When it comes to lists of men’s favorite movies, The Godfather is a perennial inclusion. And as hard as this may be to believe, the critically acclaimed and popularly beloved film is coming up on the 50th anniversary of its release.
Journalist Mark Seal wrote an in-depth piece on the making of The Godfather for Vanity Fair magazine back in 2009, and after doing even more interviews with director Francis Ford Coppola, the actors of the film, and other behind-the-scenes players, wrote a new book on the subject called Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather. It’s easy to forget that the film was based on a novel by Mario Puzo, and we spend the first part of our conversation there, with Mark unpacking how an indebted gambler became a bestselling novelist. From there we turn to how Puzo’s novel was adapted for the screen — a story as dramatic and entertaining as the film itself. Mark explains why Coppola took the job of directing the film and his genius for casting. He delves into the unexpected selection of Marlon Brando to play Don Corleone, and how James Caan inhabited the role of Sonny, despite not being Italian-American. We get into how a real-life character named Joseph Colombo temporarily shut down production of the film in opposition to the stereotyping of Italian-Americans as mafia, despite the fact Colombo was a mob boss himself. Mark explains why Coppola considered making The Godfather the most miserable experience of his life and the X-factor that ultimately made the film so good. We end our conversation with whether a movie like The Godfather could be made today.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo
- “The Godfather Wars” — Mark Seal’s 2009 piece for Vanity Fair
- The Kefauver Hearings
- Joseph Colombo
- AoM Podcast #551: Inside the Gangsters’ Code
- AoM Article: 100 Must-See Movies
- AoM Article: Weasels Ripped My Flesh! Vintage Men’s Adventure Magazines
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. And when it comes to lists of men’s favorite movies, The Godfather is a perennial inclusion. And as hard as this may be to believe the critically acclaimed and popularly beloved film is coming up on the 50th anniversary of its release. Journalist Mark Seal wrote an in-depth piece on the making of The Godfather for Vanity Fair magazine back in 2009, and after doing even more interviews with director Francis Ford Coppola, the actors of the film and other behind-the-scenes players, wrote a new book on the subject called Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather.
It’s easy to forget that the film was based on a novel by Mario Puzo, and we spend the first part of our conversation there, with Mark unpacking how an indebted gambler became a best-selling novelist. From there, we turn to how Puzo’s novel was adapted for the screen, a story as dramatic and entertaining as the film itself. Mark explains why Coppola took the job of directing the film and his genius for casting. He delves into the unexpected selection of Marlon Brando to play Don Corleone and how James Caan inhabited the role of Sonny, despite not being Italian-American. We get into how a real-life character named Joseph Colombo, temporarily shut down production of the film in opposition to the stereotyping of Italian-Americans as mafia, despite the fact Colombo was a mob boss himself. Mark explains why Coppola considered making The Godfather the most miserable experience of his life and the X-factor that ultimately made the film so good. We end our conversation with whether a movie like The Godfather could be made today.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/godfather.
Alright, Mark Seal, welcome to the show.
Mark Seal: Thank you so much, Brett. Great to be here.
Brett McKay: You got a book out called, Leave the gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather. Now, The Godfather, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. I think AFI, The American Film Institute has it listed as number three on its list of 100 movies in 100 years. It’s become this cultural touchstone, people use lines from it in their daily language, and it comes right from The Godfather. So I think it’s easy to forget, especially if you were born after The Godfather came out, was that before The Godfather was a movie it was a novel and it was a very, very popular novel, written by this unlikely author, guy named Mario, was it Puzo?
Mark Seal: Yes, exactly.
Brett McKay: Alright, Mario Puzo. Let’s talk about Puzo. How did his upbringing later influence The Godfather?
Mark Seal: Mario Puzo’s the hero of this whole story. Mario Puzo was, is this amazing writer, but he didn’t start off as a writer, he was a child of Hell’s Kitchen, in a big Italian-American family, and they were so poor that he wrote at one point that the school asked him to bring a can of food for the poor, and he said, “All the Hell’s Kitchen’s kids went out and stole a can of food because they didn’t realize they were the poor.” And so, Mario drifted through various occupations, but he always wanted to be a writer. But he had written two novels, they were both commercially unsuccessful, but they were critically well-received. He was a talented writer, and he went to work for a magazine company called Magazine Management and they produced some of the great Pulp Fiction titles of our time, and they were these magazines, and he learned to write there. And it was like these Pulp Fiction titles about war and men at war.
