The Godfather (1972) is one of the most famous and best loved films of all times. It won 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But there are some people who believe that films about the Mafia only depict or reinforce pejorative stereotypes about Italian-Americans.
This was especially true in the 1960s and 1970s. The Italian-American Civil Rights League (IACRL) was a political organization founded in 1970 by mobster Joseph Colombo to combat negative stereotypes of Italian-Americans. When it heard that an American film company planned to make a film based on the bestselling novel (1969) by Mario Puzo, the IACRL “expressed” its opposition. Ironically, unlike other “pressure” groups, it used some questionable tactics.
For example, the first surprise came when Francis Ford Coppola, the director, went to Little Italy with a small caravan to do the first film tests. When the group returned from lunch, the truck had disappeared along with the equipment that was worth millions of dollars. According to Gianni Russo, who played Vito Corleone’s wife-beating son-in-law in the film, close to the Colombo family were “idiots that were capable of anything.”
The threats didn’t stop there. The producer Robert Evans received an anonymous phone call at the hotel where he was staying in New York: “We don’t wish to smash your beautiful face,” said the voice, “and we don’t even want to hurt your son. Get out of our neighborhood and don’t make the film. Understood?”
The producer decided to contact Colombo directly “to settle the matter.” According to Tom Santopietro, author of “The Godfather Effect” (2012), the mob boss finally accepted that the film would be made…but under certain conditions. “Neither the word “Mafia” nor ‘Cosa Nostra” must appear in the screenplay.” Moreover, the production had to promise to donate the proceeds from the film’s preview to a hospital building fund supported by the IACRL.
Ironically, the word “mafia” appeared only once in the original screenplay. Colombo had also asked that the characters in the film be given less Italian-sounding names. The answer was “no.” Nonetheless, a deal was struck.
In the Godfather, there were 5 crime families: Corleone, Barzini, Tattaglia, Stracci, and Cuneo. In the real world at the time, there were 5 crime families in the New York area: Genovese, Gambino, Bonanno, Lucchese, and Colombo. But not all of the other Mafiosi took kindly to the Colombo deal, and a few months afterward Joseph Colombo was punished. He was shot by a hitman several times in the head and neck and remained paralyzed for seven years, until his death in 1978. Carlo Gambino and Frank Costello (from the Luciano family) had warned him. Giving the go ahead to the film would turn the spotlight on the mafia and its way of life. Criminal organizations operate in secrecy.
All of this could be a film too.