Fifty years ago, The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola made Gianni Russo an offer he couldn't refuse. Russo went from being an errand boy for mob associates in New York, to playing the role of a small time criminal who marries into the Corleone Crime Family.
Marlon Brando became his acting coach, and Russo's life changed forever. On the 50th anniversary of The Godfather he tells Jesse Mulligan about threatening Brando on set, their subsequent friendship, life in the Hollywood and in the Mob.
Russo says Covid-19 is his second pandemic. He puts his determination to succeed in life down to his battle with polio as a young boy in New York beginning in 1949.
It was a period that caught pick himself up and push forward, which he did before entering the streets selling ball-point pens at 12 years of age.
“I was learning how to survive and walk again, it was a great lesson in life that I’ve never forgotten and I feel blessed every day of my life because of that,” he says.
“I was quarantined for five years straight from everybody in the world other than the patients in the room that I was in. This has been a lot easier – two-and-a-half years and we’re starting to come out of it I hope.”
He began working for a mobster after a chance meeting while in was in Manhattan selling pens for a retailer in his neighbourhood. The man gave him a $5 each time they met, and he hugged Russo each day, touching his left shoulder on his paralysed side. “He would give me words of wisdom and this would go on for a while," he says.
“It wasn’t until months went by that I found out he was Sicilian, Frank Costello, touched cripples for luck."
This enraged Russo, who bought a pink rabbit’s foot to give to Costello the next time they met. The mobster was taken back by his gesture of contempt. After asking him his name, the mobster told him he had known his uncle, Angelo Russo.
Giving him $200, Costello asked the 13-year-old to meet him the next morning. At that meeting he told Russo his uncle had sent his family to America when he was a little boy.
“He told me ‘you’re never beg on the streets again, and you’ll work for me. I was 13 and that’s 1955 and I worked for him until 1973,” Russo says.
He believes the Mafia was established to look after the interests of working-class Italian immigrants who faced discrimination and exploitation within American society. Originally there were powerful communal bonds and values like loyalty, honour and respect in these groups.
“Italians were last on the payroll to get any pay. They were abused and the ‘wops’ without papers were the ones that they took advantage of most. These guys would work 12-14 hours a day for half of what somebody else would work eight hours a day.
“They felt they had to organise, and they did, and like any other organisation or club or business, they branched out to different things that they weren’t supposed to. They lost the respect and the honour and the reasons why it was formed.”
When John F Kennedy was being promoted as the next president of the United States, Russo began travelling all over the country, bringing envelopes to union bosses and different labour unions and every organisation had big bodies of American Italian memberships to get the vote.
“Fortunately, he became president and unfortunately his brother Robert Kennedy became Attorney General and went after all the Italian-Americans who got his brother elected.”
At 18 years of age he continued travelling and meeting people like Frank Sinatra, visiting Las Vegas every other weekend. Always harbouring a desire to be an actor, his chance came after the publication Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather and the subsequent decision to make it into a movie.
“It was such an overwhelming hit and they said they were going to use unknowns – Italians would be Italians, Jewish doctors would be Jewish doctors. And I figured, ‘I could do that’.”
New York’s Little Italy in 1950s resembled perfectly what was portrayed in The Godfather, he says. Russo lived one block away where Ford Coppola made the classic movie.
After auditioning for the roles of Michael and Sonny Corleone, he was rejected on the basis those roles would be played by professional actors. But he wouldn't take no for an answer.
“I went to meet some of the mob bosses that I already knew, Costello and the one in particular Joe Colombo, because he got very involved. He was picketing the FBI building because his young son Joseph was locked up, while also protesting the book The Godfather because it denounced Italians. He didn’t want to the movie made and 100,000 people showed up in 1970 to rally against the book.
“So, I told him we could make some money if we got it made and he asked me if I could get it done and I said if he gave me permission I could go and talk to them for him.”
Russo met with producer and president of Paramount Motion Pictures Marc Evans and, Russo says, the rest is history.
Working with Brando saw the legendary actor mentoring him, even though their relationship got off to a shaky start.
“At rehearsal we were told not to have any eye contact with Mr Brando, do not approach him, do not speak to him. I was 26 years old and wanted to be in a movie, I didn’t care about him.”
However, after 45 minutes of rehearsing Brando, he says, approached him and ended up questioning his suitability for the part.
“He said, ‘you got a big movie coming out?’ I said ‘no’. He said, ‘you’re a television actor?’ I said ‘no’. Well, he says, ‘you’re not on Broadway. I know everybody on Broadway’. I says, ‘you’re right again’. He says ‘who did you study with’ and I said ‘study, study what?’
“That’s when he called Coppola over. I didn’t know the importance of Carlo. But he let me know right there and then how important it was to him and to the movie that I had to be a believable actor.
“I married his daughter, I beat her up, I get his son Sonny killed in the toll booths, set him up for the Barzanis, and get his son Michael involved in the family business that Brando’s character didn’t want.
“So, he told Coppola right in front of me, ‘you should rethink this. I don’t think this guy should have the part’.”
Concerned he would lose face with his mob peers and miss out on the part, he aggressively confronted Brando.
“I didn’t know protocol on the set, I told Coppola ‘go over there for a minute’. You can’t dismiss the director, and he laughed, like ‘who the hell is this guy’. Then I put my arm around Brando and I moved him to the back of the room out of ear shot of everybody else because I didn’t want to embarrass the guy.
“And I got nose-to-nose with him and said ‘let me just tell you something Mr Brando, with all due respect I know who you are, you screw this up for me, listen to me clearly, I will suck on your heart and you’ll bleed out right here.
“He looked at me and stepped back and said, ‘that was brilliant’. He thought I was kidding. I would have killed him… That was it, he loved me from that day on and we hit it off.”
They were friends until Brando died in 2004.
Russo ended up being romantically involved with Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli, and scores of other celebrities.
He ran a nightclub in Vegas after the movie, where he rubbed shoulders with Frank Sinatra. Russo would sing with his own trio at the club, impressing Sinatra.
“He said to me ‘you don’t sound bad. When you have time you should come out to Palm Springs and I’ll give you some lessons’. The last thing you should do is offer me something that that because I show up.”
A month later she showed up and Sinatra instructed him to submerge himself in his swimming pool, holding his breath to expand his diaphragm, to increase his capacity to hold notes.
They became friends and Sinatra ended up Christening his child.
The actor, who turns 80, is releasing a ‘rapology’ album this month, featuring rap songs about his life, the Godfather movie and Marlon Brando. The album came after he was approach by producers working for Sony Records.
His book Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob had already been a best-seller.
“So, they did this and it’s bringing a whole new audience with it,” he says.
Apart from all of that, Russo runs several businesses and has a new line of fashion out later this year.