The real mafia was incredibly involved in ‘The Godfather’

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The Godfather” is regarded as a Hollywood classic, one of the highest grossing films of all time. But the making of this mafia movie got off to a rocky start, as author MATT BIRKBECK describes in “The Life We Chose: William ‘Big Billy’ D’Elia and The Last Secrets of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Family” (William Morrow). It required plenty of negotiations and hard bargains — with some real-life characters who knew quite a lot about the mob. William “Big Billy” D’Elia, head of the once powerful Bufalino crime family and protege of mob boss Russell Bufalino, saw the action behind the scenes.

It was the late winter of 1971 when the phone rang at ABS Contracting, one of the many cutting rooms Russell [Bufalino] owned in northeast Pennsylvania.

When Billy picked it up, he heard a familiar voice.

“Hello, this is Marlon Brando calling for Mr. Bufalino.”

Billy didn’t believe it.

He put the phone to his chest and yelled out to Russell, “There’s some f–king guy on the phone pretending he’s Marlon Brando!”

Billy chuckled, figuring it was a prank call, but Russell looked at him with a death stare and barked, “Give me that f–king phone!”

“Hello, Marlon?” said Russell. “Yes, I’m fine. How are you?”

Brando had been cast to portray Vito Corleone in the upcoming film “The Godfather,” which was set to begin principal photography in New York.

Russell Bufalino
When “Godfather” star Marlon Brando needed inspiration and insight on playing a mob boss, he turned to the real thing: Russell Bufalino of Pennsylvania’s Bufalino crime family.
Bettmann Archive
Marlon Brando holding a cat in a scene from "The Godfather"
Execs at Paramount studios didn’t initially want Brando for the role of Vito Corleone because the actor was coming off a string of flop movies.
Everett Collection / Everett Collection

The revered actor had achieved great success during the 1950s, winning the Best Actor award at the Academy Awards in 1955 for “On the Waterfront.”

But his popularity had waned in recent years.

Director Francis Ford Coppola thought Brando was perfect for a film that was the opposite of the stereotypical mob movie filled with psychotic gangsters and blood running in the streets.

But Brando had recently come off of several forgettable roles, and Paramount Pictures executives hated him for the part.

After initially refusing Coppola’s efforts to attach him to the film, Brando sought out the role and even agreed to audition to win over the leery executives.

He was the only movie star among a group of actors that producer Al Ruddy signed for the pivotal roles in the film, including James Caan, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, John Cazale and Abe Vigoda.

Well-known for his meticulous preparation, Brando envisioned Vito Corleone as powerful but soft-spoken, cerebral but strong.

A family man who saw himself as a victim of happenstance who could have been a corporate leader instead of a mob boss.

Italian American Civil Rights League headquarters
Filming in New York, “Godfather” producers and director Francis Ford Coppola quickly ran into the newly formed Italian American Civil Rights League.
Getty Images

But Brando needed inspiration and insight, so when he asked others tied to the production for an introduction to someone who could help him portray a mob boss, they all quietly pointed to Russell.

Russell had made his presence felt behind the scenes, playing a key role in ending months of conflict that delayed the production and threatened to derail the film altogether.

He was, to the surprise of many, including Billy, intrigued by the film.

It was based on the 1968 book by Mario Puzo, a bestseller that sold nearly 10 million copies. Paramount had acquired the film rights.

But as filming in New York neared, the production ran into one problem after another, mostly from a newly formed advocacy group, the Italian American Civil Rights League.

The nascent league was formed in April 1970 by Joe Colombo, the head of the New York family that bore his name.

One of his sons had been arrested for melting US silver coins, but Colombo claimed it was police harassment and formed the league with the stated goal of opposing discrimination against Italian Americans.

Joe and Anthony Colombo seated at a table
Joe Colombo (left) and son Anthony headed up the Italian American Civil Rights League — and the Colombo crime family.
Staff photographer

After gathering support, Colombo held the league’s first rally that summer at New York’s Columbus Circle, which drew thousands, and he hosted a benefit in November at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum with tickets selling for as high as $250.