And there was a collection of these stories called Weasels Ate My Flesh. And it’s that kind of thing where he learned how to create suspense and introduce the characters in the beginning of the story and create fiction that felt like fact. And so after writing these two pretty much failed novels, even though they were great stories and well-received, he decided that he was going to write for money. And it happened one night when he had a severe gallbladder attack, and he directed the taxi to take him downtown New York to the VA Hospital, and on the way, the gallbladder attack got worse and worse until when he arrived at the hospital, he opened the car door, the taxi door, and that’s when the pain struck he would later say. And he fell out of the taxi and into the gutter and lying on his back, looking up at the night sky, he said to himself, here I am a published author, and I’m dying like a dog. And he said, that’s when I decided I would become rich and famous.
Brett McKay: And he described himself as not competent, he wasn’t really proud of himself, in fact, one of the things I loved about this book was throughout that you kind of scattered these Italian-American slang words that… My wife’s family is Italian American. I’ve heard these words around the kitchen table thrown around, and one of them is chooch. And Mario said he was the chooch of the family. For our non-Italian-American listeners, what’s a chooch, and what made Puzo a chooch?
Mark Seal: Yeah, as Puzo wrote, he wrote, “Every Italian family has a chooch, a donkey, that is a family idiot, everybody agrees will never be able to make a living.” And he felt like that was his role. He wrote, “There’s no question that I’m incompetent, monetarily insane, but money is really killing everything.” And he was really desperate for money. And he writes about this in his 1972 book, The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions, where he talks about his debt. And I was also able to get access to his archives at Dartmouth University, and you can actually see the letters that he wrote to the IRS asking for extensions. And you could feel the torment that he was under beneath all of this debt that he had to hopefully write his way out of.
Brett McKay: And how did he accumulate that debt? That’s part of what made him a chooch?
Mark Seal: Yeah, he accumulated the debt… Well, one of his big vices was gambling, he loved to gamble and he wasn’t a very good gambler, so he lost a lot of money, and it led him to having to borrow money from friends and relatives and bookies and whatever else. And so by the time he was ready to write The Godfather, he was in debt and The Godfather was gonna help him, he thought write his way out, but then eight publishers turned down the idea.
Brett McKay: Well, so growing up, he’s Italian-American, grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood. Did he have any first-hand experience with the mob, or was that just a part of… That wasn’t part of his world.
Mark Seal: No, he… In Hell’s Kitchen, he was around mobsters all of his life he would later write. And he writes in one interview, I believe it was an article that he wrote, he wrote about this strange man who one day comes to their apartment and asked his mother to hold on to a blanket full of guns for him, and this man, he later discovered was a Mafia man. And so he was around these people all of his life, but he said he never had met a genuine gangster. But what was happening in the 50s and the 60s were genuine gangsters were on television. There were two sets of hearings, the Kefauver hearings in the 50s, and then another set of hearings later on. And those hearings were nationally televised. The Kefauver hearings on organized crime, which included the work of Bobby Kennedy, those hearings were being held in 14 cities across America and nationally televised, and everybody was glued to their television sets, watching these hearings, including Mario Puzo, who was on his couch in front of his television set in suburban New York like everyone else.
Brett McKay: Is that what inspired him to write… I’m gonna write a mafia novel…
Mark Seal: Yeah, and one of the publishers, his publisher, who had turned down his next book, his third book, said, “If this only had a little bit more of that mafia stuff in it, maybe it would be worthwhile.” And that rang in Puzo’s head. And he thought, “Well, okay, I’m gonna write a book about the mob.” And he went home and he ordered the hearings, transcripts of the hearings from the Library of Congress for $10, and there in his suburban New York basement next to a pool table and the sound of his five kids, he began to dream in front of his manual typewriter.
Brett McKay: And there were mob stories written at this time, it was a popular genre. When Puzo set out to write what became The Godfather, did he have an idea like, how am I gonna make this different from the other ones?
