"Mario Puzo’s book became one of the best-selling novels of all time and later a classic movie that revolutionized filmmaking, saved Paramount Pictures, minted a new generation of movie stars, made the writer rich and famous, and sparked a war between two of the mightiest powers in America: the sharks of Hollywood and the highest echelons of the Mob." (Vanity Fair)

During the 1960s, a dirty, loaded word came into currency: Mafia. It signified one of the most terrifying forces on earth, the Italian-American faction of organized crime, and naturally the men who headed this force wanted to keep the word from being spoken, if not obliterate it altogether. Published in 1969, The Godfather spent 67 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and was translated into so many languages that Puzo said he stopped keeping track. The book was then sold to the movies, those men decided that they had to take action....

In many ways, the men who made The Godfather—director Francis Ford Coppola, producer Al Ruddy, Paramount executives Robert Evans and Peter Bart, and Gulf & Western boss Charles Bluhdorn—were as ruthless as the gangsters in Mario Puzo’s blockbuster. After violent disputes over the casting of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, they tangled with the real-life Mob, which didn’t want the movie made at all. Peter Bart pushed to hire Francis Ford Coppola, a 31-year-old Italian-American who had directed a handful of films, including the musical Finian’s Rainbow, but had never had a hit. At the time, Coppola was broke. His San Francisco–based independent film company, American Zoetrope, owed $600,000 to Warner Bros., and his partners, especially George Lucas, urged him to accept. “Go ahead, Francis,” Lucas said. “We really need the money. What have you got to lose?” Coppola went to the San Francisco library, checked out books on the Mafia, and found a deeper theme for the material. He decided it should be not a film about organized crime but a family chronicle, a metaphor for capitalism in America.

For the film to be authentic, it had to be a period piece, set in the 1940s, and it had to be filmed in New York City, the stomping ground of the Mob. In a letter to Hollywood legend Marlon Brando, Puzo persuaded, “I wrote a book called The Godfather, and I think you’re the only actor who can play the part with that quiet force and irony the part requires.” Brando was intrigued, because he saw the project as a story not of blood and guts but “about the corporate mind.” As he said later, “The Mafia is so American! To me, a key phrase in the story is that whenever they wanted to kill somebody it was always a matter of policy. Before pulling the trigger, they told him, ‘Just business, nothing personal.’"

“It became clear very quickly that the Mafia—and they did not call themselves the Mafia—did not want our film made,” says Al Ruddy’s assistant, Bettye McCartt. “We started getting threats.”

As word spread that The Godfather was being developed into a major motion picture, one Mafia boss rose up in defiance. While most mobsters shunned the spotlight, Joseph Colombo Sr., the short, dapper, media-savvy head at 48 of one of New York’s Five Families, brazenly stepped into it. After the F.B.I. took what he considered to be an excessive interest in his activities—which included loan-sharking, jewel heists, income-tax evasion, and control of a $10-million-a-year interstate gambling operation—he turned the tables on the bureau, charging it with harassment not only of him and his family but also of all Italian-Americans. In an outrageously bold move, he helped create the Italian-American Civil Rights League, claiming that the F.B.I.’s pursuit of the Mob was in fact persecution and a violation of civil rights. A top priority of the league’s was to eradicate “Mafia” from the English language, since Colombo contended that it had been turned into a one-word smear campaign. “Mafia? What is Mafia?” he asked a reporter in 1970. “There is not a Mafia. Am I the head of a family? Yes. My wife, and four sons and a daughter. That’s my family.”

The league threatened to shut down the Teamsters, which included the truckers, drivers, and crew members who were essential to making the film. Twice the Gulf & Western Building was evacuated because of bomb threats. The last straw was a call to Robert Evans, who was staying at the Sherry-Netherland hotel with his wife, Ali MacGraw, and their infant son, Joshua. Evans picked up the phone and heard a voice that, as he wrote in The Kid Stays in the Picture, “made John Gotti sound like a soprano.” The message: “Take some advice. We don’t want to break your pretty face, hurt your newborn. Get the fuck outta town. Don’t shoot no movie about the family here. Got it?”

So the producers took a leap a invited Joe Columbo himself to read the script. “Look, Joe, this movie will not demean the Italian-American community,” Ruddy remembers telling him. “It’s an equal-opportunity organization. We have a corrupt Irish cop, a corrupt Jewish producer. No one’s singling the Italians out for anything. You come to my office tomorrow and I’ll let you look at the script. You read it, and we’ll see if we can make a deal.” Colombo wanted the word Mafia deleted from the script and he wanted the proceeds from the world premiere of the film to be donated to the league, as a goodwill gesture. Ruddy agreed, stating “I’d rather deal with a Mob guy shaking hands on a deal than a Hollywood lawyer.

Now that the Mob had publicly blessed the movie, members began playing a role in it, not just in the extra parts a few landed but, more important, as models for the major actors: Brando had created a physical look for Don Corleone, but for his brooding character he turned to Al Lettieri, who was cast as Sollozzo, the drug-dealing, double-crossing upstart. Lettieri hadn’t had to study the Mob to get into his part; one of his relatives was a member. James Caan had an easier time establishing the character of Sonny. “I didn’t have to work on an accent or anything, but I couldn’t quite get a grasp,” he says. He was stuck on the scene where Sonny interrupts the Don during the meeting about going into the drug business with Sollozzo. One night he tried to come up with a solution. “I was shaving to go to dinner or something, and for some reason I started thinking of Don Rickles. Because I knew Rickles.
Then a phrase was delivered to him straight from improvisational heaven. It popped into his mouth as he mocked Michael, after hearing his kid brother say he intended to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey, the corrupt Irish cop who had broken his jaw: “What do you think this is, the army, where you shoot ’em a mile away? You gotta get up close, like this—and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

Bada-bing became a mantra for mobsters and aspiring mobsters. More recently, it served as the name of Tony Soprano’s strip club in The Sopranos. “‘Bada-bing? Bada-boom?’ I said that, didn’t I? Or did I just say ‘bada-bing’?” asks Caan. “It just came out of my mouth—I don’t know from where.”

(excerpted from Vanity Fair Magazine)

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