But the league had ulterior motives, and with it came violence.

The Staten Island Advance, a small but well-read newspaper that was a staple of New York’s least-populated borough, had been aggressively reporting on the league’s activities, which included extortion and assaults.

Many Italians from Brooklyn had moved to Staten Island following the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in 1964, which connected the two New York City boroughs.

Unhappy with its coverage, the league demonstrated in front of the paper’s offices and elsewhere, tough guys with picket signs.

Francis Ford Coppola seated at a desk and looking at a film slide
Coppola’s “The Godfather” won Best Picture at the 1973 Academy Awards.
Bettmann Archive

One of the newspaper’s delivery trucks was run off the road and burned while two drivers were beaten, one with a tire iron, and hospitalized.

The league was also unhappy with “The Godfather,” claiming that the book portrayed Italian Americans in a negative light.

So as pre-production began on the film, set in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood, the league set its sights on the movie.

It had strong-armed merchants there into buying and displaying league decals on their storefront windows, and the Teamsters ordered its truckers and film crew members to walk away, while league members were threatening the film’s executives with phone calls telling them to “get the f–k outta town, or else.”

“It was f–king chaos,” said Billy.

“They started production in New York and immediately there was trouble from the Teamsters, who refused to do any work. And then there were guys f–king with their trucks and knocking off equipment, like cameras and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. We had guys down there every day. Andy Russo, who was a very big deal in the Colombo family, he was there. He was Carmine Persico’s guy before he gave up the family and it went to Joe Colombo. Andy absolutely loved Russell, and he was really close to James Caan. I think they knew each other as kids. But there was so much going on before they even started filming.”

William "Big Billy" D'Elia
William “Big Billy” D’Elia — a former boss in the Bufalino crime family — is the subject of Matt Birkbeck’s new book “The Life We Chose: William ‘Big Billy’ D’Elia and The Last Secrets of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Family.”
NJ. Gov

The film’s producers sought to speak to Colombo, and there would be several meetings.

One was at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, where a large number of league officials were holding an emergency meeting.

Russell and Billy were there, and they listened closely as Al Ruddy set out the terms negotiated with the league. “Ruddy said he would take out the word ‘Mafia’ from the screenplay, give one million [dollars] to the league, stop selling some ‘Godfather’ board game, and have a premiere of the movie in New York,” said Billy.

“Ruddy kept saying the movie wasn’t about corrupt Italians but a corrupt society. Russell loved that. He was already pulling the strings in the background. He was the rabbi, and Colombo was consulting with him, so when Russell said it was okay, Colombo said okay. Without Russell, that movie would never have been made.”

Marlon Brando and Lenny Montana in "The Godfather"
Lenny Montana (right, with Brando) was a bodyguard for the Colombo crime family when he was hired to play bodyguard Luca Brasi in “The Godfather”
Getty Images

Cutting a deal with the New York Mafia shocked Paramount Pictures executives, who fired Ruddy for not just making the deal but participating in a press conference with Colombo.

But the agreement calmed the league and paved the way for the production to resume after Russell passed word to the Teamsters to get back to work and for street guys to stop raiding the set. And at the urging of Coppola, Ruddy was quickly rehired.

But the real gangsters didn’t go away.

Many remained lingering in the restaurants and coffee shops near the downtown set, and several even secured plum acting roles.

Lenny Montana being strangled in a scene from "The Godfather"
Brasi (left) got the part after stealing a camera lens from the set.
Courtesy Everett Collection

“Right after we brokered this peace between the producers and the league, we’re at La Cantina in Little Italy and Lenny Montana comes in with this f–king camera lens he took from the set,” said Billy. “He’s this really big street guy from Brooklyn or Staten Island who was down there as a bodyguard for Andy Russo. Lenny comes in and says, ‘Look what I got.’ It must be worth fifty thousand dollars.

He pulls it out from his coat and he’s showing it to us and Russell sees it and yells, ‘What the f–k are you doing! Bring it back! Bring it back right now, you f–king idiot, and don’t ever let me see or hear about you taking anything else from there!’ Montana was a big man and I never saw him move so fast.”