Mark Seal: Yeah, I believe he did. What made it different from the other ones, and what made the movie different from all the other mob movies that had been made before, was that he created a family, he didn’t just create gangsters with guns and the deaths and the crimes and all that. He created the family Corleone, and he created as Coppola said, Francis Coppola, when he read the book, he was put off in the beginning by its sex and some of the tawdry scenes that he thought… Well scenes that he thought were tawdry. He said, “What is this, The Carpetbaggers,” he had written and he didn’t wanna have any part of it. But then Coppola went to the library and began looking into other books on organized crime, and he saw… He went back and re-read Puzo’s book, and he saw exactly what Puzo saw, the family. As Coppola said, he saw it as a saga about a king and his three sons.
And that’s what you got in the novel, you see the king, the Don, the Godfather, and his three sons, and you wanna know more about them, you feel a strange affinity for them. And that’s what made the novel different, and that’s what made the movie different.
Brett McKay: And when he started pitching this book to publishers, you said initially it was rejected, and did he get responses on why it was rejected?
Mark Seal: Yeah, you know I’m note sure. I think that he had a 10-page outline and it wasn’t completely finished, and so mainly because his previous two books had not done well. And so Putnam and an editor named William Targ, as I write in the book, took a gamble on him and what a gamble that turned out… Turned out to be one of the best selling novels of all time.
And of course, Puzo didn’t realize what he had done, and he sailed off with his family, still deep in debt. His wife had not been back to her native Germany since they had left there after the war, and Mario Puzo had promised to take her back, so he sailed… He flew off with his kids and his wife to Germany, and he didn’t have any money, but he said he had a nice collection of credit cards. And of course, along the way, he hit all the casinos on the Riviera and in London and everywhere else, and he was cashing checks off of his American Express card. And when he got back, another 8000 or maybe even more in debt, he called his agent hoping she would pull a magazine story out of her hat as she had done many times before and buttress his failing finances. Only to say that the publisher had sent the book out to a paperback house, which he had said, “Do not send this book out, it needs to be polished.” They sent it out to a paperback house, and they had offered a record setting $410,000 for the paperback rights alone.
Brett McKay: What’s that in like today’s dollars. This was in 19 what, ’67 ’68?
Mark Seal: Yes, it would be millions in today’s dollars, it was inconceivable. It was a record. At first they went to 350 and then they kept going up, and finally they went to 410,000, which was set a new record for paperback, for a paperback advance. It was a juggernaut, it was a rocket ship. It was everybody… You can’t believe that He created this world, this family, these characters, these lines that resound in the culture today. These things… That he created this world where fiction was even more mythic and more believable than fact.
Brett McKay: And one thing Puzo talks about, a lot of the lines, especially with the ones that come from the godfather, the Don, Don Corleone, he said a lot of those lines came from his mother.
Mark Seal: Exactly. Yeah. His mother was a very strong Italian-American mother, and she kept her family, her kids on the straight and narrow. He said that some of the best lines that were uttered by Don Corleone were first said by his mother, including, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” and those iconic lines, his mother said first.
Brett McKay: So the novel was a smash success, it was a best seller. What did the actual mob think of the book?
Mark Seal: Well, the actual mob at first, they loved it, and the ones… The people that were later quoted were saying, had said things like, “They saw themselves in it, they felt like that he knew their world, that he was part of their world.” There was a rumor going around that the mob had paid him to write the book, which was absolutely not true, obviously. So it became part of their folklore up to this day, you can hear people… You can see people… “Kissing the ring,” saying those iconic lines, emulating Don Corleone or Michael or Sonny, or maybe even Fredo. So these things re-sounded in our culture back then and continue today, 50 years later.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think one mobster even said that there was a scene where… I forget which one. It was like, I think Michael might have been killing somebody, and the monster said, “The way you described it, that’s how I felt when I had my first hit.” And it was like, wow, that’s something.
Mark Seal: Yeah, so they told this to Jeffrey Goldberg, who was writing for the Times, the mobster in question said, “Somebody had to be helping him because he knew about our life cold, he had the whole atmosphere, the way we talked, that wedding scene. It was so real.” And then he says, the writer tells him that the author was a homebody with no mob connections, and he responds, “If you say so, but remember that scene where Michael goes to whack that drug dealer and the police captain remember how Michael couldn’t hear anything as he’s walking up on them? Remember how his eyes went glassy and there was just the noise of the train in the background and how he couldn’t hear them talk, that’s just like I felt when I killed Joe Colucci.” That’s a pretty high compliment that somebody in that world actually felt that Mario Puzo, a writer had captured that world so completely and so dramatically.
