Forty years after The Godfather was released, Jimi Famurewa explores the death threats, disputes and violent mafia battles that nearly whacked a cinematic classic
Autumn, 1970 and the cosy silence of a Californian suburb has just been broken by the sound of gunfire and shattering glass. Bettye McCartt, assistant to Hollywood producer Al Ruddy, quietens her understandably terrified children and leaves the house to see what’s happened.
Every window on the sports car outside, a vehicle she had borrowed from her jittery boss after he received a tip-off that his car was being tracked, has been smashed. The exact scrawled words on the note stuck to the remains of the windshield have been lost to myth, speculation and faltering memories, but the gist of the message is clear to this day. Pull the plug on The Godfather, or else.
It sounds like it could be a deleted scene from the film itself rather than a real-life tale from the other side of the camera. But this was just one moment in a prolonged campaign of intimidation, theft, violence and scheming that characterised, and jeopardised, the making of a modern masterpiece.
“There was a twofold reaction when Paramount announced it was making Mario Puzo’s book into a movie,” explains film historian and author of The Godfather Effect Tom Santopietro. “It was a bestseller, so there were of course fans of the novel who wanted to see it on the big screen. But then there were Italians who were upset about another larger-than-life depiction of Italians as mobsters.”
This opposition was spearheaded by the recently formed Italian-American Civil Rights League, a wealthy and increasingly powerful group that campaigned against any perceived marinara-stained stereotyping in pop culture.
It soon became clear however that the charismatic leader of the League might have had a different, altogether less innocent reason for shutting down production on this high-profile Mob epic. “The ultimate irony was that the League was headed by a real-life mobster called Joseph Colombo,” laughs Santopietro.
It was the beginning of a period that brought the forceful personalities behind The Godfather uncomfortably close to the dangerous men they were depicting. Forty years, $268m at the box office and three Academy Awards later it’s incredible to think that, had it not been for a few dramatic interventions, one of cinema’s greatest films might never have been made.
Four decades after it was released, this operatic story of family, crime and equine decapitation is an untouchable classic, rated third (behind Casablanca and Citizen Kane) in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films Of All Time, and rightly regarded as the pinnacle of modern filmmaking.
Surprisingly though, it began life with the odds stacked heavily against it. It was made on a comparatively puny $7m (£4.4m) budget, had a supposedly washed-up Marlon Brando leading an unknown cast and had been given to an untested young director called Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola’s hiring was met with fierce opposition by playboy Paramount executive Robert Evans (“He’s crazy. F*ck him and the horse he rode in on,” was what Evans apparently said at the time) but he had one, notable thing in his favour.
“Evans only agreed to hire Coppola after a fellow Paramount exec called Peter Bart suggested that an Italian-American director might cool the situation [with the League],” explains Jon Lewis, Film Studies lecturer at Oregon State University and author of the BFI’s slim but insightful book on The Godfather. “Needless to say it didn’t work.”
Coppola’s arrival, and his vision of the story as a sympathetic family chronicle, fitted in with Paramount’s promotion of The Godfather as the first Italian Mob drama made by Italians. One where, as Bart put it, “you could smell the spaghetti”. But despite assembling a crew and cast with vowel-laden names and authentic heritage Paramount couldn’t quash the League and Joe Colombo’s growing anger.
“Before The Godfather started filming, Italian-American civil-rights groups had no heft or muscle at all,” says Santopietro. “Then, all of a sudden, the protests took on a life of their own and thousands of people joined.”
But what began with peaceful protest — including a rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden that raised $500,000 to halt production — soon became a Corleone-style campaign of intimidation.
Colombo, despite his status as a Mafia don and former contract killer, projected a wholesome image of lectern-clutching respectability. But those connected to his crime family embarked on a campaign of intimidation of which the Corleones would have been proud.
Bomb scares saw Paramount’s New York offices in the Gulf + Western Building evacuated twice. Then Al Ruddy, after a series of threatening phone calls and an LAPD tip-off, made the decision that left him with a hefty bill from his mechanic.
“There were major threats, they were serious,” says Gianni Russo, the Mob-connected fixer who ended up memorably portraying Don Corleone’s abusive son-in-law Carlo Rizzi in the film. “[The Colombos] had idiots around them who would do anything. Francis [Ford Coppola] went to Little Italy to do some tests before filming in a movie mobile, like an Airstream. They went in for lunch and when they came back the truck was gone. A million dollars’ worth of equipment.”
Thefts and veiled threats were one thing, but the most vicious incident came when Evans, his Hollywood actress wife Ali McGraw and their infant son Joshua received a mystery call at their New York hotel. “We don’t want to break your pretty face, hurt your newborn,” rasped the voice. “Get the f*ck outta town. Don’t shoot no movie about the family here. Got it?”
Evans, a cigar-chomping, hard-headed old Hollywood figure, didn’t wilt, and suggested they take it up with Ruddy, the film’s producer. “Listen carefully, motherf*cker,” said the voice. “I ain’t gonna say it again. When you wanna kill a snake, pretty boy, there’s only one way to do it — you go for its head.”
