The Secret Historical past of ‘The Godfather’

IN THE SPRING OF 1970, THE MOB, IN THE FORM of Joe Columbo, the boss of the crime household that bore his title, created a corporation known as the Italian American Anti-Defamation League. Certainly one of Columbo’s sons had been arrested on a federal extortion cost, spurring the crime boss to kind the league as an motion group in opposition to what he noticed as unjustified labeling of Italian-Individuals as gangsters. The league gained nationwide consideration and ultimately latched onto the brand new Godfather image for example of the stereotyping of Italian-Individuals.

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Whereas I used to be making an attempt to land a task within the image, Columbo was telling executives from Paramount Photos to stop and desist with their plan to carry The Godfather to the large display screen. Some low-level wiseguys, not linked with Columbo, had director Francis Ford Coppola’s customized Cinemobile stolen proper off the streets of New York’s Little Italy as a message, which partially was, “You might have some balls coming into our neighborhood with out permission and capturing your fucking film.”

The oversize automobile, which was emblazoned with the Godfather film brand and jammed with thousands and thousands of ’ value of movie gear, was within the neighborhood scouting potential places. Nobody noticed something; the automobile simply vanished. It was returned a number of hours later, and it was thought that the film folks had gotten the message, which was that sure folks within the neighborhood must be paid earlier than Coppola could be allowed to movie in Little Italy. Apparently, the studio huge pictures didn’t take what they thought of a prank critically and have been continuing with preproduction.

For the reason that vanishing Cinemobile stunt didn’t work to resolve the issue, somebody in Joe Columbo’s crew despatched a distinct message—a loud one—by having the long-lasting mammoth metal gates on the entrance to the Paramount lot blown up. In the course of the night time, a field loaded with dynamite with a brief fuse was hooked up to the gate, and the ensuing explosion reverberated all through the neighborhood. The studio bought this message this time and wakened; they knew one thing needed to be completed to salvage their image.

Enter Gianni Russo, negotiator extraordinaire.

A scene from The Godfather with Talia Shire and Gianni RussoEverett Assortment

I WAS NEVER A MEMBER OF THE MOB, BUT I’d been near mobsters for many of my life. As a child, I ran errands for Frank Costello, boss of the Luciano crime household, and continued working for him as an grownup, together with operating his nightclubs in Las Vegas. So I used to be effectively acquainted with the mob aspect of the equation. I additionally was fortunate in that I had a really well-placed buddy at Paramount—Betty McCart, who was the secretary of Al Ruddy, one of many producers of The Godfather. Betty informed me that the movers and shakers behind the movie— together with studio head Stanley Jaffe, head of manufacturing Robert Evans, and Charlie Bluhdorn, the controlling stockholder in Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount Photos—have been flying to New York as she spoke to attempt to straighten out the burgeoning downside with Joe Columbo.

“Who’re they assembly with?” I requested.

“They’re in panic mode; an excessive amount of cash already spent in preproduction they usually can see all of it going to shit,” Betty stated. “They’ll be within the Gulf constructing tomorrow morning, hoping somebody will give you some form of plan. Backside line is, they needed to get out of L.A. and go to the place the issue is.”

My thoughts racing, I got here up with a plan—a dangerous one—that will make either side completely happy.

I labored the telephone for hours, tapping my very own mob connections and dropping names of individuals I didn’t know and getting previous secretaries by mentioning Betty McCart’s title. I needed to strike and strike quick, convincing either side I knew the opposite aspect effectively sufficient to tug off a settlement that will make the aspect I used to be presently speaking to return out forward.

By the subsequent day, I used to be capable of carry each factions to the desk in Bluhdorn’s workplace. Bluhdorn was prepared to speak with anybody who may assist get the image made, and I informed him I match that description.

On the mob aspect was Joe Columbo, his prime lieutenant, Fats Anthony, and two capos: “Butterass” DeCicco (so named as a result of his ass was as huge as a cow’s) and his brother “Boozy” DeCicco (so named as a result of he appreciated the occasional drink). With them was their lawyer, Barry Slotnick, who had coaxed the film honchos from L.A.

UNITED STATES - MARCH 06: Handcuffed Joe Colombo Sr. arrives at Nassau District Attorney William Cahn's Mineola, L.I., office after arrest. (Photo by Jim Mooney/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)Jim Mooney/NY Every day Information Archive through Getty Pictures

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The talk went on for hours. Columbo was adamant that phrases like guinea, wop, greaseball, and the like wouldn’t be talked about within the film. Additionally, the names Mafia and La Cosa Nostra have been verboten. The film folks envisioned their gritty, genuine script would wind up sounding like an episode of the Hardy Boys Meet Nancy Drew.