Brett McKay: Okay. So Puzo, he sells the screen rights to Paramount, this was before the book was even published, before it was a smash hit. He didn’t sell it for a lot of money ’cause he just needed money fast to pay off some gambling debts ’cause he was a chooch. So Paramount has its hands on this thing, but it doesn’t do anything with it because basically mob movies hadn’t done well in the past for all the studios. But when the book was released for him this smash bestseller, they were kind of forced to make it because the public really wanted to see this book on the screen. But at the time, Paramount, they were struggling, they were floundering, they had produced a bunch of flops, they were the ninth largest Studio at the time, which is at the very bottom. So making this movie was a risk for them, and it wasn’t initially clear to everyone at the studio that when The Godfather started production that this movie was gonna become this classic juggernaut.
Mark Seal: All these unlikely forces came together, nobody thought it was gonna amount to much. But all these forces, all these new actors, a young director, Francis Coppola, a producer Al Ruddy, who had produced movies, but nothing like this, it all came together in this unlikely combination of things and became a phenomenon.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, it was amazing how it all came together ’cause it didn’t seem like it should have come together the way it did. So you mentioned Francis Ford Coppola, he was brought in as a screen writer and then also a director, but there was a lot of people like, “Do we really wanna bring this guy in here, tell us about… ” Now Coppola is known as one of the great directors of film in America. At the time, this is the very start of his career, how old was he and what was his status as a director in the industry at the time?
Mark Seal: Okay, so Coppola was the golden boy of young Hollywood. At UCLA, he was hired to write and direct, and he had been the star of his class at UCLA, and he went to work with Roger Corman as a an assistant, and he was on his road to greatness and glory, but then he decided that he was gonna leave Hollywood he was gonna leave the commercialism of big budget pictures and create his own studio in San Francisco, American Zoetrope, and that’s what he did. And he had a young assistant named George Lucas and a band of young aspiring film makers, and they worked out of San Francisco and their mission was to create art, not commerce. So when he was offered the job to direct The Godfather, a movie, a big budget picture that all these other big bank-able directors had turned down because they didn’t wanna glorify the Mafia or all of these other reasons. He didn’t wanna do it because he didn’t wanna… “He felt like mob movies were over, the audience had moved past all of that,” he said.
But then George Lucas told him something. “Francis, the sheriff’s at the door, we have no money, you have to do this for the money, and then we can make the movies we wanna make.” And so that’s when he went back and read the book again, and that’s when he had the idea of the king and his three sons.
Brett McKay: And what did Coppola bring… How is his style of directing movies or creating movies different from old hogs. This was a period like this late 60s, 70s… This is like a transition in what movies looked like. What was he doing different from say movies in the early 60s, 50s, 40s?
Mark Seal: Well, Coppola was a visionary, that’s the thing that was unique to him, I believe. Coppola, he saw the cast of The Godfather before anybody else did, and after taking the job, he flew down to Los Angeles where Al Ruddy picked him, the producer Al Ruddy. And he had to convince the Paramount brass that he was the right director for the job. And Al Ruddy said he got up on the table and just gave this impassioned speech and Walter March said it was like like a Jedi mind trick when Coppola starts talking. People are just enthralled and swept up in it. And, so what he brought to it was vision, he saw the cast of The Godfather, as I said, before everybody else did, and he brought them to San Francisco for homemade screen tests.
He saw Al Pacino as Michael. Sonny would be played by James Caan. He saw Diane Keaton as Kay, and he saw Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen. And he brought them all to San Francisco, his wife cut their hair, and they did these homemade screen tests, which he sent down to Paramount. And nobody liked them. Everybody thought, “Who are these people?” They were all unknowns. And so they forced him to go into this very intensive screen test mode where the list of actors who tested for each role ran down the page after page after page, and I think it costs 410,000 or something like that, for screen tests. And after much fighting and battling and controversy, Coppola eventually got the cast that he first envisioned and tested in San Francisco.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors, and now back to the show.
Okay, so a lot of the actors were unknowns, like Al Pacino was an unknown at the time.
Mark Seal: Right.
Brett McKay: But the big… Like the godfather is Marlin Brando. That almost didn’t happen. How did Marlin Brando end up playing the godfather?
