Oscar nominations will be announced in February. But this we already know: None of this year’s contenders come anywhere close to being one of the best movies ever made. None are even remotely close to the magnitude and sweep of a movie called "The Godfather."
It may well be the perfect movie to watch, in front of a roaring fire, during a holiday season now imperiled by yet another COVID-19 variant. And the perfect companion to that may be to read a colorful new book that tells you everything you thought you knew about the making of "The Godfather" but didn’t.
Author Mark Seal has won a coveted “star” from Publishers Weekly for the book, whose title comes from one of the film’s best lines, "Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli."
Publishers Weekly praises the book for being full of “enthralling portraits,” eye-opening details and “fascinating morsels for fans to savor.”
It’s heady stuff for Seal, 68, a friendly, native Alabamian who spent 26 years in Dallas before embracing the Mafia — at least as subject matter.
It’s a story of its own, how a son of the South got mixed up with the Italian criminal underground and lived to tell about it. So many miles had to be traveled, so much cannoli had to be eaten, before Seal’s effort became a handsome hardcover book, published by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.
“I was a college freshman when I saw the movie on spring break in 1972 in Memphis. I felt like I was a kid when I walked in and an adult when I walked out,” Seal says. “I had never seen such a world before. It was so foreign to me. I just loved the movie and like everybody else became obsessed with it. You felt like you were part of that family, part of that whole world.”
Seal’s family moved from Alabama to Corpus Christi, Texas, when he was 10. His parents divorced, and he ended up graduating from high school in Memphis before getting his bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee.
He started out as a police reporter in Austin, Texas, and Houston — he admits feeling drawn to true crime due in part to the sway of "The Godfather" — and in 1979, he arrived at The Dallas Morning News, where for almost five years he specialized in narrative journalism for what was then its Sunday magazine. His literary agent, Jan Miller, is based in Dallas.
He moved on from The News to become a nomadic freelance writer, whose byline began to appear in Vanity Fair, for which he wrote stories on “the brutal murder of Joan Root,” a pioneering naturalist and conservationist; a con artist named Christian Gerhartsreiter, who falsely claimed to be a member of the Rockefeller dynasty; and a “mysteriously disfigured” socialite named Carolyn Mary Skelly, who once lived in the Mansion on Turtle Creek and who became, in Seal’s words, “one of the world’s foremost diamond jewelry robbery victims.”
By 2008, Seal had risen to contributing editor at Vanity Fair, which assigned him to write a story on the making of "The Godfather," whose 50th anniversary arrives in March. Feeling once again like the college kid who marveled at the cinematic classic that flickered in front of him, Seal was thrilled.
He began by jetting to the Beverly Hills mansion of Paramount studio executive Robert Evans, who as soon as he met the young writer asked him to go to bed.
“What?” Seal blurted out.
As it turns out, fire had consumed Evans’ famous screening room in 2003, and since then, he and his friends had been relegated to watching movies from where he slept and did other things.
“So, I climbed into bed with Robert Evans,” Seal writes, “to hear the story of the film that had both made him and destroyed him.”
Evans died in 2019, and author Mario Puzo, whose novel gave birth to the trilogy that became "The Godfather" movies, passed away a decade before that. But the blessing of the Vanity Fair piece is that, because of the legwork it demanded, it begat a nearly 400-page book 13 years later. Seal conducted almost 100 interviews for the book alone.
As author Nick Pileggi, who has written extensively about the Mafia, wrote on the back cover of "Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli": “Mark Seal’s seductive book about the making of The Godfather — often with the help of the men it was about — could be a movie itself. He couldn’t have gotten any closer and lived to type about it.”
The enigmatic Evans was a good place to start. As The New York Times once proclaimed in a headline: “ ‘The Godfather’ was a huge risk. Robert Evans said yes anyway.” Evans took the enormous step of greenlighting a project that culminated in a fact he shared with Seal: “'The Godfather' did more business in six months than 'Gone with the Wind' did in 36 years.”
And yet, the wrongheadedness of some of his wishes defies the imagination. At various times, Evans lobbied to have Robert Redford or even Ryan O’Neal, the star of Love Story, play Michael Corleone, whose portrayal landed Al Pacino an Oscar nomination.
In what would have been Paramount’s biggest potential blunder, Evans and others at the studio initially opposed Coppola’s desire to have an aging Marlon Brando play the title role. At one point, Evans suggested that Ernest Borgnine, the star of a 1960s sitcom called "McHale’s Navy," would be better as Don Vito Corleone.
