As was his custom before the drive home from work with his son, the old man walked across the narrow, tenement‐lined street in Manhattan’s Little Italy to buy some fresh fruit. The grocer, who had known him for many years, helped the old man sort out some prize oranges and, as a gift, handed him a perfectly ripened, home‐grown fig. The old man smiled, accepted the backyard offering with a slight nod and started toward his car. It was then that he spotted two gunmen.
He called out to his son and began to sprint toward the safety of his car with surprising speed for a man of his age, but the gunmen were too quick. As they opened fire, the old man seemed caught in a great leap, suspended momentarily in the air, his arms thrown protectively around his head. Loud shots hammered through the street, bright oranges rolled across the gray pavement and the old man crashed onto the fender of his car and collapsed. The people of Mott Street watched in silence from tenement windows, fire escapes and rooftops as the gunmen slipped away. Then, to spontaneous applause, the grim street tableau came to life, and the old man—the godfather, Marlon Brando—lifted himself slowly from the ground, smiled at the cheering crowd and bowed.
At 11 o’clock on April 12, just as Brando was getting shot on Mott Street, Carlo Gambino, one of New York’s real godfathers, sat around the corner in a Grand Street cafe, sipping black coffee from a glass and holding 18th‐century Sicilian court in 20th‐century New York. He had arrived moments earlier in the company of his brother, Paul, and five bodyguards. It was his custom, as well as his duty as head of a Mafia family, to hear at regular intervals the endless woes of racketeers, dishonored fathers and deportable husbands. They were ushered before him, one at a time, from a waiting area in a restaurant across the street. He was the final judge to people still willing to accept his decisions as law.
Back on Mott Street, two Mafiosi assigned to observe the movie production were unaware of his arrival. For hours, they had been watching Brando getting shot. They had had innumerable cups of coffee and had adjusted their open‐throat, hand ironed shirts so often that their collars had begun to wilt. Neither of them had been impressed when they heard Brando was to play the godfather, so they watched his performance critically. They volunteered to grips, cameramen and extras that they would have preferred Ernest Borgnine or Anthony Quinn.
“A man of that stature,” one of them said, pointing to Brando, “would never wear a hat like that. They never pinched them in the front like that. Italian block, that’s the way they wore them, Italian block.”
They did not like Brando’s wearing his belt below his trouser loops, either.
“He makes the old man look like an iceman. That’s not right. A man like that had style. He should have a diamond belt buckle. They all had diamond belt buckles. And a diamond ring and tie clasp. Those old bosses loved diamonds. They all wore them. Brando makes the guy look like an iceman.”
In truth, Brando did not look like the traditional double‐breasted, wide lapeled, blue‐serge racketeer. He had accepted the advice of an Italian American friend, rather than the Mafiosi themselves, and made himself look old and bent. He wore a sack shaped suit of an undistinguished brown stripe and an outsize over coat. He wore a cardboard‐stiff white shirt with a collar at least two sizes too large and a striped tie so indifferently knotted that its back, label and all, faced front. The makeup man, who was never very far away, had fixed Brando with an elaborate mouth plate that made his jaw heavy and extended his jowls. Brando’s complexion was sallow, his eyes were made to droop on the side and with his graying temples and mustache many people on Mott Street that day did not recognize him until the filming began.
There was an aura about the production that was unmistakable, just as there is an aura of real and imagined power around the honored society itself.
The two Mafiosi did approve the vintage cars and were amused by the streetlamps, pushcarts and prices, circa 1940, tacked up in store windows. But they did not like the way the godfather’s assassins fired their guns.
“They hold pieces like flowers,” one said.
Shortly before noon a third man came up behind the pair and whispered:
“The old man’s around the corner.” The two men were stunned. “You kidding?” one asked. “Believe me, he’s around the corner.”
Without further hesitation—and with the same pitch of excitement most neighborhood people saved for a peek at Brando—the trio left the movie set. They walked quickly toward the intersection and stopped. One of them darted his head around the corner of the building for a quick peek and shot back to his friends: “He’s there. He’s there. I see his car. I see Paul’s guy.”