Mark Seal: Yeah, so this is one of the classic stories of The Godfather, Marlon Brando, everyone thought he was washed up at 47, he was temperamental on the set, tardy, was a problem actor that everybody thought his career was over, his last films had been bombs at the box office so nobody wanted… Well, nobody Puzo first and Coppola second wanted Brando as godfather. For a while, Puzo was writing the script on his own before the arrival of Francis Coppola as director and co-screenwriter. And so Puzo had written a letter to Marlon Brando and he had listed it as his return address, he had scrawled across the letter North Carolina Fat Farm. That’s where he was in residence when he wrote this letter and he wrote, “Dear Mr. Brando, I wrote a book called The Godfather, which has met with some success,” he wrote very modestly. And he also wrote him that, “You’re the only actor who could play the role of Don Corleone with the quiet intensity that the role requires” or something like that. And so he saw it early on.
And then when Coppola came on board, for him it came down to either Brando or Laurence Olivier and Laurence Olivier was older and living in London and wasn’t available, it didn’t seem, to travel and so he really wanted Brando as well, but it was an uphill battle from day one to even consider the idea.
Brett McKay: How’d they finally convince Brando to… ‘Cause Brando was reluctant to do it. Was there some…
Mark Seal: Brando didn’t want… Brando was reluctant to take the role, he didn’t… In the beginning, he said, “I don’t wanna glorify the mafia.” But then when he heard about Laurence Olivier being in contention, suddenly he was interested. The competition aspect of it, apparently spurred him forward. So the studio agreed, the President of the studio finally agreed that Marlon Brando could be considered for the role if he would do a screen test, do the role for very little money, and there were a few other aspects that he had to agree upon, but…
Brett McKay: So Coppola and his cinematographer, Hiro Narita, and a few other people didn’t tell Brando it would be a screen test, of course, because he would never have agreed to that, he said it would be a make-up test. And they went up to his house one morning, around 7:00 AM on Mulholland Drive, where Brando lived. And Brando came out, he was 47, in a kimono, and his hair in a pony tail. He was still young, you know 47. And he looked young, but in that living room, a miracle happened. He pulled back his hair, he put shoe polish on his upper lip to emulate a mustache, and he put Kleenex in his cheeks, he said, “I wanna talk like a bull dog and look like a bull dog.” And with the cameras rolling, he became Don Corleone in front of everyone’s eyes, and everyone was just astounded to see this 47-year-old man transform himself in his living room into the 60-year-old mafia don. And everyone was floored, nobody could say a word, they were speechless.
Mark Seal: And so Coppola took the tape directly to Charlie Bluhdorn in New York at his company Gulf and Western, where he looks at the screen and he says, “Oh no, I don’t want that guy,” meaning Brando. And then he sees this transformation and he goes, “Wow, that’s terrific,” and that was what everyone said, they couldn’t believe that Brando had done this transformation that was so astounding. And the interesting thing about that tape, it disappeared from… Nobody knows where it is today, it was like a treasure and a shipwreck or like Hemingway’s letters that were lost on the train in Paris, nobody knows what happened to that amazing piece of footage that won Marlon Brando the role as Don Corleone.
Brett McKay: Something that made The Godfather feel authentic was there were a lot of Italian Americans cast in it. Were there actual mobsters in the movie, like mafia guys, made men in the movie?
Mark Seal: Yeah, we believe so. Now, I can’t say exactly who was made or who was not, I’m not sure. But the wedding scene alone had 750 extras or there abouts. And some of the men had connections that you can read about in the book. And so yes, it has that authentic flavor because some of the men in real life were, if not in the movie, they were at least watching from the sidelines, including one of the main leaders of the mob back then, Carlos Gambino, who was said to have been around the corner during the shooting scene of the Don on the streets of Little Italy and came over to watch the film makers shoot that scene. So the real, as was written back in the day by Mick Pileggi of The New York Times, “The real Godfather watches The Godfather on the streets of New York City.”
Brett McKay: So Brando wasn’t Italian-American, but he’s a great actor so he’s able to really bring that, create the character of the Don. Another character wasn’t Italian-American, but you wouldn’t know it if you watched the movie was James Caan. I guess he’s German, Jewish. His families were Jews from Germany, but he… He nailed the character of Sonny. So how was he able to do that? What was his upbringing like that prepared him for the role?
