LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — “The Godfather” easily ranks among the greatest films of all time, according to critics and the public, but the movie was nearly scuttled multiple times. The producers experienced death threats from mobsters, labor troubles, budget issues, and fierce battles over which actors should be cast in which roles. The making of the movie is the subject of a new book “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli” by Mark Seal.
The title is taken from a line of dialogue in the film, a line that movie fans recognize in an instant.
“It’s one of the greatest ad-libs of all time,” says writer Mark Seal. “You know, when Clemenza, after they shoot the turncoat Paulie Gatto in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, he says that immortal line and it was a total ad-lib.”
Seal started working on his book back in 2008 when he was assigned to write a magazine article about the making of the movie. He interviewed Robert Evans, the inexperienced producer who took over movie production for the then-failing Paramount Studios.
“Paramount did not want to make the picture in the beginning. Mob movies just did not play,” Seal recalls. “They had made a film called ‘The Brotherhood’, which was critically well-received but it bombed at the box office. So they weren’t keen on making the movie, but there was one thing — Mario Puzo’s novel ‘The Godfather’ kept shooting up the bestseller lists, so they had to make it.”
Puzo was an unlikely literary success. His two previous novels were flops, and he barely kept his financial head above water by cranking out tawdry articles for men’s magazines. Puzo was deeply in debt, in part because of his prodigious gambling habit. He had grown up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, and although he said he never knew any actual mobsters before writing his masterpiece, he almost certainly encountered wiseguys through much of his life.
Seal’s book chronicles the rags to riches story of Puzo’s triumph, how he created a fictional world of mobsters and vendettas, and how he turned his destructive gambling habit into a research tool that taught him about the five ruling families of the Mafia, how the mob-controlled Las Vegas casinos, and the code of honor that may or may not have actually existed for men like his central character Don Vito Corleone. Puzo’s novel became a runaway bestseller, and the paperback rights set a record, selling for a whopping $410,000. Seal says the movie rights were sold by Puzo for a measly $12,500.
Seal’s new book also chronicles the ferocious competition that erupted over the casting of the movie. Burt Lancaster tried to buy the rights so he could play the Don. Danny Thomas wanted to buy the entire paramount operation so he could give the role to himself. Singer Frank Sinatra, who hated Puzo’s thinly-veiled portrayal of his life and mob connections, eventually expressed an interest in playing Vito Corleone. Hollywood agents proposed all sorts of unlikely actors for the key roles, including Robert Redford as Michael Corleone, or Dustin Hoffman in the same role.
And then there was the actual mob. Seal says real-life Mafia figures loved the book and how it portrayed mob life. Many of them tried to insert themselves into the cast. One unknown actor with longtime mob contacts managed to land a plum role. Gianni Russo grew up around New York mob boss Frank Costello and managed to convince director Francis Coppola into casting him as Carlo, the violent son-in-law to Vito Corleone.
As an interesting side note, after the success of the movie, Puzo wrote another book “Inside Las Vegas” which is a photo message about his favorite city.
Writer Mark Seal reveals little-known secrets about how Puzo wrote the novel and how Paramount overcame impossible obstacles to create a cinematic masterpiece. Here’s our Mystery Wire interview with Seal: