“The Godfather” is hailed as an iconic Hollywood masterpiece, ranking among the highest-grossing films in history. However, the behind-the-scenes story of this mafia epic had a tumultuous beginning, as recounted in MATT BIRKBECK’s book, “The Life We Chose: William ‘Big Billy’ D’Elia and The Last Secrets of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Family” (William Morrow), Your Content has learned.
The journey to bring this film to life involved intricate negotiations and encounters with individuals intimately familiar with the real underworld.
Leading the way was William “Big Billy” D’Elia, the head of the formidable Bufalino crime family and a protégé of mob boss Russell Bufalino, who witnessed the untold drama behind the scenes.
In the winter of 1971, ABS Contracting, one of Russell Bufalino’s numerous cutting rooms in northeast Pennsylvania, received an unexpected call.
When Billy answered, he was taken aback by the familiar voice on the other end claiming to be Marlon Brando, calling for Mr. Bufalino.
Initially dismissing it as a prank, Billy was quickly silenced by Russell’s stern demand to hand over the phone. Brando, cast to play Vito Corleone in the upcoming film “The Godfather,” was seeking guidance from those acquainted with the mob world.
Director Francis Ford Coppola, envisioning a departure from the typical mob movie archetype, believed Brando was perfect for the role.
Despite Paramount Pictures executives’ reservations due to Brando’s recent career decline, the revered actor expressed eagerness to audition and convinced them of his suitability.
Among the cast members, including James Caan, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, and Abe Vigoda, Brando stood out as the sole movie star.
Renowned for his thorough preparations, Brando sought inspiration and insights into portraying a mob boss, leading him to Russell.
Surprisingly, Russell’s involvement behind the scenes played a crucial role in resolving conflicts and ensuring the film’s production proceeded smoothly.
Based on Mario Puzo’s bestselling 1968 novel, which sold nearly 10 million copies, “The Godfather” faced obstacles even before filming began in New York.
A recently formed advocacy group, the Italian American Civil Rights League, led by Joe Colombo, targeted the production, claiming the book portrayed Italian Americans negatively.
The league resorted to aggressive tactics, including protests and violence against those they perceived as obstructing their cause.
To navigate this challenging environment, the film’s producers sought a resolution by engaging with Colombo.
Several meetings took place, including one at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, where Al Ruddy presented negotiated terms with the league.
Russell, acting as the behind-the-scenes orchestrator, played a pivotal role in the agreement’s success.
Paramount Pictures executives, shocked by the deal struck with the New York Mafia, promptly fired Ruddy for his participation in a press conference alongside Colombo.
Nonetheless, the agreement appeased the league and enabled the film’s production to resume after Russell relayed the message to the Teamsters to return to work and instructed street individuals to cease sabotaging the set. Responding to Coppola’s insistence, Ruddy was swiftly rehired.
However, the presence of real-life gangsters persisted. Many of them lingered near the downtown set, even securing acting roles in the film.
Amidst the peace negotiations, Lenny Montana, a street figure associated with Andy Russo, entered La Cantina in Little Italy brandishing a camera lens he had taken from the set.
When Russell learned of this, he swiftly reprimanded Montana, ordering him to return the lens immediately. Montana, who later portrayed Luca Brasi, Vito Corleone’s bodyguard, was ultimately included in the film despite his minimal dialogue.
Another noteworthy figure seeking a role was crooner Al Martino, a close associate of Russell. After multiple rejections, Martino approached Russell, desperately wanting the part of Johnny Fontane.
However, Coppola favored Vic Damone for the role, leading Russell to threaten the termination of the movie. When Damone dropped out shortly after, Martino finally secured the coveted role.
The film boasted a star-studded cast, including James Caan, who formed a close bond with Russell and frequently spent time with him and Martino.
Intriguingly, Russell’s encounters with Marlon Brando revealed an unexpected dynamic. Brando, seeking guidance and adopting mannerisms from Russell, relied on their interactions for inspiration.
However, Brando’s actions on set displayed a momentary lapse of judgment. In a drunken state after a day of shooting the grand wedding scene, Brando impulsively exposed himself to the crowd of extras, unaware that many of them were affiliated with the Bufalino Family.
Realizing his mistake, Brando swiftly expressed his respect to Mr. Bufalino to defuse any potential tension.
The making of “The Godfather” showcased a complex web of connections between Hollywood and the real mafia.
Russell Bufalino’s involvement behind the scenes, alongside encounters with influential mob figures, added an intriguing layer to the film’s production.
Despite initial hurdles and conflicts, the collaboration between the film industry and organized crime yielded an enduring cinematic masterpiece, according to New York Post.