Because the talks dragged into the afternoon, we have been taking a look at an deadlock.

Lastly, somebody known as for a break, and I corralled Columbo on the aspect. After listening to his bluster for hours, I assumed I knew how you can deal with him.

“Joe,” I stated, “you’re in management right here. You can also make this film occur, and go down in historical past as an important American.”

“You assume?”

Enjoying to Columbo’s ego was positively the way in which to go. “Completely, and I’ll inform you what else. I’ll prepare to get prints of the image forward of time and you may have showings throughout the nation at non-public venues and make a ton of cash.”

I held no sway within the trade, however it seemed like an inexpensive proposal. Columbo may appear to be an enormous shot within the Italian group in a number of cities throughout the nation and have his premiere earlier than the official one. I used to be taking part in to Columbo’s greed and ego. Columbo was pondering all this because the assembly reconvened, however I used to be assured a deal could be made.

In the long run, the film folks promised that nothing derogatory concerning Italians could be within the film and that Columbo would get advance prints to bolster his popularity among the many Italians he’d been championing with the league. He would additionally present his constituents that he had sufficient juice to make a film that was honest to the Italian heritage.

Any disagreements as to content material throughout filming could be rectified earlier than the capturing continued, which meant Columbo must see the capturing script. And, in fact, there could be components for any wiseguy who needed one, however it could be as much as the director as to who bought what half. I knew these guys may very well be placated with roles as extras—one thing they may brag about to their grandchildren. There have been additionally some components that will go to skilled actors who have been linked by blood, marriage, or friendship to the mob.

The Godfather was going to be made. Everybody shook arms, and chairs began to shuffle because the events bought prepared to depart.

I leaned into Columbo. “Hey, Joe, what about me?”

“Oh, yeah,” Columbo stated, virtually as an afterthought. He raised his hand like a schoolkid. “Hey, earlier than we go…what’re we gonna do for my boy right here?” He jerked a thumb in my course. “Wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be making your image.”

Bob Evans, in movement and virtually on the door, stated, “Yeah, we’ll give him one thing.”

I wasn’t about to let anybody out of the room till I bought what I needed.

Rising rapidly from my seat, I stated to Evans, “Maintain it up, Bobby. Nobody goes anyplace till it’s determined right here and now what half I’ll be taking part in.”

You might’ve heard a useless physique drop. The film folks didn’t need to make a fuss and upset the wiseguys, and the wiseguys appeared to love my show of testicular fortitude as a result of it confirmed “our aspect” to be in cost.

Everybody sat down. And the talk started.

At this level in preproduction, the a part of Michael Corleone had simply gone to an up-and-comer named Al Pacino, who had appeared, to rave opinions, within the image The Panic in Needle Park, and whom Coppola pushed exhausting for the half, on the premise that the Michael position ought to go to somebody who didn’t match the Mafia stereotype (“Michael’s a fucking struggle hero, not a gangster!”). The half was initially purported to have belonged to James Caan, however after Pacino bought it, Caan was given the a part of Sonny.

“So, there’s nonetheless the Carlo Rizzi half, proper?” I stated. Carlo, in fact, is the evil son-in-law who’s instrumental in getting Sonny whacked.

I do know the producers agreed to this grudgingly, however that they had little alternative. Joe Columbo stated, “Both the child will get the half otherwise you’ll be capturing your fucking film on the moon.”

The deal settled, I wanted to get my Display Actors Guild card, which might permit me to seem in a union-sanctioned image. Most actors wait years for his or her coveted SAG card; I bought mine in about two hours.

I used to be past thrilled. Now I needed to show myself.

A scene from The Godfather with Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, and Gianni RussoCourtesy of Gianni Russo

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ALL THE MAIN ACTORS, MYSELF INCLUDED, moved into the Park Lane Resort, positioned on Central Park South, besides Marlon Brando, who selected the Resort Elysée on East 54th Avenue. It wasn’t as a result of he thought he was particular—effectively, possibly just a little particular—however as a result of he appreciated the Monkey Bar, which was positioned within the lodge.

The phrase had gotten out that the forged of the image could be staying on the Park Lane, and as soon as capturing started, we have been greeted each morning by a mob of followers in entrance of the lodge. Godfather fever was gripping the town in an enormous method. Something Godfather-related was getting stolen each day, probably the most prized gadgets being something emblazoned with a Godfather brand. Clothes used within the image and different private gadgets bought ft. If it wasn’t nailed down, it was gone.