Mario Puzo’s best seller may have started out to be just another multimillion‐dollar movie for Paramount, but it wasn’t long before its producers realized that to the Mafiosi themselves the making of The Godfather was like the filming of a home movie. Before Puzo’s book, cops‐and‐robbers novels and films about organized crime left the mobsters cold. The Godfather was different. When it was published in 1969 word quickly spread across the country’s most regularly tapped telephone wires about this different book on the “honored society.” It was their Forsyte Saga. It was filled with bits of underworld gossip and its characters could be compared to live dons, singers, movie moguls and hit men. It depicted not only their lives, but the lives of their children, wives, enemies and friends. It emphasized their peculiar code of honor rather than their seedy, greedy little maneuverings. It dealt with their strong sense of family and their passionate loyalties. It romanticized and exaggerated their political power, wealth and influence in legitimate business. But most important, it humanized rather than condemned them.
The godfather himself, for instance, was shot because he refused to deal in the dirty business of narcotics. Sonny Corleone, his impetuous heir, was killed in an ambush because he tried to save his pregnant sister from a brutal husband. Michael Carleone, the godfather’s college educated war‐hero son, assumed his father’s Mafia mantle not out of greed, but from a sense of responsibility to his father, who, for all his illegal activities, was a far more honorable man than all the crooked cops, venal judges, corrupt politicians and perverted businessmen who peppered the plot.
Though certain Italian‐American politicians and organizations condemned Puzo for defaming all Italians, the author heard no such criticism from the society about which he had written. In fact, shortly after his book’s publication, Puzo found that some Mafiosi were anxious to meet him. They wanted to compare notes with the author of The Godfather. They, like other fans, refused to believe that the book was all fiction. In Las Vegas he found that a gambling debt he had run up was somehow marked paid. When Puzo protested he was told, “It’s a certain party’s pleasure.” On other occasions, bottles of champagne would arrive at his table unordered. Multisyllabic names were whispered in his ear by reverential headwaiters, and men with sunglasses and diamond rings waved at him across darkened restaurants.
Six weeks before the Mott Street shooting of Brando, Albert Ruddy, the film’s producer, was uncertain whether he would be able to make the movie at all. Paramount had been deluged with letters describing the project as anti‐Italian and threatening demonstrations, boycotts and wildcat strikes by everyone from maintenance men to electricians. Letters had come from Congressmen in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, as well as from dozens of New York State legislators, judges, civic leaders and businessmen.
One of them began: “A book like The Godfather leaves one with the sickening feeling that a great deal of effort and labor to eliminate a false image concerning Americans of Italian descent and also an ethnic connotation to organized crime has been wasted …. There are so many careers and biographies that could be made into constructive and intellient movies, such as the life of Enrico Fermi, the great scientist; Mother Cabrini; Colonel Ceslona, a hero of the Civil War; Garibaldi, the great Italian who unified Italy; William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Guglielmo Marconi, and many, many others.”
The letter was signed by “the Grand Venerable of the Grand Council of the Grand Lodge of New York State’s Sons of Italy.” It also informed Paramount that the studio could expect an economic boycott of the film, petitions of protest from all Sons of Italy lodges, regional meetings to plan protests, a complaint filed with the State Human Rights Division and demands that no governmental authorities give the production any cooperation whatever.
And as if this were not enough, there were rumors of union walkouts, work stoppages and boycotts. Ruddy could envision costly delays. He had already run into trouble trying to negotiate with householders in Manhasset, L.I., for a site that looked like a godfather’s compound. The entire community and its bureaucrats had ganged up to sabotage his efforts.
