There is one reason that movie is successful, and one reason only. It may be the greatest family movie ever made.
Producer, The Godfather
In the late summer of 1998, I received an offer I couldn’t refuse: Francis Ford Coppola wanted some help running American Zoetrope, his San Francisco film studio. I had met the man many years earlier, at the home of the writer Gay Talese, whose wife, Nan (more to come on her), had published the journals painfully kept by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, during the making of Apocalypse Now. The director told me he had just fired the company’s decade-long president. Given Coppola’s well-known and deep sense of loyalty, that seemed odd, until some weeks later when I discovered the reason: the president had fought with his boss, who wanted to allocate $2 million of Zoetrope funds—i.e., Coppola’s own money—to finance daughter Sofia’s first feature film, The Virgin Suicides.
How could anyone who had ever watched The Godfather, let alone been present at the creation of The Godfather III, not understand the sacred bond between Italian American fathers and daughters? The woman asks; the man delivers. That male-female dialectic is all but universal in Italian families. Recall the telling moment in the first movie when the character Clemenza, played by Richard Castellano, is heading off on a few errands…chief among them to eliminate his own lieutenant Paulie Gatto, who had helped engender the hit on Don Corleone. “Don’t forget the cannoli,” admonishes Mrs. Clemenza, blowing a kiss as her husband climbs into a soon-to-be-abandoned car, its windshield shattered, splattered with Paulie’s blood, the Statue of Liberty’s back creating an iconic—and ironic—backdrop to the crime. And as every lover of the movie knows, despite being mired in that messy business obligation and having to take a leak while another of his lieutenants is actually pulling the trigger, Clemenza most certainly does not forget his wife’s request.
In his detail-rich and decidedly definitive saga about the creation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel and Coppola’s film three years later, Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather, Mark Seal writes of that memorable moment, “It was the essence of everything: The wife, the kids, the fathers, the mothers, the kitchens, the families, and the food, always the food, and the extremes to which men had to go to put that food on the table. It was about the gun, yes, but it was more about the cannoli. It was about the statue in the distance with its back to the murder scene. It was about the country that had turned its back on these men and their community, for whom only the Godfather could offer justice and jobs and dignity.”
Seal’s book arrives not quite 50 years after the film’s first viewers, in March 1972, witnessed the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera—a minor character Coppola wisely pulled from deeper in the novel to be the first voice we hear in the movie—deliver his “I believe in America…” plea to his godfather. As Seal notes, “Here was an Italian immigrant who tended to the dead, begging Don Corleone for more death.” Coppola wrote in the margins of his notebook: “Good scene. We need a terrific actor for Bonasera.” Counterintuitively, he hired an amateur, whose stage fright and halting delivery propelled his performance into the perfect expression of a character in complete awe of his patron—something Coppola must have known instinctively would happen.
In my brief sojourn at Zoetrope (I, too, was fired, albeit over differences of business strategy, not family-loyalty miscues), I saw a few annoying but mostly delightful sides to Coppola. He was first and foremost a family man, but he was also a talented chef; an avid and careful reader; a director who truly knew his craft (“Sit right next to the lens so the actor is performing for you”); a tinkerer who loved building things; a close and loyal friend to film-world colleagues like George Lucas and Walter Murch. In many ways he was the originator of social media, with his Virtual Studio, which encouraged anyone to submit a script and have it critiqued by others; and, perhaps most notably, that very rare individual who had become a giant in two disparate fields of endeavor, film and wine, à la Steve Jobs with Apple and Pixar. (You could even argue three, if you counted the six hotels Coppola runs.) I could get the director to engage on almost any topic, save the one I most wanted to explore: the making of The Godfather, the film I would always choose if I could choose but one. At most, he would dismiss it by saying, “That was a bad time in my life,” and move on to some other topic.
While many of the stories and facts in Seal’s account have been documented previously, in a widely varying collection of relatively obscure books and various magazine dispatches, the compiler has done a remarkable job of transforming this crazy patchwork quilt into a solidly structured narrative that’s almost as astounding as what Mario Puzo got on the page and Coppola on the screen. What Seal lacks as a polished writer is more than offset by his dogged research and reporting. It’s often said that making a movie is fundamentally like going to war: a constant barrage of problems, with little end in sight. If nothing else—and he certainly does much more—Seal makes it completely clear why Coppola never really wanted to discuss the filming of The Godfather. It was a constant battle; every day he faced enormous opposition to his script choices, his casting choices, his directing choices. The studio hated Marlon Brando (who would win an Academy Award for his performance), hated Al Pacino (in fact, Paramount wanted Robert Redford as Michael), and didn’t want to shoot in New York. At one point, Coppola faced a mutiny of crew members on his set, with his editor as the ringleader, hoping to take over the film himself. (Coppola fired them all.) The list goes on and on. In retrospect, it seems hard to believe that an almost perfect film could have experienced so tumultuous a gestation. In the end, the battles involved in making The Godfather dwarf even the battles among the characters of its story.