Throughout preproduction, we’d meet for full-cast desk reads to acclimate ourselves to at least one one other and the story, and work via any issues. These have been casual readings, set in a casual location.

Coppola selected Patsy’s Pizzeria on First Avenue in East Harlem for the desk reads. It had been on the similar location since 1933, when the world was predominantly Italian, and deserved its popularity as a premier neighborhood pizza joint. And most necessary, it had a non-public again room, the place we wouldn’t be disturbed. What higher joint to rehearse an epic gangster film?

There was a protracted desk arrange, and seating was organized by order of character significance, with Brando on the head. Coppola had everybody introduce themselves by title and character, starting with Brando. Subsequent, Coppola requested that we start studying our components so as as they appeared within the script.

“No performing at this level, simply learn,” he stated. “Besides you real Italians. I need you to magnify your speech, colloquialisms, and hand gestures. Everybody else concentrate.”

There was a pizza break, and a lot of the actors needed to speak to Brando, who was a dwelling legend. All of the featured gamers would go on to develop into big stars, however on the time they have been simply kick-starting their careers. To have the ability to corral Brando for just a little performing recommendation, and to brownnose just a little, gave the impression to be the order of the day. I held again out of respect. I might need landed the plum position—and first position—of my life, however I used to be below no illusions as to my performing potential. I felt grateful to be within the image, and I used to be there to absorb all the pieces I may. To that finish, I used to be going to maintain my mouth shut and observe.

A scene from The Godfather with Marlon Brando and Gianni RussoMary Evans/Paramount Photos/Ronald Grant/Everett Assortment

Marlon Brando had different concepts. As a substitute of commiserating together with his fellow thespians, he cornered me and hit me with a bunch of questions.

“You’re an enormous film actor?”

I shook my head. “Nope.”


Once more, I informed him, “No.”

“Who’d you research with?” Brando requested.

“Research what?” I had no thought what he was speaking about.

Brando lastly realized that I had zero expertise within the performing recreation. I may inform he was upset. He turned to Coppola.

“Francis, this man,” he stated, pointing at me, “marries my daughter, sells out the household, and is instrumental in getting my boy Sonny killed. This half must be given to an skilled actor. It is best to rethink who has this half.”

The room went silent. I used to be seething and I didn’t give a fuck who this man was, I used to be going after him.

I put my arm round Brando—which turned out to be one thing you didn’t do, along with no eye contact—and ushered him to a nook. I bought proper in his face however saved my voice subdued. “Who the fuck’re you to strive to do that to me? I’ll minimize your fucking coronary heart out. I’m a part of this image whether or not you prefer it or not, you cock-sucker.” I used to be this near decking him. Brando stared at me for what appeared like a minute.

“What?” I lastly stated in a threatening tone. “Man, you’re fucking good,” he stated. “I take again what I stated. You’ve bought nice performing chops.” Holy shit, I couldn’t imagine it! Brando thought I used to be performing!

This was the primary day of a friendship that will final till he died. From that day ahead, till we wrapped the film, I might choose Brando up on the Elysée each morning for the experience to no matter location we have been capturing at that day, and he’d coach me on my half. We’d travel, with Brando studying each half reverse me. He was invaluable to my studying the craft. Within the night, we’d go to the Monkey Bar at his lodge and we’d role-play for hours. We’d not solely run via the script however he’d hit me with improvisational eventualities off the highest of his head and we’d go together with it.

WITH MOB INFLUENCE, THE REMAINING CAST was employed. Al Lettieri, who performed vicious heroin peddler Sollozzo, was married to Thomas (“Tommy Ryan”) Eboli’s sister. Eboli was entrance boss for the Genovese crime household and had a lock on playing machines on the East Coast. Lenny Montana, who performed the slow-witted enforcer Luca Brasi, was a real-life enforcer and arsonist for the Columbo crime household, and knowledgeable wrestler. The memorable scene by which the Luca Brasi character is speaking to himself, rehearsing the speech he’s going to make to Don Corleone throughout his daughter’s wedding ceremony, was really an actual rehearsal, with Montana going over his traces previous to his half being shot. Unbeknownst to Montana, Coppola had Montana’s rambling rehearsal included within the film.

Coppola, it needs to be famous, was afraid of the true wiseguys within the film and steered away from them. In actual fact, a lot of the antics within the wedding ceremony scene have been ad-libbed, with Coppola giving complete freedom for anybody and everybody to improvise. Or as he famously put it, “Do what you’d do at an actual Italian wedding ceremony,” which to everybody meant get loaded, be loud, and luxuriate in yourselves. Even Mama Corleone, performed by singer Morgana King, broke into her wedding ceremony music, which wasn’t scripted.

