It’s a story full of action and intrigue, but is it true?
The offera new 10-part series, starting April 28 on Paramount+, provides an “insider” account of the making The Godfather. It’s a story about brave filmmakers who braved bullets and death threats from mafia soldiers to tell their great saga.
But not really. Written by Michael Tolkin, the TV series is loosely based on incidents and anecdotes from Albert S. Ruddy, who produced the film. They are vivid anecdotes, but they conflict with the accounts of the clients who made the film – of whom I am one – who encountered a different reality.
The Italian-American activists interested in the project actually adored Mario Puzo’s bestseller and were desperate for a way to mobilize the film to raise funds for their own causes and charities. “The film’s leads were celebrated, not threatened,” recalls Nick Pileggi, who reported for the film The New York Times and new York magazine and was the only reporter invited to visit the set and speak to the creatives.
Pileggi recalls the presence of key “wiseguys” who eagerly watched the climax scene in which Marlon Brando is gunned down – an location shot on location in Little Italy. “They applauded,” he recalls. “They loved the movie.” Pileggi later wrote the book Wise Guys and co-wrote the screenplay for Goodfellas.
At that point I was serving as vice president of production at Paramount under Robert Evans, the studio boss. With Evans’ approval, I had decided on one option The Godfather Roman (still incomplete) and asking Francis Coppola to direct (which took some convincing). I am being portrayed by an actor in the Paramount+ series, but the studio officially declined to screen the series for me or anyone else, and this is not intended as a review.
I have found that my memories of the shooting The Godfather fully agree with those of Coppola; Gray Frederickson, his principal production manager; Fred Roos, the casting guru; and with others in the godfather Group. That includes Evans, who died three years ago but was very accurate in his own recording of the shoot. There was zero consultation with these individuals The offer.
Five decades after its publication The Godfather is widely hailed as a great American film. It was recently honored again amid the turmoil of the Oscars. With its upcoming series, Paramount bows to funding the film and its two sequels. It could also be asked to issue disclaimers for its distorted representation The Godfather‘s development and production. A mythical film deserves an accurate story.
Although Bob Evans was a fan of gangster stories, he was worried from the start that “just another mafia movie” was going to be made. Although he shared my respect for Puzo’s novel, it had not yet been published and celebrated.
When I signed Coppola, my “sale” to the studio mates was that we would set out to make “a gangster art film.” Coppola was a gifted young filmmaker, I argued, who could pull off a highly stylized $7 million production – one that could stay under the radar until completion.
When Puzo’s book became an international bestseller, this scenario changed abruptly. Charles Bluhdorn, the ambitious conglomerate that owned the studio, now saw the teenage Coppola as the wrong director. The Godfather was immediately a dazzling project that needed a famous director and a big star – certainly not Marlon Brando, whose recent films were financial flops. If all of this came together, Paramount could re-establish itself as a major studio.
Fortunately, Bluhdorn’s strategy failed, but Coppola was still pursuing the concept when he began filming. Jack Ballard, who directed physical production at the studio, was convinced that Coppola was ill-equipped to direct the film, questioning his decisions and blocking scenes despite Ruddy’s constant absence from the set. Ballard also warned Coppola that “the studio” (vaguely defined) is extremely critical of his work – in fact, moves are already underway to replace him with a new director.
In reality, only Evans and I had looked at the dailies. We both felt that despite a few glitches, the scenes were just brilliant.
But while Coppola fended off Ballard’s interference, Ruddy focused on other issues. Apparently some landlords were nervous about the young filmmakers shooting a gangster movie in New York’s Italian neighborhoods and refused to use their lots as locations. Additionally, the growing excitement surrounding the hot new novel also fueled gossip about its characterization of Italian-Americans. Would their community be stigmatized by alleged mafia connections?
Posing as a watchdog for the Italian-American cause, an aspiring real estate salesman named Joe Colombo advised his followers to avoid collaborating with the New York-based production. Colombo let it be known that given the power of his mafia family, he would make demands for a more sympathetic script and go straight to a production representative.
In Ruddy’s eyes, the situation was becoming an imminent threat. The mafia was on alert. He warned his assistant that it would be wise to switch offices and switch cars. There would be threats and persecution. Bullet holes were reportedly found on an assistant’s car.
Now that alarm bells were ringing, Paramount’s corporate headquarters were reportedly receiving bomb threats. Evans received a phone threat at his New York hotel, a harsh voice warning him, “We don’t want to break your pretty face, so stop the film.”
Did any of this really happen? Evans himself assured me that no such call had come in. His then-wife, Ali MacGraw, reiterated last week that she had never experienced such threats.
A key target would certainly be Frederickson, who worked alongside Ruddy as his deputy producer, in charge of locations and budget. Frederickson told me last week, “None of this happened to the best of my memory.”
Was Al Ruddy on an island he created himself? Out of concern for the safety of the crew, I decided to contact Sidney Korshak and ask how he would characterize the supposed enemies of our production. Korshak, a close friend of Evans, was known to have had connections in the mob community. His answer: He couldn’t see any dangers for the shoot or for Evans.
Ruddy, meanwhile, pursued his own strategy to contain what he felt was a threatening situation. He decided to speak at an Italian-American Civil Rights League event. He would also arrange a summit meeting with the league leaders.
The results of its summit were duly reported by The New York Times: Ruddy had unilaterally agreed to have the league reviewed The GodfatherScript and dictated appropriate changes, which he promised to implement. Ruddy had also pledged to donate proceeds from the film’s New York premiere to the league’s hospital fund and would announce that commitment at a press conference.
When reading the TimesWhen he reported Ruddy’s promises, Bluhdorn got angry and called the producer to his office. “You ruined my company,” he shouted. No company with thousands of shareholders would cede control of a high-profile film to a private organization, regardless of whether it has a mafia connection or not, Bluhdorn stressed.
The result: Bluhdorn announced that Ruddy was fired. He didn’t care if that sent a message of confusion.
Within days, Bluhdorn went into self-defense mode, his tirade forgotten. Ruddy would be back in the movie with a promise to keep quiet and give up his secret dealings. Ballard was also firmly reminded that he was reporting to Evans and Bart and so on The Godfather would keep firing with Coppola firmly at the helm.
Ultimately of course The Godfather open to an exceptional welcome and long lines of ticket buyers. A deal for a sequel was soon made, but Ruddy would not be involved in any way.
While The Godfather‘s dramatic saga has moved millions of moviegoers over the years, the TV narrative of its supposed production crises can ultimately be classified under the science fiction genre.