“First, they’d complain that we would bring additional cars into the area and take up parking space,” Ruddy said. “So we’d promise to bus our people to the locations. Then they’d say they didn’t want buses in the area. Some said that if we did use their homes for the mall and the wedding the newspapers couldn’t know about it. How could we guarantee that? We were ready to pay, rent, replant, repaint, replace everything in the area for them. We were ready to make all kinds of concessions, but in the end I realized that they just didn’t want us. They never flat came out and said no, but it amounted to the same thing.
“For example, the godfather’s compound is surrounded by a stone wall, which we had planned to build to our own specifications out of Styrofoam. Well, one day a local official arrives and says we can’t build a wall in Manhasset over three feet high that isn’t permanent. I tried to explain that sections of the wall had to be removable for special camera angles, to say nothing of the time and expense of building and then tearing down a 12‐foot stone wall to run over several people’s property. Manhasset was full of that kind of stuff. I began to see the place as a swamp full of quicksand, and before I drowned I decided to start looking for another site and a little help.”
Ruddy is a tall, thin, nervously enthusiastic man who sees himself as a shrewd manipulator. At only 36, after all, he had managed to parlay the dubious distinction of producing Hogan’s Heroes for television and two money‐losing films (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, Making It) into the job of producing Paramount’s biggest potential money maker. Ruddy had always been able to talk his way through obstacles. It was his gift of glibness that got him into the movies in the first place. According to a brief biography put out by Paramount, Ruddy’s knowledge and enthusiasm so impressed the Warner Brothers president, Jack L. Warner, at a party that Warner hired Ruddy for an executive post on the spot. At the time of this fortuitous meeting, Ruddy was working for a construction company in Hackensack, N.J.
On Feb. 25 Al Ruddy went for help. He went in search of a godfather of his own. On that night he was driven to the Park Sheraton Hotel for his first meeting with Joseph Colombo Sr. and about 1,500 delegates of the Italian‐American Civil Rights League. Colombo was not only the boss of one of New York’s five Mafia families and thereby qualified for godfather status, but also the founder of the League, with which he had established himself as the dominant force in New York’s Italian‐American community.
In the year since he had founded his group, Colombo had drawn 50,000 people to a rally in Columbus Circle; had forced the Justice Department to order the F.B.I. to stop using the terms “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” in its press releases (and had watched the Governors of New York, Connecticut, Alaska, Texas and South Dakota follow suit); had persuaded Frank Sinatra to come to New York to help him raise money at a concert in the Felt Forum, and had been named Man of the Year by The Triboro Post, a New York neighborhood weekly. After 48 years of hiding behind his lapels, Colombo had emerged as a formidable public figure. He posed for pictures, kissed children, signed autographs, talked to Dick Cavett and Walter Cronkite and generally comported himself more like a political candidate than a Mafia boss.
Ruddy approached Colombo confidently that night because he had previously sat in midtown restaurants with Colombo’s son, Anthony, and worked out a tentative accord. Ruddy had agreed to delete “Mafia,” “Cosa Nostra” and all other Italian words from the script. He had promised to allow the League to review the script and change anything it felt was damaging to the Italian‐American image. And finally he had agreed to turn over the proceeds of the film’s New York premiere to the League’s hospital fund.
When Ruddy arrived at the Park Sheraton and found 1,500 members of the League seated in the Grand Ballroom looking very dour, he was at first confused. Colombo’s son quieted a few of the early boos by telling the delegates about the script deletions Ruddy had agreed to make. He told the crowd about the League’s getting the proceeds of the premiere.
“I couldn’t care less if they gave us $2‐million,” the elder Colombo suddenly interjected. “No one can buy the right to defame Italian Americans.”
It was Ruddy’s turn then. He said the film would depict individuals and would not defame or stereotype a group. It was really a movie about a corrupt society. A movie about America today. A movie about what happens to poor immigrants faced with prejudice and discrimination. He pointed out that there were many roles in the film, and certainly not all of the bad guys were Italians.
“Look at who’s playing the roles,” Ruddy said, about to continue with a list of non‐Italian villains in the film.
“Who is playing?” Colombo suddenly asked.
