You may remember Gianni Russo as the actor who portrayed Carlo Rizzi, the wife-beating, womanizing, violent son-in-law of Don Vito Corleone, and the traitor who sets up Sonny to be gunned down at the toll booth in the movie, “The Godfather”.
Russo frankly admits that his entire career in movies—and every other part of his life—was “made” thanks to this role. A few years ago, he wrote his autobiography, Hollywood Godfather, Gianni Russo’s Memoir of Life in the Mob.
I’m not reviewing this book, which is already 2 years old, but in recounting his life in the mob he reveals some previously unknown anecdotes about the making of “The Godfather” that are worth sharing. He confesses to money laundering, smuggling assets in and out of countries, beating people up, and even to killing a man. Without a doubt his life has been “colorful” to say the least. He has been a close associate of mobsters Joe Costello, Paul Castellano and John Gotti; the latter, the “Teflon Don,” he considered a real sleazeball who was taught how to dress by his bodyguard, Joe Watts.
Whether Russo’s autobiography (written with Patrick Picciarelli) is one hundred percent accurate is highly debatable. He comes across as somewhat like Forrest Gump, a man who knew everybody and was everywhere when the action went down. He claims to have met every single mob boss in the US, yet never “joined the mob”. Sinatra was his singing teacher; Marlon Brando his best friend; Marilyn Monroe his lover. He knows the inside story of her death and the role that the Kennedys played—not to mention how the Mafia got JFK elected President and who really killed him. It goes on and on.
Nevertheless, plenty of his Hollywood associates testify to the authenticity of his account. Nicholas Pileggi, the screenwriter of “Goodfellas”, writes: “Gianni Russo has seen a lot, done a lot, and tells it all. Amazing.” Robert DeNiro concurs: “Gianni Russo walks the walk, talks the talk. What a life! A worthy read.”
Among the more colorful anecdotes, Russo recounts how having killed an “associate” of Colombian drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, in his Las Vegas club, Le Disc, Russo later goes to Colombia to make things good with Escobar, is tortured by his henchman and has every expectation that he will ultimately be killed in a grisly manner. But guess what? When Escobar finally realizes that Russo is “Carlo Rizzi” of “The Godfather” fame, he not only forgives him but he wants to reenact scenes from the movie—which according to Russo, he knows by heart. Escobar then happily sends him back home with a hearty slap on the back. In other words, “The Godfather” even saved his life.
Some of the juiciest anecdotes involve the inside story of what it took to get “The Godfather” onto the screen. In fact, he even takes credit for having made “The Godfather” movie possible in the first place. (Long story!)
The day that the mob stole “The Godfather” cinemobile in broad daylight, right off the streets of Little Italy in New York City is a gem. Not surprisingly, the mob hated the very idea of Puzo’s book, “The Godfather”, coming to the big screen and in order to show these Hollywood wussies who’s boss and what’s what, they stole Coppola’s cinemobile.
Joe Colombo, the capo of what was known as the most violent of the Mafia families, had claimed, “Ain’t no Mafia”. By his own admission, Joe Colombo had killed more than 15 people by his early 20’s.
Earlier, Joe Colombo had tried to shut down the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” for what he considered some very good reasons. In his mind, it was to protect the Italian Americans’ reputation, to fight against the use of negative stereotypes, but the reality was that he felt the heat from the FBI’s scrutiny of his dealings.
At first, Colombo was telling executives from Paramount Pictures to cease and desist with their plan to bring “The Godfather” to the big screen. When that didn’t work the newborn Italian American Anti-Defamation League, under the control of Colombo and his 26-year-old son Anthony, dictated that no slurs against Italian Americans were to be uttered in the movie. Consequently, the words “guinea”, “whop” or similar pejoratives were duly eliminated from the script. Russo tells us that it is thanks to them that the word Mafia is not ever uttered in “The Godfather”.
Apparently, Anthony was even more serious than his dad about expunging any mention of the Mafia, Cosa Nostra or reference to the mob and so, “in 1971…he helped persuade the producer of “The Godfather”, the sponsors of the network television series ‘The F.B.I.’ and even the Nixon administration’s Justice Department under Attorney General John N. Mitchell to expunge the term Mafia and its Sicilian counterpart, La Cosa Nostra, from the screenplay, weekly scripts and official lexicon.” (Hollywood Godfather…)
To show their disdain, “Some low-level wise guys, not connected with Colombo, had director Francis Ford Coppola’s custom Cinemobile stolen right off the streets of New York’s Little Italy as a message, which in part was, ‘You have some balls coming into our neighborhood without permission and shooting your fucking movie.’”
But life is full of ironies and one of the greatest is that Joe Colombo was instrumental in founding the Italian American Anti-Defamation League (variously called the Italian-American Civil Rights League) in 1970. The mob boss was determined to defend Italians against charges of being in the Mafia or the Cosa Nostra—which according to him, didn’t exist.
The League existed for barely a year, folding when its founder was gunned down at a rally on June 29, 1971, to protest the FBI’s battle against the non-existent “Mafia”.
While we may have some doubts about Russo’s claims, Colombo’s influence has been indeed confirmed by many other sources. In “Ain’t No Mafia, Bih: The Power Of Joe Colombo” Ryan K. Smith writes that his formidable power, “even permeated the ranks of the United States Department of Justice. At Colombo’s behest, the DOJ banned the use of the word ‘Mafia.’” And he adds: “’That’s pretty good political power’ said Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York City who was instrumental in taking down eleven Mafia dons in the 1985 Mafia Commission Trial.
Colombo was paralyzed and died 7 years later. Today most people are completely unaware that this League ever existed but because it did, they will not hear the word Mafia mentioned in the granddaddy of all movies about the Mafia, “The Godfather”.
Gianni Russo would like us to believe that he not only made the filming of the movie possible, but that he was instrumental in its casting and shaping. Maybe it’s all overblown, but the book makes for entertaining reading.