As is often the case with writing projects, the Godfather novel was born of financial desperation, largely caused by its author’s gambling addiction. Mario Puzo had been raised in the poverty of Hell’s Kitchen, New York’s melting pot for struggling Irish and Italian immigrants. When a grade-school teacher instructed the class to bring in cans of food to be distributed to poor families, the Puzo kids had to shoplift their donations. Eventually, Puzo found a seat in a writing sweatshop called Magazine Management, where authors “seemed not so much to have been hired as to have been washed ashore at the company like driftwood,” observed Bruce Jay Friedman, the editorial director who would go on to write many books and screenplays of his own. In the mid-’60s, Puzo embarked on a quest to write his “Mafia Novel,” modeled on The Heritage of the Desert, a Zane Grey western, although this would be a new kind of western with a new style of outlaw justice. One night at dinner, sitting across from Gay Talese’s wife—herself a legend in the book business, publishing many bestsellers—Puzo realized that Nan Irene Ahearn Talese, a Westchester Cotillion debutante, was the perfect model for the Waspy wife he envisioned for his character Michael. Some time later, while chatting with a croupier in Vegas, where he was doing research on mobster Meyer Lansky—and running up serious markers at the Sands Hotel—the author witnessed a pit boss very quickly defuse an altercation started by David Janssen, star of the TV series The Fugitive. When Puzo asked the pit boss how he had done it, he replied, “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
As Puzo was hammering out his manuscript on his 1965 Olympia manual typewriter, Paramount offered him $50,000 for the film rights, with $10,000 as an advance. Into his bookies for that amount, the author asked if the studio could make the advance $15,000. They settled on $12,500—albeit preempting any future royalties if a movie were made; at the time, Paramount believed none ever would be. As Puzo eventually wrote in the book, “A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” Brando experienced this even more forcefully, when he needed $100,000 to pay taxes, a month before the movie began shooting. The studio agreed to advance the money, but only if the actor would give up his future profit participation in the film—eventually worth at least $11 million.
Seal describes how publication of The Godfather changed Puzo’s life profoundly; he began to be hustled by people wanting to be involved with the film. Orson Welles invited him to dinner in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, proposing that he play the don. One night at the now-long-gone but legendary showbiz hangout Chasen’s, Puzo was loudly and publicly excoriated by Frank Sinatra, the author’s inspiration for the Johnny Fontaine character. “Choke; go ahead and choke,” screamed the singer (whom I saw pounce on a croupier in Atlantic City when his number didn’t come up, on the day gambling returned to that town in 1978). All that screaming at Puzo seems profoundly counterproductive because Sinatra, like Welles, thought he should play the role of Don Corleone and was lobbying Paramount profusely in that effort. The Chairman of the Board dustup was especially painful to Puzo: “In the house where I grew up, my mother had two pictures in the kitchen: one of the Pope, and one of Sinatra.”
When I worked for Coppola, I did finally get him to answer one question…about the second Godfather film, specifically a scene that had sealed my mother’s dislike of both the original and its sequel. When Fredo is shot, I asked, did the bird just happen into the frame, or was it wrangled in? Can you get more obsessive about movie minutiae? But something about fratricide felt so primal—had so horrified my mother, that a brother could, and would, descend to such moral depths—it made me wonder whether the director sensed the need to amp up the scene with an image of something flying away, being lost. For my devoutly Catholic, Sicilian mother, it was further affirmation of the death of Michael’s immortal soul, which had already sailed away, for her, in the baptism scene of the first film, cutting between the christening of Connie Corleone’s infant daughter (played by Talia Shire’s three-week-old niece, Sofia Coppola) surrounded by her family in New York and the orchestrated massacres of family enemies happening in multiple locations, none more brutally depicted than the blood dripping from Moe Greene’s eye as he lies on a Vegas massage table. For me, that baptism scene is the pinnacle of film editing and should be acknowledged as such in film schools, even more than the much-lauded Odessa-steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin, which many believe put montage on the map. If montage is the juxtaposition of disparate concepts to create a heightened emotional state, what better way to communicate Michael’s horrific existential conflict than love of family punctuated by the gunshot he orders to slay his brother? It was his innocence completely gone, past the point of no return. “The bird just flew by,” Coppola told me. “So given the various takes and footage, you could say it was an ‘editorial decision.’”
Another editorial decision was this book’s title and its concomitantly mythical place in Godfather lore. You won’t find it in the script, which simply had Clemenza delivering advice well-known to any hit man (and the actor’s uncle Paul was one): “Leave the gun.” Those were the words on the page. But Castellano, a product of the Method school, had so inhabited his character that while waiting for the camera to roll, with the Statue of Liberty’s back snubbing him, he recalled his fictional wife’s admonition not to forget dessert. Thus was born a storied line in cinema history, ad-libbed by someone completely present in his role: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”•