All of the actors taking part in gangsters who’re seated at Don Barzini’s desk throughout Carlo and Connie’s wedding ceremony have been, in truth, actual Columbo troopers who bought their components per the settlement between Columbo and Coppola to incorporate real-life gangsters within the film.

Not like Coppola, Jimmy Caan was a mob buff and wannabe robust man. He cherished hanging out with wiseguys, and would famously attend one in every of John Gotti’s trials, giving sound bites to the press each day. I didn’t actually care what Caan did or how he inflated his substantial ego, and we bought alongside superb till that night time, when a lifelong feud was born.

It occurred one Saturday night time at Jilly’s, an notorious watering gap on the East Aspect owned by Frank Sinatra’s finest buddy, Jilly Rizzo. The joint catered to a various crowd: entertainers, wiseguys, politicians, and locals.

I used to be on the packed bar with wiseguys Tommy Bilotti and Boozy DeCicco, having a number of drinks. Unbeknownst to me, Caan was within the again room with Carmine “Junior” Persico, underboss of the Columbo crime household.

Caan joined us on the bar and I launched him to Tommy and Boozy.

“Hey, Gianni,” Caan stated. “Junior’s within the again together with his daughter. Come again and say howdy.”

I made my option to the again room. Junior Persico was there with a positively beautiful brunette who about 20. I used to be considering if Junior has this knockout for a daughter, she should’ve been switched at beginning, as a result of the Persicos aren’t precisely model-beautiful.

I needed to be respectful and well mannered, so I complimented his daughter. “Your daughter is gorgeous, Junior. You have to be very proud.” Caan was standing a number of ft from me, smiling.

An odd look came visiting Persico, however I assumed little of it, excused myself, and went to the boys’s room. I used to be standing on the urinal when two of Persico’s gorillas entered and locked the door behind them. I figured they needed to make use of the one urinal, so I stated, “Be completed in a minute, guys.”

I turned to scrub my arms, and one of many goons stated, “What are you, some form of fucking clever man? You insulted Junior.”

I used to be confused. “What the fuck are you speaking about?”

“Whaddya imply, what am I speaking about? The woman you known as his daughter isn’t his daughter; she’s some fucking snatch.”

Persico felt extremely insulted that I’d known as some random broad his daughter, and he needed to make me pay for being disrespectful. These guys have been going to tune me up. I used to be in a good spot. That son of a bitch Caan had set me up, realizing that lady wasn’t Junior’s daughter. I used to be fuming. If this was Caan’s thought of a joke, I wasn’t laughing, and if I used to be going to get my ass kicked, I used to be going to do likewise to Caan—after I bought out of the hospital. There was a loud banging on the toilet door. “Hey, Gianni, you OK in there?” It was Tommy Bilotti. Apparently, he’d seen the 2 goons observe me into the bath- room and he was checking up on me.

“Probably not!” I stated.

A second later, the door busted off the hinges and Tommy strode in, fists clenched.

One of many goons stated to Tommy, “Get the fuck outta right here; we’re speaking.”

Tommy Bilotti was one of many hardest guys I knew. He didn’t take shit from anybody. With no phrase, he clocked the man closest to him, and the man hit the ground like a deadweight. He was out for the depend. His buddy raised his arms in a defensive movement. “Hey, Tommy, no disrespect. The child insulted Junior.”

Tommy was confused. “Gianni? Bullshit. What occurred?”

The man who was nonetheless acutely aware informed Tommy what had gone down. I used to be shaking my head.

“What?” Tommy stated to me.

“That fucking Jimmy Caan. His thought of a joke. Lemme return and clarify this to Junior,” I stated.

Whereas the acutely aware man helped the unconscious man, Tommy, Boozy, and I went to the again room, the place Junior was conferring with an affiliate. He turned to me with homicide in his eyes.

Boozy, a Gambino underboss, stated, “I’ll discuss to him.” He and Junior huddled in a nook for a couple of minutes whereas I awaited my destiny. Whereas I’d been duped into the comment by Caan, there was no telling what Junior would possibly do. He had a vicious mood and would possibly make an instance of me only for the hell of it. Lastly, I heard Junior say, “Get that asshole Jimmy in right here.”

Caan was ushered to the again room from the bar. He stood by whereas there was an enormous sotto voce convention amongst Junior, Tommy, and Boozy.

Then Junior stated loudly sufficient for every- one current to listen to, “Ah, fuck it. Jimmy made a mistake. I’m gonna overlook about it.”

Tommy and Boozy wouldn’t let it go.

