The Secret History of ‘The Godfather’

A scene from The Godfather with Marlon Brando and Gianni Russo
Mary Evans/Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

IN THE SPRING OF 1970, THE MOB, IN THE FORM of Joe Columbo, the boss of the crime family that bore his name, created an organization called the Italian American Anti-Defamation League. One of Columbo’s sons had been arrested on a federal extortion charge, spurring the crime boss to form the league as an action group against what he saw as unjustified labeling of Italian-Americans as gangsters. The league gained national attention and eventually latched onto the new Godfather picture as an example of the stereotyping of Italian-Americans.

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While I was trying to land a role in the picture, Columbo was telling executives from Paramount Pictures to cease and desist with their plan to bring The Godfather to the big screen. Some low-level wiseguys, not connected with Columbo, had director Francis Ford Coppola’s custom Cinemobile stolen right off the streets of New York’s Little Italy as a message, which in part was, “You have some balls coming into our neighborhood without permission and shooting your fucking movie.”

The oversize vehicle, which was emblazoned with the Godfather movie logo and jammed with millions of dollars’ worth of film equipment, was in the neighborhood scouting potential locations. No one saw anything; the vehicle just vanished. It was returned a few hours later, and it was thought that the movie people had gotten the message, which was that certain people in the neighborhood would have to be paid before Coppola would be allowed to film in Little Italy. Apparently, the studio big shots didn’t take what they considered a prank seriously and were proceeding with preproduction.

Since the vanishing Cinemobile stunt didn’t work to solve the problem, someone in Joe Columbo’s crew sent a different message—a loud one—by having the iconic mammoth steel gates at the entrance to the Paramount lot blown up. In the middle of the night, a box loaded with dynamite with a short fuse was attached to the gate, and the resulting explosion reverberated throughout the neighborhood. The studio got this message this time and woke up; they knew something had to be done to salvage their picture.

Enter Gianni Russo, negotiator extraordinaire.

A scene from The Godfather with Talia Shire and Gianni Russo
Everett Collection

I WAS NEVER A MEMBER OF THE MOB, BUT I’d been close to mobsters for most of my life. As a kid, I ran errands for Frank Costello, boss of the Luciano crime family, and continued working for him as an adult, including running his nightclubs in Las Vegas. So I was well acquainted with the mob side of the equation. I also was lucky in that I had a very well-placed friend at Paramount—Betty McCart, who was the secretary of Al Ruddy, one of the producers of The Godfather. Betty told me that the movers and shakers behind the film— including studio head Stanley Jaffe, head of production Robert Evans, and Charlie Bluhdorn, the controlling stockholder in Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount Pictures—were flying to New York as she spoke to try to straighten out the burgeoning problem with Joe Columbo.

“Who are they meeting with?” I asked.

“They’re in panic mode; too much money already spent in preproduction and they can see it all going to shit,” Betty said. “They’ll be in the Gulf building tomorrow morning, hoping someone will come up with some kind of plan. Bottom line is, they wanted to get out of L.A. and go to where the problem is.”

My mind racing, I came up with a plan—a risky one—that would make both sides happy.

I worked the phone for hours, tapping my own mob connections and dropping names of people I didn’t know and getting past secretaries by mentioning Betty McCart’s name. I had to strike and strike fast, convincing both sides I knew the other side well enough to pull off a settlement that would make the side I was currently talking to come out ahead.

By the next day, I was able to bring both factions to the table in Bluhdorn’s office. Bluhdorn was willing to talk with anyone who could help get the picture made, and I told him I fit that description.

On the mob side was Joe Columbo, his top lieutenant, Fat Anthony, and two capos: “Butterass” DeCicco (so named because his ass was as big as a cow’s) and his brother “Boozy” DeCicco (so named because he liked the occasional drink). With them was their attorney, Barry Slotnick, who had coaxed the movie 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 Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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The debate went on for hours. Columbo was adamant that terms like guinea, wop, greaseball, and the like would not be mentioned in the movie. Also, the names Mafia and La Cosa Nostra were verboten. The movie people envisioned their gritty, authentic script would wind up sounding like an episode of the Hardy Boys Meet Nancy Drew.