Mark Seal: James Caan was raised in Sunnyside Queens, and he said he grew up around these people. He was the son of a meat merchant and he became of course an actor. He said, “Not too many dancers, singers and actors come from my neighborhood, but a lot of bartenders and mailmen and thieves.” And so he came to know a lot of these men, and he was able to watch them and emulate them. And he watched them how they toast each other and how they kind of are affectionate toward each other. And he was able to just bring that role to his part where when you look at James Caan as Sonny, you feel like he’s seven feet tall, as Puzo described him, this bull. And he just inhabits that role so completely that you can’t imagine any other actor playing that iconic role of Sonny. So much so that he later said, people would approach him in restaurants and bars, believing that he really was Sonny, so he really inhabited it completely.
Brett McKay: There’s one scene where you really see that, is at the wedding where he bumps into the photographer and he takes the camera away from the photographer and then slams it on the ground. And Caan says, one thing he saw as a kid growing up, like after you did something mean, he just threw the money, so he pulls money out of his pocket and throws it the photographer. “Alright, I did something bad. Here’s 40 bucks to fix it.”
Mark Seal: That’s right. And he said, Clemenza, who was played by the great Richard Castellano was standing behind him thinking, “Oh my gosh, what’s going on?” It was totally ad-libbed he said. Anyway, he was so great, and he was so great to speak with both back in 2008 when I did the story, and then later for the book, he was just so forthcoming. And just a wonderful human being.
Brett McKay: The other one that stuck out to me was the scene where he beats up his brother-in-law for beating up his sister.
Mark Seal: Yes, the great Gianni Russo who played Carlo, that was his first role, and he’s so believable as Carlo. That fight that they had in the alley on the street, there where Caan gets in with the trash can lid, it’s just so believable that scene where Carlo’s standing there, and all of a sudden, Sonny comes roaring out of that car, and what happens next, it’s just wild.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he actually improvised and brought in a sawed off broomstick and Russo didn’t know this was gonna happen. And everybody was like, “What are you doing? And Caan was like, “No don’t worry, this is an attitude adjuster.” And I laughed at that because my wife’s grandmother, that’s what… She had an attitude adjuster growing up, she had it hanging on the wall.
Mark Seal: She did? That’s great. He says, Caan said, “It’s one of those big industrial brooms that they cut this part of it off, and you saw off the end of the handle, he said, “It’s called an attitude adjuster.” And the prop-master says, “Where’s that in the script?” And Caan said, “Nowhere.” And he said, “Just put it my car,” and that was totally on the spur concept, Francis didn’t know it was coming, he didn’t plan it, he just rehearsed the scene and there was that bat that he threw.
Brett McKay: So there were maybe some mobsters in the film, but then the mob connection got really explicit when they started filming. And there was this guy named Joseph Colombo, he was a mob boss who pretty much held up production of The Godfather for a bit. What was his role in holding up The Godfather?
Mark Seal: So Joe Colombo founded the Italian American-Civil Rights League, and its mission was to stop the stereotyping of Italian-Americans in popular culture. They were successful in eradicating the word mafia to be used in newspapers and other cultural events. I think even some governments, the government stopped using the word because Colombo felt that that single word was defamatory toward Italian-Americans and he wanted it stopped at all costs. And he headed this league that had hundreds, thousands of members in New York. And so suddenly The Godfather became public enemy number one. Because it was a movie about the one thing that he was against, the portrayal of the mafia in popular culture. And so he led a campaign against it, and suddenly the locations dried up in New York City, the truck drivers threatened to not work on the film, stopping the movie in its tracks.
And finally, Colombo agreed to meet with Ruddy and talk about the script. Ruddy said, “I’ll show you the script, you come to the office tomorrow and we’ll take a look and see what you think.” And he only wanted one word taken out, the word mafia is what had been reported that he only wanted the word mafia to not be used in the film. And Ruddy knew that it had only been used one time in the film where Jack Woltz talks to Tom Hagen at the studio where he uses the word mafia, and that word was deleted and it was an easy deletion for a world of cooperation. Suddenly, the streets of New York were open, the locations were available, the drivers were working, and some of the men in the real life mob, it was said, wanted to be part of the picture.
Brett McKay: But the ironic thing is that he didn’t like the word mafia, but he was actually a part of the organized crime.