“Maintain it, Junior,” Tommy stated. “You have been able to fuck Gianni up for a remark he made innocently. Jimmy right here instigated it. He must be taught a lesson.”

Caan was getting extraordinarily uncomfortable, and I noticed concern in his eyes, which have been darting concerning the room, lastly selecting the exit door to the bar. Was he going to make a run for it? Tommy needed to beat the shit out of him and he was scared. It was displaying.

It could’ve been good to see him get his ass handed to him, however in the long run, I got here to his rescue, and never as a result of I used to be letting bygones be bygones. Jimmy Caan was a valued participant within the film, and if he was laid up in a hospital for a month, the image would possibly go stomach up, or I would get fired because the man who’d brought about all of it. Caan might need been an asshole, however he was an necessary asshole.

The drama got here to an finish after I spoke up for him, however I needed to give him a well-deserved parting dig. “He’s a fucking jerkoff,” I informed Junior. “Give him a break, or he’ll shit his pants.”

Hollywood Godfather by Gianni RussoL: Gianni Russo, R: Alessandro Gerini

I attempted to determine Caan’s motivation for doing what he did. Perhaps it was jealousy as a result of I had Brando’s ear and he didn’t? Or maybe he was pissed as a result of I’d gotten a significant half within the film with no expertise? Perhaps he simply needed to be a tricky man and present me he had juice with Junior. The underside line was, he was made to appear to be an fool with no balls.

Whereas the incident was over, the repercussions would reverberate all through the filming and would culminate in my being injured in a struggle scene with Caan, and a grudge created that will by no means go away.

I realized that, painfully, the day we shot the struggle scene between Sonny and Carlo, after Sonny seeks revenge for Carlo’s beating up Sonny’s sister.

Caan had been avoiding me since being humiliated in Jilly’s over the “sensible joke” he performed on me. I didn’t want Caan as a buddy, and didn’t give a rattling if he by no means spoke to me once more, so be it.

The scene was to be shot in East Harlem, on 116th Avenue between Nice Avenue and the FDR Drive. A Budweiser beer truck was parked crossways on the finish of the road to dam the view of the FDR Drive, so trendy autos wouldn’t be seen driving via the scene. The producers additionally gave a pile of money to a wiseguy often called “Cheesecake” for distribution to locals so issues would run easily.

Caan and I had choreographed the scene for a whole day the day before today, simply to verify all the pieces would go easily and nobody would get harm.

The scene begins with me (Carlo) on a stoop, speaking to one in every of my numbers runners. As I say “Cease taking motion on the Yankees,” Sonny (Caan) jumps out of a automotive with a sawed-off billy membership and costs me. At no time throughout our rehearsals had he been armed with something.

I used to be considering, The place the hell did the membership come from? Caan threw it at me as I ran from him as scripted, and it linked solidly with the again of my head.

Coppola yelled, “Reduce!” and I bought in Caan’s face as my head was examined by a medic. I used to be minimize, however not badly.

“Hey, Jimmy,” I stated, “what the fuck?”

“I made a decision to improvise,” Caan stated. “Sorry I hit you.”

I assumed, Oh yeah? I smelled a rat.

Everybody regrouped and we shot the scene a number of extra occasions, till Coppola was happy. Caan threw the membership at me with each take, however he didn’t hit me. He knew higher.

A scene from The Godfather with James Caan and Gianni RussoEverett Assortment

The struggle began in earnest after that, and Caan got here after me for actual. The scene known as for him to chase Carlo down and toss him over a low railing. To date so good; I used to be padded simply in case I took a nasty fall. As soon as Carlo is over the rail, Sonny jumps after him, picks up a rubbish can cowl, and smacks Carlo within the arm with it. These have been the times previous to light-weight aluminum rubbish cans, and the lid Caan was wielding was heavy metallic. He was purported to barely contact me, however as a substitute he hit me in my proper elbow with all the pieces he had, chipping a bone.

However he wasn’t completed. Carlo then winds up within the gutter below a fireplace hydrant sprinkler, at which level Sonny is meant to kick Carlo within the chest, which Caan did, however he put sufficient energy behind it to interrupt two of my ribs.

Then Sonny breathlessly says, “If you happen to ever contact my sister once more, I’ll fucking kill you!” and will get in a automotive and leaves.

I imagine Caan needed to get again at me for that night time at Jilly’s. He let or not it’s identified that my accidents have been an accident, however I don’t imagine that. It takes important energy to interrupt ribs. He was purported to kick me with the highest of his foot. He used his toe.

It took me a number of days to get well from the beating.

This text is customized from Gianni Russo’s forthcoming memoir, Hollywood Godfather (St. Martin’s Press).

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