Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Godfather wars

Mario Puzo, Coppola, Robert Evans, and Al Ruddy at a press conference to announce the film. Courtesy of American Zoetrope.

I never met a real, honest-to-god gangster,” Puzo added in his memoir. Neither had Coppola. “Mario told me to never meet them, never agree to, because they respected that and would stay away from you if they knew you didn’t want contact.”

But as word spread that The Godfather was being developed into a major motion picture, one Mafia boss rose up in defiance. While most mobsters shunned the spotlight, Joseph Colombo Sr., the short, dapper, media-savvy head at 48 of one of New York’s Five Families, brazenly stepped into it. After the F.B.I. took what he considered to be an excessive interest in his activities—which included loan-sharking, jewel heists, income-tax evasion, and control of a $10-million-a-year interstate gambling operation—he turned the tables on the bureau, charging it with harassment not only of him and his family but also of all Italian-Americans. In an outrageously bold move, he helped create the Italian-American Civil Rights League, claiming that the F.B.I.’s pursuit of the Mob was in fact persecution and a violation of civil rights. A top priority of the league’s was to eradicate “Mafia” from the English language, since Colombo contended that it had been turned into a one-word smear campaign. “Mafia? What is Mafia?” he asked a reporter in 1970. “There is not a Mafia. Am I the head of a family? Yes. My wife, and four sons and a daughter. That’s my family.”
What began with the picketing of F.B.I. offices on March 30, 1970, soon grew into a crusade with a membership of 45,000 and a $1 million war chest. An estimated quarter of a million people showed up at the league’s inaugural rally in New York City in order to put the feds and everyone else on notice. “Those who go against the league will feel [God’s] sting,” said Colombo.

The film The Godfather quickly became the league’s No. 1 enemy. “A book like The Godfather leaves one with a sickening feeling,” read a form letter the league addressed to Paramount and many elected officials, following a rally in Madison Square Garden that raised $500,000 to stop production.

“It became clear very quickly that the Mafia—and they did not call themselves the Mafia—did not want our film made,” says Al Ruddy’s assistant, Bettye McCartt. “We started getting threats.”

The Los Angeles Police Department warned Ruddy that he was being tailed. He became so concerned that he began swapping cars routinely with members of his staff to avoid recognition. One night, after he had traded his late-model sports car for McCartt’s company car, she heard the sound of gunfire outside her house on Mulholland Drive. “The kids were hysterical,” McCartt recalls. “We went outside to see that all the windows had been shot out of the sports car. It was a warning—to Al.”

On the dashboard was a note, which essentially said, Shut down the movie—or else.

Warren Beatty as Michael Corleone?
Screen-testing nevertheless commenced. From the beginning, Coppola had envisioned all of the four male actors who would eventually be cast in the leading roles, including Marlon Brando. But he had to fight Paramount’s executives for each and every one. “Francis called Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, and me,” says James Caan, “and we flew up to Zoetrope, in San Francisco,” where Coppola conducted an unofficial screen test without telling Paramount. “His wife, Eleanor, put a bowl on our heads and cut our hair, and for the price of the four corned-beef sandwiches we had at lunch he shot this 16-mm. improvisation,” Caan adds.

“My wife, Ellie, helped cut their hair, although later, when the studio felt Al Pacino was too scruffy, we brought him to a real barber and told him to give him a haircut like a college student,” says Coppola. “When the barber heard it was for the guy who might play Michael in The Godfather, he literally had a heart attack, and they had to carry him to the hospital. But, yes, we did those tests, including Diane Keaton, very inexpensively in San Francisco. But Bob Evans didn’t really go for it, so we later spent hundreds of thousands of dollars shooting practically every young actor in New York and Hollywood.”

Evans, Bluhdorn, and the other executives hated Coppola’s casting choices, especially Pacino, who they felt was far too short to play the soldier who becomes the future don. “A runt will not play Michael,” Evans told Coppola.

In his L.A. office, casting director Fred Roos runs through the long list of actors who were considered for the role of Michael Corleone: Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Ryan O’Neal, David Carradine, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty. Shortly after Roos says the name “Beatty,” the office door opeopens and the actor himself—whose offices Fred Roos works out of—is standing in the doorway.

“You almost got the role of Michael?,” I ask.

