There were threatening phone calls, letters of protest, and a note on a producer’s gun-riddled car that read, “Don’t do the movie.”
The reason? Classic film The Godfather, based on a bestseller by relatively unknown author Mario Puzo and released 50 years ago this month.
So in 1970, who would stop Paramount Pictures from making the gangster epic released in 1972?
Enter Joe Colombo, the rumored head of one of New York’s five mafia families – but also an activist bent on protecting public perceptions of Italian America.
He had turned to activism after his then 23-year-old son, Joe Jr., was arrested by the FBI on April 30, 1970 and charged with a plan to melt down coins and sell the silver.
Joe Sr. told the New York Daily News, “I was willing to suffer the attacks of the authorities.” The so-called “attacks” were the Feds’ charges against him, including perjury (false truths in applying for his real estate license) and tax evasion.
But he added: “When they set my boy Joey up, I knew I had to do something.”
What he did next would rock the halls of power in New York and Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
He mobilized protesters to picket outside the FBI building in New York over his son’s arrest, and Colombo and his wife joined them.
“Give me my son back!” yelled Colombo’s wife while his eldest son Anthony reportedly challenged federal agents to a fight.
Soon, protesters in Colombo were armed with signs: “It’s time for the Italians to take a stand.”
And: “WHY ARE ONLY ITALIAN AMERICANS INVOLVED IN ORGANIZED CRIME?”
The protesters later formed a political action group, the Italian American Civil Rights League, with the mafia boss as its founder and figurehead.
It accused the Feds of harassing and persecuting all Italian-Americans. They argued that even the word “mafia” was an insult.
Colombo was a larger-than-life character that author Puzo, who also co-wrote the film, may have invented. But this was real.
In 1971 he asked a New York Times reporter, “What is the Mafia? There is no mafia. Am I the head of the family? Yes – my wife, four sons and one daughter. This is my family.”
It was unprecedented, a mafia boss who doubled as a civil rights activist, and Colombo insisted his public notoriety was proof he couldn’t be a gangster.
He said: “If I’m a leader of Cosa Nostra or Mafia or whatever they call it, then maybe the rumor is true that I’m going to be killed. I’ve broken every rule I’ve heard about – I’m speaking to the press.”
At this point Colombo and his league were on the right track – rich in money and with thousands of members and growing political clout.
In November 1970, the organization raised nearly $500,000 at a sold-out benefit at Madison Square Garden, sponsored by none other than the greatest Italian-American artist of all, Frank Sinatra.
The following February, Joe Jr. was acquitted by a Brooklyn jury after a key witness retracted his testimony. It encouraged his father, who became even more public.
His league grew in strength. Rallies and marches took place. Tens of thousands came and shouted, “We want Joe! We want Joe!” When Joe appeared, it was the tune of For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.
The League’s power increased along with its missions – one of which was to pressure the US Attorney General to stop the publication of The Real Thing, the memoir of middle-level gangster Joe Valachi, who was clutching his guts poured out the Feds and attended televised Senate hearings.
The League argued that Valachi’s memoirs would tarnish the reputation of hard-working Italian-Americans.
Emboldened by its success, Colombo pursued an ambitious goal: to change the way Italian-Americans were viewed and treated in popular culture.
Under pressure from the League, the Justice Department and New York State Police had banned the word “mafia” from press releases, and some newspapers followed suit.
The League, and the powerful showman at its helm, soon set their sights on a film based on a novel originally titled Mafia – the word Joe despised above all else.
If they could stop The Godfather – a major Hollywood film based on a best-selling novel – they could change how America views Italian-Americans and the mob.
But the Hollywood sharks wouldn’t just turn around. Undeterred by the initial threats in Los Angeles, The Godfather production relocated to New York and set up offices in the building of Paramount parent company Gulf+Western.
The building, now the Trump International Hotel and Tower, faces Columbus Circle, named for the Italian who discovered America and was the site of many upcoming Italo-American Civil Rights League rallies.
It was also the site where Colombo was assassinated during a rally in June 1971 and died almost seven years later.
