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:: Spotlight :: Interview with The Godfather's Gianni Russo

By: Carmine Pascuzzi

I've been fortunate enough to meet many interesting people over a long period of time. There was something extra special in Sydney recently when I had the pleasure of meeting one of the stars of The Godfather film, Gianni Russo. He played the part of Carlo (Vito Corleone's son-in-law) who betrayed the Corleone family. It was a significant role for a virtually unknown actor at that stage (1971). As The Godfather and The Godfather II are my all-time favourite films, I had longed to meet somebody associated in a major role of the film. Mind you, there were several “major” roles in an all-star cast. Therefore it was a great thrill to personally meet and interview Gianni at his Sydney hotel. He was enjoying his time in Sydney and was pleased that The Godfather keeps living on, courtesy of a special DVD release of the film’s restoration by director Francis Ford Coppola.

I firstly asked Gianni about the attempts to market The Godfather and The Godfather II as a trilogy several years ago, in wrongly showing the film in chronological sequence. He strongly agreed that the two films should always be kept apart.

Q. You must look fondly at your role in one of the greatest films ever made…

A. Playing Carlo Rizzi, in my first ever movie role, was something else. In a way, it’s sad. Your first film is your best film. How are you gonna top that?

Q. The image is still very strong of your role…

A. Especially in an ensemble cast like we had. To have a role that stands out like that is amazing. There are a lot of things to be remembered about that role, without being one of the main characters.

Q. A film like that still attracts great fascination and has a big influence in today’s society…

A. Oh yeah. As much as we can go back, anytime there was an organised crime movie (e.g. Scarface) it’s very well received. People are intrigued, especially women. It has such sex appeal for women. That film (The Godfather) – the way it was shot and with the cast we had – is overwhelming.

Q. What is your lasting impression of the making of the film?

A. The biggest problem I had was the fight scene with Jimmy (James Caan). Jimmy and I didn’t get along at all. He was thinking, “Who is this guy that walks off the street and gets this part?” Jimmy wanted to be a gangster in real life, so he got to be Sonny. With the fight scene, we choreographed it and, knowing Jimmy’s physical capacities, I knew he was going to overstep his line, and he did. He chipped my elbow, broke my rib, and there are a lot of things that didn’t have to happen. You can’t do much about it though, because you’re on set. Then the scene with (Al) Pacino at the end was quite challenging. How do you get that emotion up? The crying, being hysterical, knowing that you’re going to die. It was good because (Marlon) Brando was so interested in me making that work that he actually worked with me on that scene. He handed me the airline ticket to make it feel like a security blanket. When we read the scene, I knew I was going through the windshield. Fortunately, it all worked and people were impressed with the performance.

Q. Tell us about the production problems leading up to the film, and the fear that it wouldn’t be made at all?

A. The production problems were caused by the Italian Anti-Defamation League which had shut down early production of the film in New York. Paramount Pictures was bought by Gulf & Western. The last thing they wanted was problems and there were rumours that the whole thing would shut down. That’s when I got involved to make it work. Egotistically, I wanted this film to come out. If you think about it, what if this movie had not been made? So many great clichés we wouldn’t have – “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”, “Sleeps with the fishes”, etc. Francis (Coppola) fought for what he wanted and he got it.

Q. There was always the speculation about Johnny Fontaine’s part being based on Frank Sinatra. Can you shed any light on what really happened?

A. I had a big problem with that. Frank (Sinatra) called me soon after he found out about the film. He said if I considered him a friend. I said, “Yeah, sure”. The producers had asked Vic Damone to play the part and Frank asked him not to do it. He said to me, “I’d really like you to turn down your part”. A couple of days passed and I said to myself, “How can I turn down my part?” He wasn’t paying my bills. So I called him back. I asked, “Are we friends?” He said, “Yeah, yeah”. Can I ask a question, “If I asked you not to do ‘From Here To Eternity’ would you have made it? He hung up on me and he didn’t talk to me for three years.

