It is a story steeped in action and intrigue, but is it true?
The Offera new 10-part series starting April 28 on Paramount+, delivers an “inside” account of the making of The Godfather. It is a story about stalwart filmmakers who defied bullets and death threats from Mafia soldiers to deliver their great saga.
But not really. The TV series, written by Michael Tolkin, is loosely based on incidents and anecdotes supplied by Albert S. Ruddy, who produced the movie. They are vivid anecdotes, but they are at odds with the accounts of principals who made the movie — of which I am one — and who encountered a different reality.
The Italian-American activists who took an interest in the project in fact revered Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel and were desperate to find a way of mobilizing the film to raise funds for their own causes and charities. “The principals of the movie were celebrated, not threatened,” recalls Nick Pileggi, who reported on the film for the New York Times and New York magazine, and was the only reporter invited to visit the set and speak with the creatives.
Pileggi recalls the presence of important “wiseguys” who were eagerly monitoring the climactic scene in which Marlon Brando is gunned down – an exterior shot filmed on location in Little Italy. “They were applauding,” he recalls. “They loved the movie.” Pileggi later wrote the book wiseguys and co-wrote the screenplay for Goodfellas.
At that time I was serving as Paramount’s vice president for production under Robert Evans, the studio chief. With Evans’ endorsement, I had decided to option The Godfather novel (still incomplete) and to ask Francis Coppola to direct it (which took some persuasion). I am depicted by an actor in the Paramount+ series, but the studio officially declined to screen the series for me or for other principals, and this is not intended as a review.
I’ve found that my recollections of the filming of The Godfather are fully consistent with those of Coppola; Gray Frederickson, his key production supervisor for him; Fred Roos, the casting guru; and with others in the Godfather group. That includes Evans, who passed three years ago but was very specific in his own record of the shoot. There was zero consultation with these individuals from The Offer.
Five decades after its release, The Godfather is being widely heralded as a great American movie. It was recently honored yet again amid the confusion of the Oscar ceremony. With its upcoming series, Paramount is taking bows for having financed the movie and its two sequels. It might also be prompted to issue disclaimers for its distorted account of The Godfather‘s development and production. A mythical movie deserves an accurate history.
From the outset, Bob Evans, though a fan of gangster lore, was worried about making “just another Mafia movie.” While I have shared my respect for Puzo’s novel, it had not yet been published and acclaimed.
In signing Coppola, my “sell” to studio colleagues was that we would set out to make “a gangster art movie.” Coppola was a gifted young filmmaker, I argued, who could create a highly stylized $7 million production – one that could remain under the radar until it was completed.
Once Puzo’s book became an international bestseller, that scenario abruptly changed. To Charles Bluhdorn, the ambitious conglomerator who owned the studio, the youthful Coppola now seemed like the wrong director. The Godfather was instantly a glitzy project needing a famous director and a major star – certainly not Marlon Brando, whose recent films had been financial flops. If all this fell into place, Paramount could re-establish itself as a major studio.
Fortunately, Bluhdorn’s strategy floundered, but the concept still haunted Coppola even as he started shooting. Jack Ballard, who headed physical production at the studio, was convinced Coppola was ill-equipped to guide the film, second-guessing his decisions from him and blocking scenes even as Ruddy was consistently absent from the set. Ballard also warned Coppola that “the studio” (ill-defined) was intensely critical of his work — indeed, actions were already underway to replace him with a new director.
In reality, only Evans and I had been watching dailies. Both of us were convinced that, despite a few glitches, the scenes were downright brilliant.
But while Coppola was fighting off Ballard’s interference, Ruddy was focused on other issues. It seemed that some landlords were nervous about the young filmmakers who were shooting a gangster movie in New York’s Italian neighborhoods, and had declined use of their properties as locations. Further, the growing buzz about the hot new novel was also fueling gossip about its characterization of Italian-Americans. Would their community be stigmatized by supposed Mafia ties?
An ambitious real estate salesman named Joe Colombo cast himself as a watchdog for the Italian-American cause, advising followers to avoid cooperation 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 screenplay and would go directly to a representative of the production.
In Ruddy’s mind, the situation was becoming a looming threat. The Mafia was on alert. He warned his assistant that it would be wise to shift offices and rotate cars. There would be threats and pursuits. Bullet holes were allegedly found on an assistant’s car.
With alarm bells ringing, Paramount’s corporate headquarters reportedly was now receiving bomb threats. Evans received a telephone threat at his New York hotel, a gravely voice warning him, “We don’t want to break your pretty face so shut down the film.”
Was any of this really happening? Evans himself assured me that no such call had been received. His then-wife of him, Ali MacGraw, reiterated again last week that she had never witnessed threats of this sort.
Surely a key target would be Frederickson, who worked beside Ruddy as his production deputy in charge of locations and budgeting. Frederickson told me last week “None of this was happening to my best recollection.”
Was Al Ruddy on an island of his own making? Concerned about the safety of the crew, I’d decided to contact Sidney Korshak asking how he would characterize the alleged enemies of our production. A close friend of Evans, Korshak was known to have contacts in the mob community. His response from him: He could not detect any dangers to the shoot or to Evans.
Ruddy, meanwhile, was pursuing his own strategy to contain what he felt was an ominous situation. I have decided to speak at an event of the Italian-American Civil Rights League. He would also arrange a summit meeting with league leaders.
The results of his summit were duly reported by the New York Times: Ruddy had unilaterally agreed to let the league review The Godfather‘s shooting script and dictate appropriate changes, which he promised to implement. Ruddy had also promised to turn over proceeds from the film’s New York premiere to the league’s hospital fund and would announce this commitment at a press conference.
Upon reading the Times‘ report of Ruddy’s promises, Bluhdorn went into a rage, summoning the producer to his office. “You have wrecked my company,” he shouted. No corporation with thousands of shareholders would surrender control of a high-profile movie to a private organization, whether or not it was Mafia connected, Bluhdorn insisted.
The upshot: Bluhdorn announced that Ruddy had been fired. He didn’t care if this sent a message of confusion.
Within days, Bluhdorn shifted into self-protective mode, his tirade forgotten. Ruddy would be back on the movie with a promise to stay mute and abandon his secret deals. Ballard, too, was firmly reminded that he reported to Evans and Bart and that The Godfather would continue shooting with Coppola firmly at the helm.
Ultimately, of course, The Godfather opened to an extraordinary reception and long lines of ticket buyers. A deal for a sequel was soon concluded, but Ruddy would not be involved in any capacity.
While The Godfather‘s dramatic saga over the years has moved millions of filmgoers, the TV narrative about its supposed production crises may ultimately be listed under the genre of science fiction.