Strange things started happening. Italian-American owned homes and businesses whose owners had allowed the filmmakers access were withdrawn.
The Teamsters, the powerful union to which the truck drivers belonged, threatened to strike and stopped the film.
The campaign against The Godfather is said to have reached dashing Paramount executive producer Robert Evans, whose wife, film actress Ali MacGraw, was expecting their first child.
The phone in Evans’s suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York rang. Evans answered and heard a voice that could have come straight out of a movie.
“We don’t want to break your pretty face, hurt your newborn,” Evans later wrote of that call in his memoir, The Kid Stays In The Picture.
“Break Your Pretty Face”
“Get out of town. Don’t make a film about the family here. Got it?”
“F*** you, mister,” Evans replied. “If you have any problems contact producer Al Ruddy.”
“Listen, motherf***er,” the caller warned. “I won’t say it again. When we kill a snake, we cut off the damn head.”
“I knew this happened,” Ali MacGraw told me, though she didn’t hear the actual call.
“They used to play with fire with it. There were various mob proposals, let’s put it that way.”
Colombo’s son Anthony later said his father never made or sanctioned such threats — particularly over the phone, which Colombo was certain was bugged by the Fed.
So, on February 25, 1971, Al Ruddy met with Colombo and spoke before a crowded meeting of his league at New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel — where crime boss Albert Anastasia had allegedly been shot in a barber chair in 1957 on orders from rivals Carlo Gambino and Vito Genovese.
Ruddy convinced the initially angry crowd and suggested Colombo read the script and if he found anything offensive maybe they could make a deal.
It turned out that Colombo only wanted one thing: the word “mafia” – which luckily was only used once in the script – should be removed. Ruddy agreed, and New York opened up wide, with many “connected” would-be actors vying for roles in the film, but not without media backlash
One of many scathing reports came from The Village Voice: “If you want to make a film about the Mafia, please ask permission.”
Paramount’s Vulcan boss, Charlie Bluhdorn, erupted as Gulf+Western’s stock fell on what appeared to be a deal with the mafia.
Colombo, Puzo, Evans, Ruddy and Bluhdorn were larger than life characters who fought their way to success. But the director who would make The Godfather was as tough as all of them: Francis Ford Coppola.
Barely 30, he took a job on a film that many established directors had turned down – only to find himself faced with non-stop struggles.
Not against the mob, but against the studio that produces The Godfather and its executive producer, Evans.
It was a “very big fight,” Coppola recalled. He said: “Bob Evans was very handsome, tall and impressive. I wanted him to accept me and trust me, but I wasn’t convinced at all.
“I wasn’t sure how to work with him. I first realized the problems when I got such poor reception for what I thought were key ideas – that the film should be set in and shot in NYC (post-WWII); Al Pacino as Michael (they suggested Ryan O’Neal first).”
Coppola also insisted on Marlon Brando in the title role.
The studio turned down almost everything he asked for—location, timeframe, budget, cast, music, and final cut. But he was a fighter and his fights included the cast he envisioned – including his lead, Brando, who was considered a problematic bunny at 47.
In the end, Coppola’s battle for the movie he saw in his mind ended in a classic movie.
Its 1940s setting gives it a timeless feel, and its story about a family – rather than just criminals – elevated it to the level of a screen epic.
And so The Godfather was born.
Naughty secret, Brando
By Grant Rollings
THE Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola battled studio bosses to get “washed up alumni” Marlon Brando in the lead role as Don Vito Corleone.
Even at the age of 47, Brando looked too young to play an aging gangster.
But with the help of his personal makeup artist, Philip Rhodes, he was transformed into the sleek, bulldog-chinned chief of the Corleone clan.
Shoe polish gave him dark hair and a whip. He then stuffed tissues into his cheeks to add cheeks.
But he still needed others in the cast to carry his lines as a prompt.
https://www.the-sun.com/entertainment/tv/4825968/the-godfather-mafia-threats-kill/ The real mafia tried to stop The Godfather from being made by making death threats to filmmakers, reveals author Mark Seal