When The Real Mafia Tried To Stop Filming Of ‘The Godfather’

By Nolan Moore on Friday, February 7, 2014
godfather
“It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” —Peter Clemenza, The Godfather

In A Nutshell

Bada-bing! The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the best movies of all time. However, Coppola’s film almost never made it to theaters. Fearing the additional spotlight, mobster Joseph Colombo declared war on the picture and did his best to shut down production. Eventually, he made the producers an offer they couldn’t refuse, and the film was allowed to go on. In fact, Joseph Colombo became so enamored with the production of the film that his mob family decided it was time for him to sleep the long sleep.

The Whole Bushel

The Godfather is one of those movies you’ve got to see before you die. Widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, this cinematic masterpiece shaped the way we think about the Mafia. It even influenced the way the Mafia thinks about itself. There are actual FBI recordings of real-life mobsters quoting Francis Ford Coppola’s classic. A don once played the film’s soundtrack at his daughter’s wedding, and even Gambino underboss Salvatore Gravano once said, “I would always tell people, just like in The Godfather, ‘If you have an enemy, that enemy becomes my enemy.’ ” However, while The Godfather is now cherished among gangsters, there was a time when the Mafia tried its best to stop the movie from ever being made.

In the early ’70s, the Italian-American Civil Rights League demanded that Paramount Pictures shelve The Godfather. Tired of seeing Italians portrayed as vicious thugs, the League staged rallies across New York City, collecting $500,000 to shut down production. However, the League wasn’t quite as noble as they appeared. The organization was founded in 1970 by Joseph Colombo, leader of the Colombo crime family, one of the infamous Five Families in New York. Sick of what he considered racial harassment by the federal government, Colombo created the Civil Rights League to fight back. And when he heard about Paramount’s gangster epic, the Don decided that nobody would ever watch this movie. Perhaps he was worried about stereotypes. Or perhaps he didn’t want all the unwanted attention the film would generate.

However, when the protests and TV interviews didn’t work, Colombo went to the mattresses. While nobody was garroted and no one woke up with horse heads in their beds, things definitely got intense. Mobsters started tailing producer Al Ruddy, and then stepped things up a notch by smashing every window in his sports car. They even left him a note, warning him to halt the film or, well, something very bad would happen. Paramount executive Robert Evans received a menacing phone call telling him to get out of town, or someone would break his face and hurt his kid. Mob-controlled unions refused to let Coppola shoot in certain neighborhoods, and someone stole costly film equipment from under the director’s nose. Paramount’s New York offices even had to be evacuated after someone phoned in a bomb threat . . . twice.

Eventually, Paramount decided to call a meeting with the gangsters. Al Ruddy met up with Joseph Colombo at the Park Sheraton Hotel, and the two discussed what to do about The Godfather. Surprisingly, Colombo only had one demand. Filming could continue if the word “Mafia” was struck from the script. Either the mob boss was extremely petty, or nobody in his entire organization had done their homework. The word “Mafia” showed up a grand total of once in the entire screenplay. Al Ruddy knew a good deal when he heard one and accepted Colombo’s terms.

After the meeting, Colombo was suddenly thrilled with the idea of a mobster movie. Gangsters started showing up on the set to visit with the cast and crew, making a point to chat with Marlon Brando. Colombo even used his influence to cast a major character. As a boy, Gianni Russo worked for crime boss Frank Costello, and he was one of the guys who helped negotiate the little dispute between Paramount and the mob. For his hard work, Colombo made sure he got to play the part of Carlo Rizzi, Don Corleone’s son-in-law.

The story finally ended with a bang on June 28, 1971. As Francis Ford Coppola shot the scenes where (spoilers) Michael Corleone is wiping out his enemies, just a few blocks away a hitman was shooting Joseph Colombo in the head. The gangster who’d worked so hard to erase the Mafia from The Godfather was taken out of the picture for drawing too much attention to the Five Families. All his rallies, protests, and interviews had backfired big time. The crime boss spent the rest of his life paralyzed, finally passing away in 1978. And the movie he’d originally fought against went on to win an Oscar for Best Picture and achieve cinematic immortality.

Show Me The Proof

The Time The Mafia Protested The Godfather
The Guardian: Brain food: Why the mafia study gangster movies
The Mob vs The Godfather
NY Times: Mob gofer, actor and now a crooner