THE M WORD
As well as the hoodlums making pre-production a nightmare, the team behind The Godfather had angered a powerful member of Hollywood royalty: Frank Sinatra. The Rat Pack crooner had been against the project since its inception — he allegedly threatened to break Mario Puzo’s legs in 1970 when the pair were introduced — because of the uncanny similarity he bore to the story’s feckless, Mafia-owned singer Johnny Fontane. But there might have been another reason for his vocal support of the League in its campaign to shut down production. “There are definitely elements of Sinatra in Fontane, no question. But Sinatra was also incessantly career-obsessed,” says Santopietro, who also has an Ol’ Blue Eyes memoir in his bibliography. “He knew Don Vito Corleone was a great role and so he saw Francis Ford Coppola, well before filming had started, and said to him, ‘Francis, I will play Don Vito for you. I’ll never do it for those guys at Paramount so let’s you and I buy back the rights and make the movie.’”
Coppola, for whatever reason, rebuffed this breakaway offer and, according to Santopietro, only deepened Sinatra’s hatred of The Godfather.
Legend has it Sinatra successfully got Italian-American singer Vic Damone to quit his role as Johnny Fontane (a part ultimately played by the equally dapper Al Martino), and Russo claims he tried the same trick with him. “Sinatra’s a punk,” he spits. “He called me up and said, ‘I don’t want you to support this thing.’ So I hung up the phone.”
With celebrities intimidating cast members, Mob-controlled unions refusing to allow filming and Paramount staff living in fear, something had to be done. It was time for Hollywood’s elite to swallow their pride, say a few private prayers and meet the Mob. Unbowed by the numerous threats he’d received, Al Ruddy invited Joe Colombo and two broad-shouldered associates to his East Coast office to broker a deal.
“They demanded that he delete all mentions of ‘mafia’ in the script, but they didn’t bother to read it,” laughs Santopietro. “So Paramount agreed and [the League] thought it’d won this great victory despite the fact there was only one use of ‘mafia’ in the script.”
It was a masterstroke by Ruddy — albeit one that briefly got him fired thanks to unhelpful press tales about Mob collusion. But his next move helped guarantee that the Little Italy and Staten Island locations Coppola craved would be made available.
“Ruddy ended a speech to the League by saying, ‘Of course we’ll be looking to use people as extras in the film,” continues Santopietro. “People started cheering and from that point the American love of showbusiness took over.”
BLOOD ON THE SIDEWALK
Gianni Russo, a charismatic New Yorker now in his late sixties with a fondness
for lawyer-troubling anecdotes and high-collared shirts, was one of these fame-hungry Americans. He’d already sent a showgirl in his ’65 Bentley limousine to personally deliver a screen test (where he portrayed Michael, Sonny and Carlo) to Ruddy. But he fondly recalls that it was another sit-down with Paramount where he unlocked restrictions at a location in exchange for a place in cinematic history.
“It was like a scene from the movie,” says Russo. “I took Joe [Colombo] and all these guys to the Gulf + Western building. We made a deal and they tried to pacify me by saying, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll give him a part.’ I said, ‘I either play Michael, Sonny or Carlo. That’s my deal.’ And Joe said, ‘That’s what the kid wants, give it to him.’ Were they scared? I think they stained their underwear.”
Pretty soon, Russo — who occasionally worked for Frank Costello, the gravel-gargling Mob boss said to have been the inspiration for Brando’s Oscar-minted portrayal of Vito Corleone — wasn’t the only shady presence on the set. Members of the notorious Gambino crime family would “visit every day” and, according to him, the wedding scene featured “100 years of good behaviour total”.
“It was amazing,” cackles Russo. “I was making more money on that film than anybody. I had all the soft drinks on set, all the pastries… forget about it.”
This eventual love-in between the Mob and the makers of The Godfather may have blurred the line between fiction and reality, but midway through filming it was completely obliterated. On 28 June 1971, a few streets away from where Coppola was shooting the climactic scenes of the film, Joe Colombo was gunned down by a hitman reputedly working for rival gangster Joe Gallo. “Carlo Gambino and Frank Costello had warned him. He was bringing too much attention [to the mafia way of life],” explains Russo. “If that doesn’t tell you that what was happening [in The Godfather] was real, then I don’t know what can.” Colombo remained paralysed for seven years until his death.
Being filmed in the midst of bloody gangland battles did nothing to harm the film’s press — it was a certified hit as soon as it was released. Queues snaked around the block as Coppola’s epic became one of the highest-grossing pictures of all time. What’s more, police officials noticed a strange trend among the film’s newly approving criminal audience.
“Mario Puzo had invented the term ‘The Godfather’ for the novel. It didn’t exist,” explains Santopietro. “But the effect of the book and the film was so extreme that real-life mobsters started to imitate what they had seen on screen. Kissing the hand in a gesture of respect, referring to ‘The Godfather’ of a particular family and so on. There are FBI tapes of mobsters quoting Don Corleone. That’s the power of this film.”
It was a final twist to the tale of which Coppola himself would have been proud. His Mob saga had survived death threats, disruptions and table-flinging disputes to become every wiseguy’s favourite flick.
The omerta-breaking enemy was reborn as the manual for modern Mob life and launched a tradition of authentic screen mafiosi that stretches from GoodFellas right up to The Sopranos. All along, the filmmakers wanted to turn the criminal experience into something complex, noble and even heroic and all they wanted in return from the Mob was approval and cooperation. Fittingly, it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.
The Godfather Effect is out now; giannirusso.com
The Godfather Coppola Restoration boxset is available to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment. Buy it from Amazon here.