Mark Seal: That’s what had been said. Yeah, they said it was said that he was the youngest boss of one of the five families of New York, that’s what was reported. And you know, he always denied that there was even a mafia. He said, “Am I the head of the family? Yeah, my family, my wife and children. And yeah, that’s my family.”
Brett McKay: I think he ended up a year later getting shot. Correct?
Mark Seal: Yes. That was another instance of real life imitating art. And so during the filming of The Godfather, Joe Colombo was to speak before the league in Columbus Circle, and he was shot, he ended up dying, I think, seven years later. But it was amazing how real life was happening, right there in the streets of New York while they were filming the fictional movie, The Godfather at the same time.
Brett McKay: So couple of… Reminiscing about making The Godfather, you said it was the most miserable experience of his life. I mean this is the guy who directed Apocalypse Now where he’s out in the jungles, making that film, which would seem pretty miserable. What made The Godfather so miserable for him?
Mark Seal: Well, he said that it was the most miserable. It was the most, even more than Apocalypse Now, because it was his first big studio picture. You know Apocalypse Now had its own sense of madness in the Philippines, it was a pretty intense set in itself. But what was happening on The Godfather, he had to deal with insurrection among his crew, some people wanted him fired from the movie, he felt that he was going to be fired every day, there was a difference of opinion with his cinematographer, he had a studio kind of a minder or someone who was there to watch every cent that was spent breathing down his neck, questioning his every move. He was living in a cramped New York apartment that was filled with his wife and kids And so it was just a pressure cooker of a set, and that’s why… Peter Bart later wrote that, “This is how this masterpiece was made because everybody thought they were gonna be fired at any minute, including Al Pacino. So they wanted to get their best work down before they could get the axe.
And what happened was, it all came together in that great restaurant scene where Michael Corleone shoots the corrupt police captain and the drug dealing Sallozzo, and that was the scene where everything came together and there was no question that this movie was going forward and with this cast and this director.
Brett McKay: It’s like we said earlier, The Godfather is filled with lines that have become part of our everyday vernacular. A lot of them came from Puzo’s mother, but then a lot of them were just ad-libbed into the movie. And one of the most famous is the one that you made the title of your book, Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli. That was ad-libbed. So what was the original line and then how did the actor, was it Richard Castellano? How did he decide to change it up?
Mark Seal: So in the novel, in Puzo’s novel, it doesn’t say, “Leave the gun take the cannoli.” And in the script by Coppola and Puzo, the line is only leave the gun. So they drive out to shoot, they drive Paulie Gatto, the turncoat who set up the hit on the Don, out to a remote stretch of land beneath the Statue of Liberty. But the interesting thing is, out there where they shot the scene, the Statue of Liberty has its back to the murder scene. So they shoot Paulie Gatto with three shots to the head and Clemenza comes up to the car, and he says to Rocco who had been driving the car, “Leave the gun,” as it had been written in the script. But then he remembers what his wife… His real wife in real life, the woman who played his wife in the movie says, “Don’t forget the cannoli.” And he remembers that and it has a total ad-lib. He goes, “Leave the gun,” and then he says, “Take the cannoli.” And he grabs the cannoli box, and as I wrote, “In his fat hands by the strings,” and then they walk away. And then it became this iconic line, this total ad lib by Richard Castellano that hadn’t been expected.
And nobody said much at the time when he said it, but later it became one of the greatest lines, I think it’s one of the most famous lines of all time, and it was a total ad lib on the spur by Richard Castellano as Clemenza.
Brett McKay: And you argue that this line, that ad lib, it really gets at the heart of what The Godfather is about.
Mark Seal: Yeah, because it does, ’cause it is about guns, but it’s more about the family, the cannoli, the bringing things home, the wife who tells him what she tells him from the doorstep that day. And so I thought I just… It sums up everything, and it just kinda gets to the heart of what made this movie magic and that’s that you feel for these characters, you feel for these men that you really shouldn’t feel for, but they pull this magic trick where you actually have sympathy for them, and I think that’s the magic of The Godfather.
Brett McKay: And so this movie took forever to make. It went over budget on both on money and time, but finally got released. What was the popular and critical response to the film?