After Montana did what he was told and returned the camera lens, he went back to being Andy Russo’s bodyguard, but not for long.

The part of Vito Corleone’s bodyguard, Luca Brasi, had yet to be cast, and Coppola noticed the hulking Montana, who used to be a wrestler.

James Caan hitting Gianni Russo in a scene from "The Godfather"
Movie star James Caan was friends with Colombo family member Andy Russell.
Courtesy Everett Collection

“They needed someone to step in and play Luca Brasi and there was big Lenny Montana,” said Billy. “Lenny was a street guy, a hustler. Andy Russo was close friends with James Caan and was there on the set every day, with Lenny beside him. So they put Lenny in the movie. He doesn’t have to really speak much but when he does he f–ks it up in a scene with Brando in his office. But it looks so real they keep it in the film anyway. Afterward he ran around telling everyone he was a movie star.”

The crooner Al Martino tried everything he could to play the role of Johnny Fontane, the lascivious crooner and Frank Sinatra knock-off.

But Coppola said no.

Martino was born Jasper Cini in Philadelphia in 1927.

He had several Top 40 hits during the 1950s but was forced to leave the country over an affair he had with the wife of Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo, a high-ranking member of the Lucchese Family in New York.

It took eight years to get him back to the United States.

“Tony Ducks threatened to kill Martino,” said Billy. “So he fled to England and stayed there. After enough time had passed it was Russell who brought him back.”

When he returned, Russell helped Martino secure a new record contract. He released “I Love You Because” in 1963, which was a top-five hit, and he became a popular attraction on the club circuit.

Al Martino and Talia Shire in the wedding scene from "The Godfather"
Bufalino helped singer Al Martino (above, with Talia Shire) secure a record contract — and a role in “The Godfather,” as Johnny Fontane.
Courtesy Everett Collection

But he desperately wanted the Johnny Fontane role.

“Al is close to Russell, had been for years, and after being turned down a few times he finally went to Russell,” said Billy. “Al really wanted that part but Coppola said no. They wanted someone else, Vic Damone. So Russell says, ‘Okay, you’re not making it. The movie is dead.’ Right after that Damone drops out and Al gets the role. But we had so many guys in the movie. We also had James Caan with us. He lived with us, ate and drank every night with us at Johnny D’s. Russell even had him at his home with Al Martino. Russell cooked for them, and he loved it.”

But Russell didn’t love Marlon Brando.

After he put out word that he wanted to meet a real don, Cappy and Angelo escorted Russell to the film set on Mott Street in Little Italy and to Brando’s trailer.

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in a scene from "The Godfather"
Brando (with Al Pacino) mooned the cast and crew after a long day of shooting the movie’s big wedding scene — then feared he had respected Bufalino, whose men were on set that day.
Courtesy Everett Collection

Russell walked inside for what would be the first of several meetings. 

“Russell spent a lot of time with Brando,” said Billy.

“Russell showed him the ropes, how to speak, certain mannerisms, his quiet way, which Brando used in the film. Whenever Brando had a question, he’d call Russell. I didn’t believe it the first time I heard his voice on the phone. I thought it was a joke. But it was him. Russell got the feeling that Brando thought he was above him, and you never do that to Russell. So in the end he thought he was a punk.”

But Brando actually knew his place with Russell.

Cover of "The Life We Chose" book
“The Life We Chose” is available now.

Following a long day shooting the big wedding scene that opens the picture, Brando, who had been drinking all day, decided to drop his pants and moon the hundreds of people in the crowd, then he suddenly realized that many of the extras standing there were men connected to the Bufalino Family.

Terrified, he quickly pulled up his trousers and sent word that he meant no disrespect to Mr. Bufalino.

With peace on the set, filming of “The Godfather” proceeded without incident and Russell went about his other business.

Excerpted from “The Life We Chose: William ‘Big Billy’ D’Elia and The Last Secrets of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Family” by Matt Birkbeck, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2023 by Matt Birkbeck. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

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