The real Mafia tried to stop The Godfather being made by threatening filmmakers with death, reveals author Mark Seal

THERE were threatening phone calls, letters of protest and a note left on a producer’s gunshot-riddled car saying: “Don’t make the movie.”

The reason? Classic movie The Godfather, based on a best-selling novel by relatively unknown author Mario Puzo and released 50 years ago this month.

Mobster movie masterpiece The Godfather faced a real fight to get made

Mobster movie masterpiece The Godfather faced a real fight to get madeCredit: Alamy

Gangster Joe Colombo fought to protect the reputation of Italian Americans

Gangster Joe Colombo fought to protect the reputation of Italian AmericansCredit: Getty

So who, in 1970, wanted to stop Paramount Pictures making the mobster epic released in 1972?

Enter Joe Colombo, reputed head of one of the five Mafia families of New York — but also a campaigner hell-bent on protecting the public perception of Italian America.

He had turned to activism after son Joe Jr, then 23, was arrested by the FBI on April 30, 1970, and charged with a scheme to melt down coins and sell the silver.

Joe Sr told the New York Daily News: “I was willing to suffer through the attacks made by authorities.” The so-called “attacks” were the Feds’ charges against him, which included perjury (falsehoods while applying for his real estate broker’s licence) and tax evasion.

But he added: “When they framed my boy Joey, then I knew I had to do something.”

What he did next would shake New York’s halls of power and Paramount studio in Hollywood.

He mobilised protesters to picket the FBI building in New York over his son’s arrest, and Colombo and his wife joined them.

“Give me my son back!” screamed Colombo’s wife, while his eldest son, Anthony, supposedly challenged the federal agents to a fight.

Soon, Colombo’s protesters were armed with signs: “TIME HAS COME FOR ITALIANS TO TAKE A STAND.”


The protesters later formed a political action group, the Italian American Civil Rights League, with the mob boss as its founder and figurehead.

It accused the Feds of harassment and persecution against all Italian-Americans. They argued that even the word “Mafia” was a slur.

Colombo was a larger-than-life character who author Puzo, also the co-screen-writer of the movie, might have invented. But this was real.

He asked a New York Times reporter in 1971: “What is the Mafia? There is not a Mafia. Am I head of a family? Yes — my wife, four sons and a daughter. That’s my family.”

It was unprecedented, a Mafia boss doubling as a civil rights leader, and Colombo insisted his public prominence was proof he could not be a mobster.

He said: “If I’m a leader of the Cosa Nostra or Mafia or whatever they are calling it, then maybe the rumour that I’ll be killed is true. I’ve broken all the rules I’ve heard about — I’m talking to the Press.”

By then, Colombo and his League were on a roll — rich in cash and with thousands of members and growing political influence.

In November 1970 the organis-ation raised nearly $500,000 at a sold-out benefit at Madison Square Garden headlined by no less than the greatest Italian-American per-former of them all, Frank Sinatra.

The following February, Joe Jr was acquitted by a jury in Brooklyn after a chief witness recanted his testimony. It emboldened his father, who became even more public.

Actress Ali MacGraw was indirectly threatened by the mob

Actress Ali MacGraw was indirectly threatened by the mobCredit: Getty

Movie mogul Robert Evans had to resist protests to get The Godfather made

Movie mogul Robert Evans had to resist protests to get The Godfather madeCredit: Corbis – Getty

His League gained strength. Rallies and marches were held. Tens of thousands attended, yelling: “We want Joe! We want Joe!” When Joe emerged, it was to the tune of For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.

The League’s power intensified along with its missions — one of which was pressuring the US Attorney General to stop publication of The Real Thing, the memoir of mid-level mobster Joe Valachi, who spilled his guts to the Feds and was on televised Senate hearings.

The League argued that Valachi’s memoir would sully the reputation of hardworking Italian-Americans.

Emboldened by his success, Colombo set his sights on an ambitious goal: Changing how Italian-Americans were viewed and treated in popular culture.

Under pressure from the League, the Justice Department and New York State Police had banned the word “Mafia” from press releases, and some newspapers followed suit.

The League and the powerful showman at its helm soon targeted a movie based on a novel originally titled Mafia — the word Joe despised above all else.

If they could stop The Godfather — a major Hollywood film based on a best-selling novel — they could change how America viewed Italian-Americans and the Mob.

But the sharks of Hollywood were not just going to roll over. Unfettered by the initial threats in Los Angeles, The Godfather’s production moved to New York, setting up offices in the building of Paramount parent firm Gulf+Western.

The building, now the Trump International Hotel and Tower, faces Columbus Circle, named after the Italian who discovered America and scene of many Italian-American Civil Rights League rallies to come.