As the talks dragged into the afternoon, we were looking at an impasse.

Finally, someone called for a break, and I corralled Columbo on the side. After listening to his bluster for hours, I thought I knew how to handle him.

“Joe,” I said, “you’re in control here. You can make this movie happen, and go down in history as a great American.”

“You think?”

Playing to Columbo’s ego was definitely the way to go. “Absolutely, and I’ll tell you what else. I’ll arrange to get prints of the picture ahead of time and you can have showings across the country at private venues and make a ton of money.”

I held no sway in the industry, but it sounded like a reasonable proposal. Columbo could look like a big shot in the Italian community in a few cities across the country and have his premiere before the official one. I was playing to Columbo’s greed and ego. Columbo was pondering all this as the meeting reconvened, but I was confident a deal would be made.

In the end, the movie people promised that nothing derogatory regarding Italians would be in the movie and that Columbo would get advance prints to bolster his reputation among the Italians he’d been championing with the league. He would also show his constituents that he had enough juice to make a movie that was fair to the Italian heritage.

Any disagreements as to content during filming would be rectified before the shooting continued, which meant Columbo would have to see the shooting script. And, of course, there would be parts for any wiseguy who wanted one, but it would be up to the director as to who got what part. I knew these guys could be placated with roles as extras—something they could brag about to their grandchildren. There were also some parts that would go to professional actors who were connected by blood, marriage, or friendship to the mob.

The Godfather was going to be made. Everyone shook hands, and chairs started to shuffle as the parties got ready to leave.

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

“Oh, yeah,” Columbo said, almost as an afterthought. He raised his hand like a schoolkid. “Hey, before we go…what’re we gonna do for my boy here?” He jerked a thumb in my direction. “Wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be making your picture.”

Bob Evans, in motion and almost at the door, said, “Yeah, we’ll give him something.”

I wasn’t about to let anyone out of the room until I got what I wanted.

Rising quickly from my seat, I said to Evans, “Hold it up, Bobby. No one goes anywhere until it’s decided here and now what part I’ll be playing.”

You could’ve heard a dead body drop. The movie people didn’t want to make a fuss and upset the wiseguys, and the wiseguys seemed to like my display of testicular fortitude because it showed “our side” to be in charge.

Everyone sat down. And the debate began.

At this point in preproduction, the part of Michael Corleone had just gone to an up-and-comer named Al Pacino, who had appeared, to rave reviews, in the picture The Panic in Needle Park, and whom Coppola pushed hard for the part, on the premise that the Michael role should go to someone who didn’t fit the Mafia stereotype (“Michael’s a fucking war hero, not a gangster!”). The part was originally supposed to have belonged to James Caan, but after Pacino got it, Caan was given the part of Sonny.

“So, there’s still the Carlo Rizzi part, right?” I said. Carlo, of course, is the evil son-in-law who is instrumental in getting Sonny whacked.

I know the producers agreed to this grudgingly, but they had little choice. Joe Columbo said, “Either the kid gets the part or you’ll be shooting your fucking movie on the moon.”

The deal settled, I needed to get my Screen Actors Guild card, which would allow me to appear in a union-sanctioned picture. Most actors wait years for their coveted SAG card; I got mine in about two hours.

I was beyond thrilled. Now I had to prove myself.

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

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ALL THE MAIN ACTORS, MYSELF INCLUDED, moved into the Park Lane Hotel, located on Central Park South, except Marlon Brando, who chose the Hotel Elysée on East 54th Street. It wasn’t because he thought he was special—well, maybe a little special—but because he liked the Monkey Bar, which was located in the hotel.

The word had gotten out that the cast of the picture would be staying at the Park Lane, and once shooting began, we were greeted every morning by a mob of fans in front of the hotel. Godfather fever was gripping the city in a big way. Anything Godfather-related was getting stolen daily, the most prized items being anything emblazoned with a Godfather logo. Clothing used in the picture and other personal items got feet. If it wasn’t nailed down, it was gone.