Mark Seal: It was huge, it was a phenomenon. The premier was March 14th, and it began being shown in theaters soon after. In New York especially, there were lines around the block, they were showing the film, showing after showing with barely a break in between almost 24 hours a day. And in Los Angeles, there was a Los Angeles Times story about what to do, it was titled, What To Do While You’re Standing in Line to See The Godfather. He said, babies would be born and you could do your Christmas shopping and you’re standing in line so long, all these things happened, and that’s where it was around the world, people stood in line to see this movie. It was a big budget movie that people had to see. At that point, Coppola still felt, as he says that, “The movie was not gonna be a hit.” He was in Paris writing the screenplay for The Great Gatsby when his wife called him and said, “You won’t believe it,” and told him about the lines around the block. She said, “You won’t believe it Francis. It’s a phenomenon.” And it was.
Brett McKay: This movie became a cultural touchstone, and it changed the lives of all the actors and everyone involved in this movie.
Mark Seal: Oh yeah, it changed the lives of all these young actors, the main characters who played the main characters in the film. Al Pacino became… Was on his way to becoming a superstar, as was James Caan, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, and it resuscitated the career of Marlo Brando, of course, who won the 1973 best actor Oscar for his role as Don Corleone. And from that point on, he was considered, which he was even before, the greatest actor in the world.
Brett McKay: Okay, so I don’t know if this is nostalgia, but there seems to be a different quality to The Godfather than movies made today. There’s just something unique to it that you don’t seem to get these days. Have you been able to put your finger on what gives it that feeling, what made it so good?
Mark Seal: Yeah, I think it was a different world back then. Because it was like people were fighting for their survival with this movie. This cast that, they were on their way to becoming stars, but they didn’t realize it at the time, so they were trying to do their very best work and get through this experience that was pretty tense, they had a great time. There was a lot of fun and joking and camaraderie among the cast, but they were really trying to get through this thing. And of course, Coppola was trying to survive what he thought was gonna have a bad end for him, that he might be let go. Robert Evans was fighting to make the best picture possible because the studio was on the rocks and they had to save the studio with this film.
So it was a group of people that really went through something that was really an intense experience, and I think all film sets are like that. They say unhappy film sets make great movies, but this was that to the extreme, and these were like soldiers in a war that they not only triumphed in, but won this amazing prize of this movie that will live in infamy forever.
Brett McKay: Do you think it would be possible to make a movie like The Godfather in the 21st century?
Mark Seal: I don’t know if if it could be made, if a studio would wanna make it, and maybe it would be a series or something. Because it is three hours long, but it feels like it goes by so quick. I think it would be very expensive to make now, and I don’t think there’s any other movies that have had to go head-to head with an organization, as The Godfather did, and so many battles that they had to fight to make the movie. I think that would be… It would be pretty hard to do all of that today, but… Who knows? Yeah, maybe when you have… If another novel like Mario Puzo’s Godfather came around, I’m sure, everyone would be fighting to make it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it would probably would be a TV series of some sort of like a Netflix series. I think that’s why the Sopranos was so popular ’cause it wasn’t just about the guns, it was about… It was this family drama, and that’s what… And they’re playing off the pattern, The Godfather set.
Mark Seal: Yeah, The Sopranos is a great example of that. I felt like I knew those characters that you want… You felt an affinity for Tony Soprano, which is so odd, and his kids and everything else, it’s just like… It’s just like a magic trick, as I said before, that you just believe these people are real. And that was the gift of Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola and all the actors and crew that made this movie come alive.
Brett McKay: Well, Mark, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Mark Seal: So they can go to my website, which is www.mark-seal.com. They can see my work on Vanity Fair’s website or in the magazine, and they can see my books on Amazon or Instagram or Facebook, and wherever books are sold.
Brett McKay: Well Mark Seal, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Mark Seal: Thank you too Brett. It’s been great talking to you.
Brett McKay: Alright, as a side note, Kate, my wife and the editor of this podcast would like to issue the clarification that when I mentioned how her Italian grandma had an attitude adjuster on the wall when she was growing up, it was a wooden paddle. And it wasn’t actually used on the grandkids, but rather only served as a deterrent and an effective one at that.
My guest today was Mark Seal, he’s the author of the book, Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about Mark’s work at his website, mark-seal.com, also check out our shownotes at aom.is/godfather where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you’ll find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you’d like to enjoy Ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to Stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code manliness at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android, iOS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.