‘there’s no such thing as a Greek mafia or an Albanian mafia.'” Of course there is, he said. With the Greek mafia, Pagones added, “everyone keeps it hush-hush, and underground. They’re not as boisterous.”
Real-Life Greek Mafia
A number of Greek organized crime groups are centered in Athens, and many other smaller groups operate throughout other cities and in villages. Authorities still have not solved the April 2021 shooting death of Greek investigative reporter Giorgos Karaivaz, whose work focused on organized crime. He was killed in a drive-by shooting by two unknown individuals in the southern suburb of Alimos in Athens.
A month after that, a 39-year-old retired boxer was killed in a drive-by shooting in southern Athens in what appears to be a mafia-style execution. A few hours earlier, a 32-year-old Albanian national was shot dead in a coffee shop north of Athens.
For Pagones’ drama, the key gathering points for the characters include a club and speakeasy, with the backdrop of a shipping business mixed in. In Greece, prominent locations for the show will be the southwest coastline of beaches known as the Athens Riviera, which include a peninsula where the luxury Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel is situated. “Everyone’s filming in Greece now,” Pagones said. “That’s the hot location to shoot.”
A first-generation Greek-American, Pagones grew up in Seattle, Washington; his parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1930s. His family is from the Greek island of Chios. Pagones moved to L.A. in the early 1990s while his sister returned to Greece and now lives in Athens. He is planning another visit to Greece in September.
Pagones’ mother and brother died within seven months of each other in 2020, losses that he said, “changed my perception of things.”
Pagones said the backdrop of Astoria will highlight “the beauty, culture and lifestyle of [Greece] properly. That’s one of my biggest frustrations, is it’s generally known as a place to go for tourism. But I’m going to get into the nitty-gritty in the show itself…So if you had never been to Greece or wanted to travel, you could voyage through this story and this show.” He also plans to film on a few islands.
About the Greek-Albanian history and relationship, Pagones said, “you sprinkle it lightly within the storyline.” A mafia crime drama, he said, Astoria is a not a documentary.
However, for many viewers, it will be an introduction to the relationship between the two nations. “There’s history, territorial history,” he said of the neighbors. But Pagones added, “we’re not going to go deep into that.”
In the Middle Ages, descendants of the Arvanite people, who still live in Greece, immigrated from what is now Albania. The Avanites maintain their own distinct language and culture today in Greece and played an important role in the country’s history, particularly in the 1821 War of Independence.
The Muslim Cham population of Albania, however, still demands an apology from Greece for what they call genocide against their people. Greece denies the claim. After the Chams became a propaganda tool for the Italians during its occupation of Albania in 1939, Greek authorities deported the adult male Cham population to internment camps at the start of the Greco-Italian War.
Following the occupation of Greece, large parts of the Muslim Cham population collaborated with Italian and German forces, which led to resentment among the local Greek population. Following World War II, the entire Muslim Cham population was forced to flee Greece to Albania.
More recently, Greece experienced a surge of Albanian immigrants in the early 1990s after the fall of communism, a flow that renewed tensions. Greece is still a significant foreign investor in Albania, though it dropped several places from the top in recent years, according to Balkan Insight.
Pagones, who first had the idea for Astoria over a decade ago, said the appetite for mafia genres is still large despite a recent belt-tightening among streamers, namely Netflix.
“There’s an affection toward Mafia,” he said. “I don’t even know how many times ‘Goodfellas’ comes on the screen and I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, and I’ve seen it a hundred times. I can watch it anyway…you know what’s going to happen, too, you just love watching it.”