“Lots of people,” Ruddy said. “How about a good kid from Bensonhurst?” Colombo asked.
When The Godfather opens next spring, Paramount will not only have the distinction of being the first organization in the world to make money on the Mafia, but will also have conned Mafiosi into helping them do it.
Ruddy smiled. Now he understood. During all his discussions with Anthony Colombo, casting had never been mentioned. Soon, with Colombo pointing to one delegate after another and Ruddy nodding in agreement, the crowd began to cheer as bit players and extras were chosen. At the end of the meeting, Colombo himself inserted in Ruddy’s lapel a pin designating him a captain in the League.
Of course not everyone was enchanted with the Ruddy‐Colombo agreement. New York State Senator John Marchi felt Colombo would gain a “psychological lift” from such an agreement and that his League would “undoubtedly get more members, because the whole presentation makes it look like the League came home with some prize.” When the terms of the agreement appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, Charles Bluhdorn, chairman of Gulf and Western, the conglomerate of which Paramount is a part, was outraged. Bluhdorn was reported to have been so angered and embarrassed by Ruddy’s arrangement with Colombo—especially when the New York Times published the Page 1, three‐column headline: “‘Godfather’ Film Won’t Mention Mafia”— that he seriously considered firing Ruddy as the producer. However, Bob Evans, Paramount’s vice president in charge of production, kept a cooler head. Anyone like Evans, who got his start in the garment center knows better than to disregard the men in the big hats. Evans knew how much trouble Colombo and his League could make for the film. So Evans prevailed, Bluhdorn’s rage was calmed, the furor in the press died down and Ruddy stayed on.
The moment he reached that agreement with Colombo, Ruddy’s troubles were over. There were no more Manhassets. Suddenly, with Colombo’s imprimatur, the threats of union woes evaporated. Planned demonstrations and boycotts were called off. A location for the godfather’s mall with a garden large enough for the huge wedding sequence was found on Staten Island, and Colombo’s men made a house‐to-house tour of the neighborhood, smoothing ruffled Italian‐American feathers. Somehow, even the protest letters from Italian‐American groups stopped once it was understood that an agreement had been reached with the League. When the filming actually began, Ruddy found that with Colombo’s men around, instead of being harassed by neighborhood toughs, shaken down by various unions, visited by corrupt cops and generally treated like any other movie company in New York, The Godfather troupe was untouchable. The owners of old‐fashioned restaurants, funeral parlors and waterfront bars who had been reluctant to rent their facilities to Ruddy changed their minds. One Mulberry Street restaurant whose owner had sworn to his regular customers that no member of The Godfather cast would eat in his place had to set up special tables for the actors and crew. “They’re O.K.,” a League official told the owner. “Let ’em alone.” Ruddy even managed to miss being caught in the middle of a war by finishing his location filming in New York just before Colombo was shot and gravely wounded at a League rally at Columbus Circle on June 28.
Before the shooting, Colombo’s power could be felt everywhere. During the New York filming, for example, the father of one project member found himself in a hospital recuperating from a minor heart attack. On his second day there, an enormous basket of fresh fruit and flowers arrived bearing red, white and green ribbons and a card signed by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Colombo Sr. The patient had never met Colombo, had never even seen him, but the presence of that basket changed his hospital life. Doctors began filing into his room to look at it. Smiles materialized on the faces of nurses he had never seen before. The hospital dietitian would arrive in the morning to ask if there was anything he might particularly enjoy that day. His familys visiting hours were suddenly made flexible, and orderlies appeared with the chairs, ice and extra glasses that had been so difficult to find before the Colombo basket arrived.
Besides enjoying the benefit of Colombos help with community relations, the Paramount people found they had uncovered the best of all possible technical advisers. Ruddy and his assistant, Gary Chasen, began to join Colombo associates for drinks at Julys and dinners at the Copa. They visited a few of the Leagues neighborhood offices and eventually were introduced to a couple of the men about whom their movie was being made. Soon such actors as Jimmy Caan, who plays the impetuous Sonny Corleone in the film, joined the socializing.