During preproduction, we would meet for full-cast table reads to acclimate ourselves to one another and the story, and work through any problems. These were informal readings, set in an informal location.

Coppola chose Patsy’s Pizzeria on First Avenue in East Harlem for the table reads. It had been at the same location since 1933, when the area was predominantly Italian, and deserved its reputation as a premier neighborhood pizza joint. And most important, it had a private back room, where we wouldn’t be disturbed. What better joint to rehearse an epic gangster movie?

There was a long table set up, and seating was arranged by order of character importance, with Brando at the head. Coppola had everyone introduce themselves by name and character, beginning with Brando. Next, Coppola asked that we begin reading our parts in order as they appeared in the script.

“No acting at this point, just read,” he said. “Except you genuine Italians. I want you to exaggerate your speech, colloquialisms, and hand gestures. Everyone else pay attention.”

There was a pizza break, and most of the actors wanted to talk to Brando, who was a living legend. All the featured players would go on to become huge stars, but at the time they were just kick-starting their careers. To be able to corral Brando for a little acting advice, and to brownnose a little, seemed to be the order of the day. I held back out of respect. I might have landed the plum role—and first role—of my life, but I was under no illusions as to my acting ability. I felt grateful to be in the picture, and I was there to soak up everything I could. To that end, I was going to keep my mouth shut and observe.

A scene from The Godfather with Marlon Brando and Gianni Russo
Mary Evans/Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Marlon Brando had other ideas. Instead of commiserating with his fellow thespians, he cornered me and hit me with a bunch of questions.

“You’re a big movie actor?”

I shook my head. “Nope.”


Again, I told him, “No.”

“Who’d you study with?” Brando asked.

“Study what?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

Brando finally realized that I had zero experience in the acting game. I could tell he was upset. He turned to Coppola.

“Francis, this guy,” he said, pointing at me, “marries my daughter, sells out the family, and is instrumental in getting my boy Sonny killed. This part needs to be given to an experienced actor. You should reconsider who has this part.”

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

I put my arm around Brando—which turned out to be something you didn’t do, in addition to no eye contact—and ushered him to a corner. I got right in his face but kept my voice subdued. “Who the fuck’re you to try to do this to me? I’ll cut your fucking heart out. I’m part of this picture whether you like it or not, you cock-sucker.” I was this close to decking him. Brando stared at me for what seemed like a minute.

“What?” I finally said in a threatening tone. “Man, you’re fucking good,” he said. “I take back what I said. You’ve got great acting chops.” Holy shit, I couldn’t believe it! Brando thought I was acting!

This was the first day of a friendship that would last until he died. From that day forward, until we wrapped the movie, I would pick Brando up at the Elysée every morning for the ride to whatever location we were shooting at that day, and he’d coach me on my part. We’d go back and forth, with Brando reading every part opposite me. He was invaluable to my learning the craft. In the evening, we’d go to the Monkey Bar at his hotel and we’d role-play for hours. We’d not only run through the script but he’d hit me with improvisational scenarios off the top of his head and we’d go with it.

WITH MOB INFLUENCE, THE REMAINING CAST was hired. Al Lettieri, who played vicious heroin peddler Sollozzo, was married to Thomas (“Tommy Ryan”) Eboli’s sister. Eboli was front boss for the Genovese crime family and had a lock on gambling machines on the East Coast. Lenny Montana, who played the slow-witted enforcer Luca Brasi, was a real-life enforcer and arsonist for the Columbo crime family, and a professional wrestler. The memorable scene in which the Luca Brasi character is talking to himself, rehearsing the speech he is going to make to Don Corleone during his daughter’s wedding, was actually a real rehearsal, with Montana going over his lines prior to his part being shot. Unbeknownst to Montana, Coppola had Montana’s rambling rehearsal included in the movie.

Coppola, it should be noted, was afraid of the real wiseguys in the movie and steered clear of them. In fact, most of the antics in the wedding scene were ad-libbed, with Coppola giving total freedom for anyone and everyone to improvise. Or as he famously put it, “Do what you’d do at a real Italian wedding,” which to everyone meant get loaded, be loud, and enjoy yourselves. Even Mama Corleone, played by singer Morgana King, broke into her wedding song, which wasn’t scripted.