“There’s a story there,” says Beatty. “I was offered The Godfather before Marlon was in it. I was offered The Godfather when Danny Thomas was the leading candidate for the Godfather. And I passed. Jack [Nicholson] passed, also. And I remember something else. I was offered The Godfather to produce and direct. Charlie Bluhdorn was a fan of Bonnie and Clyde and sent me the book.… I read it. Sort of. And I said, ‘Charlie, not another gangster movie!’”

‘Francis called me one night: ‘Jimmy, they want you to come in and test.… They want you to play Michael,’” says James Caan. “That was the last thing Francis wanted, because he had it in his mind that Michael was the Sicilian-looking one and Sonny was the Americanized version. So I flew to New York, this huge studio, for these tests. There must’ve been 300 guys sitting there. Every actor you can think of was testing for this and that.” Paramount eventually spent $420,000 on screen tests, Caan says, and he tested not only for the part of Michael but also for that of consigliere Tom Hagen.

At one point, Caan was cast as Michael and Carmine Caridi as Sonny. Caridi was a Sonny straight out of Puzo’s book: a six-foot-four, black-haired Italian-American bull who came from a tough section of New York. Told that he had the part, Caridi quit the play he was appearing in and got fitted for wardrobe. When he walked down the block he had grown up on, people hanging out of windows screamed, “One of the boys made it!” “Women were coming up to me with their babies to kiss for good luck,” Caridi says. Caan recalls, “He was running around with some friends of mine, celebrating. And I said, ‘Hey, don’t do this. They’re very shaky up there, and I know what Francis wants—no disgrace to you.’ … He was going to this club and that club,” meaning clubs frequented by the boys from Caan’s old neighborhood. “They said, ‘What do you want to hang around us for?’ And he says, ‘Well, I want to get the feeling.’ They said, ‘We’ll give you the feeling. We’ll throw you out of the fucking car at 90.’”

Caridi got eliminated, but not by the Mob.

“The war over casting the family Corleone was more volatile than the war the Corleone family fought on screen,” Evans writes in his 1994 memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture, before describing his eventual capitulation to letting Coppola cast Pacino as Michael.

“You’ve got Pacino on one condition, Francis,” he told Coppola.

“What’s that?”

“Jimmy Caan plays Sonny.”

“Carmine Caridi’s signed. He’s right for the role. Anyway, Caan’s a Jew. He’s not Italian.”

“Yeah, but he’s not six five, he’s five ten. This ain’t Mutt and Jeff. This kid Pacino’s five five, and that’s in heels.”

“I’m not using Caan.”

“I’m not using Pacino.”

“Slam went the door,” Evans wrote. “Ten minutes later, the door opened. ‘You win.’”

Evans says he had to enlist his own godfather—Sidney Korshak, the notorious Hollywood superlawyer and fixer to the Mob—to get Pacino released from his MGM contract to appear in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a comedy based on Jimmy Breslin’s novel about the Mob. (Robert De Niro ended up in the role.) Thus, Coppola says, the cast that he had shot on the sly in San Francisco “eventually got the parts.” And Carmine Caridi was out as Sonny.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten over it, still,” says Caridi. Coppola apparently felt so bad about it that he and Puzo wrote a role for Caridi in The Godfather: Part II. Caridi recalls, “I said, ‘Francis, I’m under indictment for some charge. I’ve got to pay my lawyer.’” Coppola asked what the lawyer’s name was and sent him a check. Caridi went on to a successful career on television. He also appeared in many other films, including The Godfather: Part III.

Along with Joe Colombo and the Mob, the producers also had to contend with Frank Sinatra during pre-production. Sinatra despised The Godfather, both as a book and as a movie, and for good reason: the character of Johnny Fontane, the drunken, whoring Mob-owned singer turned movie star who enters Puzo’s novel on page 11, sloppy drunk and fantasizing about murdering his “trampy wife when she got home,” was widely believed to have been based on Sinatra. In his desire to rise from singer to actor, Fontane also seemed to resemble Al Martino, who had performed in gangland nightclubs on both coasts and in Vegas. Phyllis McGuire, one of a famous singing-sisters trio and the girlfriend of mobster Sam Giancana, thought Fontane was a dead ringer for Martino. According to Martino, McGuire told him, “I just read a book, The Godfather. Al, Johnny Fontane is you, and I know you can play it in the movie.