The stories of the making of The Godfather, turning 40 this month, are well known. Paramount didn’t want to make Mario Puzo’s book into a movie because they believed mafia films didn’t do well at the box office, but producer Robert Evans believed that if he got an Italian director and Italian stars he could change that. There were battles before production - the studio wanted Robert Redford for Michael Corleone, Danny Thomas for Vito Corleone, Warren Beatty was offered the directorial reigns and Francis Ford Coppola turned the picture down initially - but the strangest battle was with a group known as the Italian-American Civil Rights League.
Joseph Colombo formed the group (originally called the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League) in 1970 to protest what he thought was racially-motivated targeting of Italian Americans by the feds. He said that he and his family had been harrassed by the FBI, and Colombo and a few friends staged a protest march outside the New York City FBI headquarters.
What makes this unusual is that Joe Colombo was the head of one of New York’s Five Families. He was born into the life, his own father a Mafia soldier, and in 1963 he ended what became known as the First Colombo War by betraying Joseph Bonnano, who had a ballsy plan to off the heads of the Mafia Commission (the governing body of the Five Families). To repay him for this service, the Commission gave Colombo what was left of the Profaci crime family (Profaci was a Sicilian-born gangster who had an olive oil export business in New York who died of natural causes, but that was about the closest he comes to being a Vito Corleone stand-in).
So here’s Joe Colombo, one of the five most powerful mob bosses in the country complaining about unfair harassment by the FBI. Staging protests, even. In fact he gets 150,000 people to come out to Columbus Circle in June of 1970. And to be honest, he has something of a point; for much of the 19th and 20th centuries Italians were subjected to extreme prejudice and racism. Southern Italians, with their darker skin and predilection towards anarchy, are especially hated by the white people of America. By the 60s these attitudes were changing, but slowly, and Italians were still mostly portrayed as crooks or greaseballs in popular entertainment.
One of the things Colombo’s group wanted to do was stamp out the word Mafia (there’s obviously a self-serving component to that demand), so when he learned that Paramount was adapting The Godfather - original title The Mafia - he began taking action. Being Joseph Colombo, this action included following producer Al Ruddy’s car and leaving threatening notes, as well as making threatening phone calls to producer Robert Evans.
Pressure was coming from all sides. Coppola wanted to shoot the film in the New York City neighborhoods run by the mob, and the Teamsters took their orders from the Five Families. On top of that, Paramount president Charlie Bludhorn was a man who had some friends in high, but shady places*.
So Al Ruddy took a meeting with Joseph Colombo. They got together at the Park Sheraton Hotel, famous in mob circles as the hotel’s barbershop was the site of the infamous assassination of boss Albert Anastasia. After a couple of meets Ruddy and Colombo came to an agreement - the one use of the word Mafia in the script, originally when Jack Woltz yells at Tom Hagen “I don't care how many dago guinea wop Mafia greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork!,” would be stricken - and Colombo embraced the production with open arms. With such open arms that it made the front page of the newspapers, an embarrassment that briefly led to Ruddy being fired from the production.
The mob stayed involved in The Godfather, elbowing their way into casting and showing up at Marlon Brando’s trailer to swap stories, but Joseph Colombo would never see the film released. In 1971 he held another rally in Columbus Circle, but this one didn’t go as planned.
The Five Families had grown tired of Colombo’s grandstanding. While they operated quietly, Colombo craved the limelight and made himself available for TV interviews. People were told to stay away from the 1971 rally; Al Ruddy was actually supposed to be there, but he was warned away.
A black man named Jerome Johnson, posing as a photographer, came out of the crowd and shot Colombo three times in the head. Colombo’s guards shot Johnson dead on the spot and the mob boss was rushed to the hospital. He survived his injuries, but was completely paralyzed. He could move a couple of fingers and seemed responsive to some words, but was otherwise trapped inside himself for seven years until he died of cardiac arrest. It was widely believed that “Crazy” Joey Gallo, who had been in prison when the 1963 peace was brokered and thus didn’t consider himself subject to its terms, was behind the hit. Gallo would be spectacularly whacked while having dinner with his family, and the Second Colombo War raged until 1968.
In a truth is stranger than fiction moment, The Godfather was shooting only a few blocks away when Colombo got hit. The scene? Michael ordering hits on the heads of the Five Families. The day after Colombo was shot, the crew filmed Clemenza shotgun-blasting an elevator full of wiseguys.
Ironically, The Godfather would become the basis of a new breed of gangsters who were inspired by the fiction. Talking to Vanity Fair in 2009, James Caan says that he improvised the line “What do you think this is, the army, where you shoot ’em a mile away? You gotta get up close, like this—and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.” Bada-bing, of course, became such a mobster term that Tony Soprano named his strip club after it. “It just came out of my mouth—I don’t know from where,” Caan says.
Not everybody was so happy when the film opened in 1972. In Kansas City Thomas Gilade and Carl "Red" Privitera of the Italian-American Unification Council of Greater Kansas City felt that the movie was harmful. So harmful, according to Kansas City Pitch, that they spent their own money buying every ticket to the premiere showing of The Godfather at the Empire Theater. In Kansas City the Corleone saga played to an empty theater that first night.
* One of Bludhorn’s associates was Michele Sindona, who was a mob banker involved in the Vatican Bank scandal that would inform The Godfather Part III. Sindona was poisoned while in prison.