All the actors playing gangsters who are seated at Don Barzini’s table during Carlo and Connie’s wedding were, in fact, real Columbo soldiers who got their parts per the agreement between Columbo and Coppola to include real-life gangsters in the movie.

Unlike Coppola, Jimmy Caan was a mob buff and wannabe tough guy. He loved hanging out with wiseguys, and would famously attend one of John Gotti’s trials, giving sound bites to the press daily. I didn’t really care what Caan did or how he inflated his substantial ego, and we got along fine until that night, when a lifelong feud was born.

It happened one Saturday night at Jilly’s, an infamous watering hole on the East Side owned by Frank Sinatra’s best friend, Jilly Rizzo. The joint catered to a diverse crowd: entertainers, wiseguys, politicians, and locals.

I was at the packed bar with wiseguys Tommy Bilotti and Boozy DeCicco, having a few drinks. Unbeknownst to me, Caan was in the back room with Carmine “Junior” Persico, underboss of the Columbo crime family.

Caan joined us at the bar and I introduced him to Tommy and Boozy.

“Hey, Gianni,” Caan said. “Junior’s in the back with his daughter. Come back and say hello.”

I made my way to the back room. Junior Persico was there with a positively stunning brunette who looked to be about 20. I was thinking if Junior has this knockout for a daughter, she must’ve been switched at birth, because the Persicos aren’t exactly model-beautiful.

I wanted to be respectful and polite, so I complimented his daughter. “Your daughter is beautiful, Junior. You must be very proud.” Caan was standing a few feet from me, smiling.

An odd look came over Persico, but I thought little of it, excused myself, and went to the men’s room. I was standing at the urinal when two of Persico’s gorillas entered and locked the door behind them. I figured they wanted to use the only urinal, so I said, “Be done in a minute, guys.”

I turned to wash my hands, and one of the goons said, “What are you, some kind of fucking wise guy? You insulted Junior.”

I was confused. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Whaddya mean, what am I talking about? The girl you called his daughter isn’t his daughter; she’s some fucking snatch.”

Persico felt highly insulted that I’d called some random broad his daughter, and he wanted to make me pay for being disrespectful. These guys were going to tune me up. I was in a tight spot. That son of a bitch Caan had set me up, knowing that woman wasn’t Junior’s daughter. I was fuming. If this was Caan’s idea of a joke, I wasn’t laughing, and if I was going to get my ass kicked, I was going to do likewise to Caan—after I got out of the hospital. There was a loud banging at the bathroom door. “Hey, Gianni, you OK in there?” It was Tommy Bilotti. Apparently, he’d seen the two goons follow me into the bath- room and he was checking up on me.

“Not really!” I said.

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

One of the goons said to Tommy, “Get the fuck outta here; we’re talking.”

Tommy Bilotti was one of the toughest guys I knew. He didn’t take shit from anyone. Without a word, he clocked the guy closest to him, and the guy hit the floor like a deadweight. He was out for the count. His buddy raised his hands in a defensive motion. “Hey, Tommy, no disrespect. The kid insulted Junior.”

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

The guy who was still conscious told Tommy what had gone down. I was shaking my head.

“What?” Tommy said to me.

“That fucking Jimmy Caan. His idea of a joke. Lemme go back and explain this to Junior,” I said.

While the conscious guy helped the unconscious guy, Tommy, Boozy, and I went to the back room, where Junior was conferring with an associate. He turned to me with murder in his eyes.

Boozy, a Gambino underboss, said, “I’ll talk to him.” He and Junior huddled in a corner for a few minutes while I awaited my fate. While I’d been duped into the remark by Caan, there was no telling what Junior might do. He had a vicious temper and might make an example of me just for the hell of it. Finally, I heard Junior say, “Get that asshole Jimmy in here.”

Caan was ushered to the back room from the bar. He stood by while there was a big sotto voce conference among Junior, Tommy, and Boozy.

Then Junior said loudly enough for every- one present to hear, “Ah, fuck it. Jimmy made a mistake. I’m gonna forget about it.”