It was also where Colombo would be shot in an assassination bid during a rally in June 1971, dying nearly seven years later.

Strange things began happening. Italian-American-owned homes and businesses whose owners had granted access to the filmmakers were withdrawn.

The Teamsters, the powerful union that included truck drivers, threatened to strike, stopping the film in its tracks.

The campaign against The Godfather is said to have reached Paramount’s dashing head of production Robert Evans, whose wife, film actress Ali MacGraw, was expecting their first child.

The phone in Evans’ suite in the Sherry-Netherland hotel in New York rang. Evans answered and heard a voice that could have come straight out of a movie.

“We don’t want to break your pretty face, hurt your newborn,” Evans would later write of that call in his memoir, The Kid Stays In The Picture.

‘Break your pretty face’

“Get the f*** outta town. Don’t shoot no movie about the family here. Got it?”

“F*** you, mister,” Evans replied. “If you got any problems, take it up with the producer, Al Ruddy.”

“Listen carefully, motherf***er,” the caller warned. “I ain’t gonna say it again. When we kill a snake, we chop the f***ing head off.”

“I knew that happened,” Ali MacGraw told me, though she didn’t hear the actual call.

“They were playing with fire with this back in the day. There were various Mob suggestions, let’s put it that way.”

Colombo’s son Anthony would later say his father never said or sanctioned such threats — especially by telephone, which Colombo felt sure was tapped by the Feds.

So it was that on February 25, 1971, Al Ruddy met Colombo and spoke before a crowded meeting of his League at New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel — where crime boss Albert Anastasia had been shot dead in a barber chair in 1957, allegedly on the orders of rivals Carlo Gambino and Vito Genovese.

Ruddy won over the initially angry crowd and suggested Colombo read the script, and if he found anything offensive maybe they could strike a deal.

It turned out Colombo wanted one thing: Deletion of any mention of the word Mafia — which, luckily, had been used in only one instance in the screenplay. Ruddy agreed, and New York opened wide, with many “connected” would-be actors vying for roles in the film, but not without media blowback

One of many scathing reports came from The Village Voice: “If you want to produce a film on the Mafia, please ask their permission.”

Paramount’s volcanic boss Charlie Bluhdorn erupted with rage as Gulf+Western’s stock fell with its seeming deal with the Mob.

Colombo, Puzo, Evans, Ruddy and Bluhdorn were larger-than-life characters who fought their way to success. But the director who would make The Godfather was as tough as them all: Francis Ford Coppola.

Barely 30, he took a job on a movie that many established directors had turned down — only to then face non-stop battles.

Not against the Mob, but the studio producing The Godfather and its production chief Evans.

It was a “very big fight”, Coppola recalled. He said: “Bob Evans was very handsome, tall and impressive. I wanted him to accept and have confidence in me, but wasn’t at all convinced that he did.

“I wasn’t sure how to work with him. I first realised the problems when I got such a bad reception to what I felt were key ideas — that the film should be set in the period (post-World War Two), in NYC and shot there; Al Pacino as Michael (they first suggested Ryan O’Neal).”

Coppola also insisted on Marlon Brando in the title role.

The studio objected to almost all that he wanted — location, period, budget, cast, music and final cut. But he was a fighter and his battles included the cast he envisaged — including his leading man Brando, who was considered, at 47, a problematic has-been.

In the end, Coppola’s fight for the movie he saw in his head ended in a film classic.

Its 1940s setting gives it a timeless feel and its story about a family — instead of merely about crim-inals — elevated it to the level of a silver-screen epic.

And that is how The    Godfather got made.

Mark Seal is the author of Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather. Available now.

Cheeky secret, Brando

By Grant Rollings

THE Godfather’s director Francis Ford Coppola fought studio bosses to get “washed-up has-been” Marlon Brando the lead role as Don Vito Corleone.

Even aged 47, Brando looked too young to play an ageing mobster.

But with the help of his personal make-up artist Philip Rhodes he was transformed into the slick, bulldog-jawed head of the Corleone clan.

Shoe polish gave him dark hair and a tash. He then stuffed tissues into his cheeks to add jowls.

But he still needed others in the cast to wear his lines as a prompt.

The Godfather's horse's head scene is iconic even to this day

The Godfather’s horse’s head scene is iconic even to this dayCredit: Getty

Al Pacino starred in The Godfather as Michael Corleone

Al Pacino starred in The Godfather as Michael CorleoneCredit: Getty

Co-star Robert Duvall wore a script to help out Marlon Brando

Co-star Robert Duvall wore a script to help out Marlon BrandoCredit: Image supplied by Capital Pictures .


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