“They’ve got incredible moves,” Caan said. “I watched them with each other and with their girls and wives. It’s incredible how affection ate they are to each other. There’s tremendous interplay. They toast each other — ‘centanni,’ ‘salute a nostra’—all of this marvelous Old World stuff from guys who were born here and don’t even speak Italian.
“I noticed also that they’re always touching themselves. Thumbs in the belt. Touching the jaw. Adjusting the shirt. Gripping the crotch. Shirt open. Tie loose. Super dressers. Clean. Very, very neat.”
Caan, who prides himself on his mimicry, says he is really indebted to a number of these men for whatever credibility he brings to his part.
“Their moves are easy. You can watch and fake that. But their language, that’s something else. They repeat certain words, like ‘Where you been, where?’ They have a street language all their own. It’s not Italian, certainly, and it’s not English. One guy, to indicate to another that someone they both knew had been killed, raised his hands in front of him, fixed his fingers like guns and pointed them to the ground. ‘Baba da BOOM!’ he said, and they all laughed. When we’d go to a bar or somewhere, they were always known. They didn’t go where they were not known. They always bought a bottle, too. They didn’t buy drinks by the glass.Always a bottle.”
Caan, in fact, was seen in the company of Carmine (The Snake) Persico and other federally certified Mafiosi so often and had absorbed so many, of their mannerisms that undercover agents thought for a while that he was just another rising young button in the mob.
There was an aura about the production that was unmistakable, just as there is an aura of real and imagined power around the honored society itself. A few of the actors began to think of themselves as Mafia heavies. One supporting player got so confused about who he was that he joined a carload of enforcers on a trip to Jersey to beat up scabs in a labor dispute (as it turned out, they had the wrong address and couldn’t find the strikebreakers). And a few Mafiosi began to think of themselves as actors, demonstrating hand gestures and facial expressions over and over for their theatrical pals.
As if assuming the style of their advisers, an extraordinary number of actors and technical people began getting into various degrees of trouble with the police. One actor was arrested for driving with a forged license while another spent a night in jail when a desk officer misread the charge against him as “switchblade” instead of “switched plates.” Even the off‐duty cops hired as guards on the film got into trouble with their colleagues. They had been instructed by Paramount’s public relations office to buy, beg or wrestle cameras away from any photographers who might have taken pictures of Brando in his godfather make‐up. Paramount had a deal with Life magazine in which a cover picture of Brando in full make‐up would be virtually assured if the movie company could keep other pictures of him from being published. Unfortunately for the moonlighting cops, one of the photographers they roughed up was from The Daily News, and within 20 minutes an inspector, two captains and a deputy police commissioner were on the scene questioning them.
When The Godfather opens next spring, Paramount will not only have the distinction of being the first organization in the world to make money on the Mafia, but will also have conned Mafiosi into helping them do it. Now, with the film being edited, Joe Colombo in critical condition, his lieutenants in hiding and Al Ruddy no longer available for their calls, a few mobsters have begun to see that they have been taken. Seated glumly in their Brooklyn cafes or slouching outside their social clubs, they realize that their movie days are over. They no longer go to Jilly’s and the Copa with movie stars. There are no more private screenings at the Gulf and Western Building. Today their only contact with Hollywood and the movie they helped to make is through the business section of the trade journals, where they read that their godfather is being turned into a goldmine of by‐products. Paramount’s merchandising staff is selling the rights for Godfather sweatshirts, Godfather spaghetti and Godfather parlor games. There will be Godfather pizza franchises and Godfather hero shops, bakeries and lemon‐ice stands. Books about the filming of The Godfather are being commissioned by Paramount, a Godfather television series is planned and another film, called for now Son of Godfather, is being discussed.
“And when it comes out,” one Colombo man active in the first film’s production admitted, “it’ll cost me three bucks and an hour on line to see.”