In Seal’s words, the driven but tormented Coppola “saw the movie he wanted to make from the beginning,” with casting at the heart of his vision. For the role of Michael, Coppola wanted then-stage actor Pacino, and Brando as the godfather, despite the studio thinking, in Seal’s words, that the Oscar-winning best actor for the 1955 triumph "On the Waterfront" was “a washed-up has-been” at 47.
In fact, "The Godfather" narrowly escaped the same sort of near-misses that shadowed the 1967 movie "The Graduate," which instead of getting Anne Bancroft in an Oscar-nominated performance and Dustin Hoffman as the graduate with whom she has an affair, flirted with having Doris Day and Redford play the leads.
The details Seal uncovers make his book a fun read, as do its wide array of profiles, which in this case are as rich as cannoli.
To wit: Coppola was badly in need of funds for his San Francisco studio, which was chief among the reasons for why he took the job; the beauty of Puzo getting "The Godfather" published in the first place and then elevated to what many consider the best movie ever made is the story of a miracle. It and it alone allowed him to wipe away a mountain of debt built up over a lifetime of wild, dangerous, addictive gambling.
And then, of course, there’s the force that makes "Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli" such a page-turner: the Mafia itself. The book offers a deep dive into the scary world of La Cosa Nostra, about which Seal learned a lot from, among others, singer Al Martino, who plays a facsimile of Frank Sinatra in "The Godfather."
“Hollywood’s greatest movie about the Mafia,” Seal writes, “seemed to have been produced in some ways in tandem with the Mafia, as the capos of the mob went to war with the tough guys of the movie business, in some instances trading places, mobsters as actors, filmmakers as fixers.”
He calls the influence of the real Mafia “substantial” in the making of "The Godfather." Seal himself was not untouched. Years after doing the piece for Vanity Fair, he was driven to “a hush-hush meeting” with Anthony Colombo, the son of Joseph Colombo Sr., who “was said to have been the powerful head of one of the organized-crime families in New York during the 1960s and into the 1970s.”
Which was nothing compared to what the filmmakers endured.
Before "The Godfather" began shooting, the film’s producer, Al Ruddy, was being threatened. Constantly. He and his staff “would trade cars,” Seal says, to avoid being trailed. One night, his female assistant parked Ruddy’s car in front of her home, only to hear gunshots blasting out the windshield, with a note attached “saying they didn’t want the movie made.”
And that, the author says, “was only the beginning.”
Coppola wanted to shoot, not in the Midwest, as his bosses fervently hoped he would to keep costs as low as possible, but in New York City, where the Mafia was headquartered.
Soon, Ruddy was forced to meet with Anthony Colombo, head of the Italian American Civil Rights League, who as Seal says was fighting hard against the “stereotyping of Italian Americans in popular culture.” And making headway.
Ruddy was badly in need of keeping the Mafia at bay. Prime locations were being denied. Truck drivers were threatening a work stoppage. There were bomb scares.
So, Ruddy made a proposal that felt a bit like a Hail Mary. By his agreeing to omit the single word “Mafia” from any "Godfather" script, Colombo was satisfied. “One deletion,” Seal says, “led to a world of cooperation. From that point on, doors opened.”
And then, a new surprise: Real-life mobsters all but demanded being cast.
At the center of it all was Coppola, who badly needed a break. Initially, Coppola was skeptical of Puzo’s novel becoming anything more than a marginal motion picture. A breakthrough came when the director finally began to see it as the saga of a king and his sons, a Shakespearean story of family, which in Seal’s view gave it the magic it needed.
Even so, moments after its release, Coppola felt less like a potential Oscar winner and more like a doomed failure. It wasn’t until his wife phoned him in Paris, where he had traveled to write the screenplay for another Evans-Paramount film, "The Great Gatsby," that he began to see what soon became obvious — that he’d created something great. His wife told him that, in New York City alone, people were lining up around the block, clamoring to see his movie.
With an estimated budget of $6 million, a film once feared to be an economic boondoggle now has a worldwide gross approaching $250 million. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won three: for best picture, best actor (Brando) and best adapted screenplay (Puzo and Coppola).
“I think it’s the greatest picture of all time,” Seal says, “and it wouldn’t have been what it became without Francis Ford Coppola.”
Nor would "Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli" have become the read it became without the kid from the South learning to love crime stories — simply by living in Dallas.
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