Tommy and Boozy wouldn’t let it go.

“Hold it, Junior,” Tommy said. “You were ready to fuck Gianni up for a comment he made innocently. Jimmy here instigated it. He needs to be taught a lesson.”

Caan was getting extremely uncomfortable, and I saw fear in his eyes, which were darting about the room, finally settling on the exit door to the bar. Was he going to make a run for it? Tommy wanted to beat the shit out of him and he was scared. It was showing.

It would’ve been nice to see him get his ass handed to him, but in the end, I came to his rescue, and not because I was letting bygones be bygones. Jimmy Caan was a valued player in the movie, and if he was laid up in a hospital for a month, the picture might go belly up, or I might get fired as the guy who’d caused it all. Caan might have been an asshole, but he was an important asshole.

The drama came to an end after I spoke up for him, but I had to give him a well-deserved parting dig. “He’s a fucking jerkoff,” I told Junior. “Give him a break, or he’ll shit his pants.”

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

I tried to figure out Caan’s motivation for doing what he did. Maybe it was jealousy because I had Brando’s ear and he didn’t? Or perhaps he was pissed because I’d gotten a major part in the movie with no experience? Maybe he just wanted to be a tough guy and show me he had juice with Junior. The bottom line was, he was made to look like an idiot with no balls.

While the incident was over, the repercussions would reverberate throughout the filming and would culminate in my being injured in a fight scene with Caan, and a grudge created that would never go away.

I learned that, painfully, the day we shot the fight 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 “practical joke” he played on me. I didn’t need Caan as a friend, and didn’t give a damn if he never spoke to me again, so be it.

The scene was to be shot in East Harlem, on 116th Street between Pleasant Avenue and the FDR Drive. A Budweiser beer truck was parked crossways at the end of the street to block the view of the FDR Drive, so modern vehicles wouldn’t be seen driving through the scene. The producers also gave a pile of cash to a wiseguy known as “Cheesecake” for distribution to locals so things would run smoothly.

Caan and I had choreographed the scene for an entire day the previous day, just to make sure everything would go smoothly and no one would get hurt.

The scene begins with me (Carlo) on a stoop, talking to one of my numbers runners. As I say “Stop taking action on the Yankees,” Sonny (Caan) jumps out of a car with a sawed-off billy club and charges me. At no time during our rehearsals had he been armed with anything.

I was thinking, Where the hell did the club come from? Caan threw it at me as I ran from him as scripted, and it connected solidly with the back of my head.

Coppola yelled, “Cut!” and I got in Caan’s face as my head was examined by a medic. I was cut, but not badly.

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

“I decided to improvise,” Caan said. “Sorry I hit you.”

I thought, Oh yeah? I smelled a rat.

Everyone regrouped and we shot the scene a few more times, until Coppola was satisfied. Caan threw the club at me with every take, but he didn’t hit me. He knew better.

A scene from The Godfather with James Caan and Gianni Russo
Everett Collection

The fight started in earnest after that, and Caan came after me for real. The scene called for him to chase Carlo down and toss him over a low railing. So far so good; I was padded just in case I took a bad fall. Once Carlo is over the rail, Sonny jumps after him, picks up a garbage can cover, and smacks Carlo in the arm with it. Those were the days prior to lightweight aluminum garbage cans, and the lid Caan was wielding was heavy metal. He was supposed to barely touch me, but instead he hit me in my right elbow with everything he had, chipping a bone.

But he wasn’t done. Carlo then winds up in the gutter under a fire hydrant sprinkler, at which point Sonny is supposed to kick Carlo in the chest, which Caan did, but he put enough power behind it to break two of my ribs.

Then Sonny breathlessly says, “If you ever touch my sister again, I’ll fucking kill you!” and gets in a car and leaves.

I believe Caan wanted to get back at me for that night at Jilly’s. He let it be known that my injuries were an accident, but I don’t believe that. It takes significant power to break ribs. He was supposed to kick me with the top of his foot. He used his toe.

It took me a few days to recover from the thrashing.

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

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