The thing that bothered him most was the fact of how he got the part in “From Here To Eternity” was a big thorn in his side. Ava Gardner got him that part. She messed up his life so bad. He tried to kill himself. He was found with his head in an oven, in a friend’s apartment. Fortunately, the neighbour was home and called the William Morris Agency (Frank’s friend worked there) to say that there was a smell of gas coming from the apartment. Yes, Ava screwed him up. He lost his voice due to the damage from that incident. And, playing Maggio would make him a star again. Old man Harry Cohen wasn’t gonna give Frank the part. This is unknown to a lot of people, but she ended up sleeping with the old man. He always wanted her. She got Frank Sinatra the part and it made him even crazier when he found out what she did.

That was the big part with Mario (Puzo, the author of ‘The Godfather’). He talked to Mario and slapped him in the face whilst at a restaurant. He couldn’t believe it – that Mario portrayed that the Mob got him the part. The Mob did not get him the part. Ava Gardner got him that part.

Q. You’ve kept yourself busy over the years with several films, TV appearances, running bars and singing…

A. I capitalised on The Godfather even up to today – my shows and things I created. I did it in a different way than most others do. My wines and my CDs – it’s all attributed to The Godfather influence.

Q. You used to entertain the Rat Pack…

A. I had a 13,000 square feet club in Las Vegas. The Rat Pack came and enjoyed it. It was a big club. I utilised the friendships and relationships greatly. I used to “steal” $10,000 a day out of that joint. It was lucrative. It adds up after seven years.

Q. The Godfather has attracted a fascination amongst younger audiences over the years and the new Coppola Restoration DVD package will keep the interest flowing…

A. When I do the Howard Stern Radio Show I’d go for an hour. The phone never stops from young people wanting to know things about the film. It’s amazing. I was therefore pleased that Paramount asked me to help promote this new DVD package. It gives me another life.

Q. Tell us about the significance of oranges in The Godfather. They are normally a symbol of wealth and power…

A. The use of fruit was a big thing in the Italian families. That great scene with Don Corleone (Brando) and his grandson – the use of orange peels. There was so much impromptu stuff that happened and they just rolled the camera.

Actually, a lot of good stuff was not even written. Brando would jest with the other actors and they’d start shooting. Even the scene at the wedding with Luca Brazzi, who was studying his lines of how to thank Don Corleone for his wedding invitation. He was actually studying the script lines and Francis (Coppola) said to shoot it. It was brilliant.

Q. The whole Italian-American society has an interesting history. How do you view such a culture?

A. It’s interesting. A film like The Godfather explains why they had those organisations earlier on. The greed and then getting into narcotics, etc obviously destroyed a fabric of it. But there was a definite necessity because Italians were being abused. The Irish came over earlier and most of them were educated. They became policemen, labour bosses, etc and they treated Italians terribly. There was an advertisement that my grandfather kept from a 1907 New York Times where they were digging a reservoir in Central Park, and they had three categories of workers: whites, blacks & Italians. It just shows how they had to organise so as to not be abused. They were taken advantage of. The Italians were so proud of their work and everyone wanted to hire them – so they could pay them less money. That’s how they started to organise.

Q. I understand that you’re working on an autobiography at the moment…

A. We changed the title to “Don’t Shoot The Messenger” Mark Wahlberg is playing me. David O. Russell (“Three Kings”) is directing and writing the screenplay, which I really like. My life is a serious life, but full of fun. What David did with that whole book (Three Kings) of Operation Desert Storm was funny in a way also. I want that portrayed – fun, but with serious stuff in the background (e.g. Kennedy Assassinations). It’s been a fascinating life.

We wrapped up our discussion by indicating how much of a survivor he’s been and that he owes much to the Patron Saint St. Anthony, an important figure for Italians. A few years ago Gianni released an album of songs “Reflections”, paying tribute to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and has since released a live album in 2008.

On August 7, 2008, both The Godfather and The Godfather II, as fully restored films, will debut on DVD, along with a newly remastered The Godfather: Part III, in The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration. All three films will be available both individually and in a 5-disc collection which is loaded with a host of all-new special features.