The Wild Story of the Real-Life Mobster Who Starred in ‘The Godfather’

In 1988, a gangster from the Medellin Cartel was harassing a woman at State Street, a Las Vegas club and casino owned by actor Gianni Russo, who played Carlo Rizzi in Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic mafia flick, The Godfather. When Russo intervened the Colombian smashed a bottle of Cristal in his face. Bleeding profusely and legally carrying, Russo took out his gun and fired two shots into the man’s head. The killing was ruled a justifiable homicide, but Russo still had to deal with a contract being put out on his life by none other than Pablo Escobar. But when the cocaine lord found out Russo was an actor in the iconic movie, Escobar’s favorite, he called the hit off.

Corresponding with the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Russo has released Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob, a memoir about his life which details his associations with infamous mobsters like Frank Costello, Carlo Gambino, and Carlos Marcello, and Hollywood celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and Francis Ford Coppola. VICE talked to Russo about his fascinating book, how the mob impacted his life, how he got the role in The Godfather, and if anybody knew then what a classic it would become. Here’s what he had to say.

VICE: When and why did you decide to write a book about your life and how long was the process from inception to completion?
Gianni Russo: I waited a while. I’m over 75 years of age now. I wanted to write the book, number one, as an inspirational book. That may sound crazy with the material that’s in it, but that’s why. The last sentence of the book is ‘Yes, you can.’ I had so many obstacles as a young person that I wanted to encourage anybody that’s out there—no matter their skin color or background—that if you have a dream, pursue it. I overcame a lot early on in my life and then went on to do anything I wanted to. I wanted to send that message, [not only to] my 11 kids and grandchildren, but to the world. That’s why I wrote the book.

How did you first encounter the mob and how did they impact your life?
I was a messenger for Frank Costello for many years. He was one of the strongest crime people in the world. They used to call him ‘The Ambassador.’ He originated in the prohibition era with Joe Kennedy and they became multimillionaires—both of them. Then he branched out with Meyer Lansky to create ‘The Syndicate.’ Early on in my life, fortunately, he took me under his wing and mentored me in a way that no one could do. He gave me experiences and opportunities that I could’ve never had just being an Italian immigrant from Mulberry Street. My family was less than middle class. And here I am today.

I still have mob involvement because all my friends were in the mob. Me personally, I’m not in the mob, [but] they protected me, Mr. Gambino and Costello. I started out as a messenger in my early teens and then grew into more than that. I started traveling the world with the associations that I had in Chicago and Vegas. We got into international trades with money laundering and marketing, and just moving it around. Basically that’s the nutshell of it all.

How did you get the role of Carlo Rizzo in The Godfather and what was it like being a part of that iconic movie?
I don’t know what my life would be for the last 50 years without The Godfather. I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that they were going to use unknowns [in the film]. Sicilians would be Sicilians, Jewish doctors would be Jewish doctors, [and so on]. Fortunately I was well-financed by that time in my life. I shot a screen test for Michael, Sonny, and Carlo. I submitted it to Paramount, and then Paramount just wrote me a letter stating, ‘We’re sorry we misled you, and it looks like you spent a great deal of money to produce these screen tests, but we’re really using known actors and sorry, but you’re not going to get hired.’

Fortunately, the Italian Anti-Defamation League was started up by Joe Colombo in New York the year prior, and when the [Puzo] book came out it gave him a great opportunity to use the book as the negativity of how they publicize Italian Americans in this country. That we’re all gangsters. It’s ironic, because him being a gangster, he’s complaining, he’s picketing the FBI building, which was totally insane.

I used that as an opportunity to become the [point man] between Paramount, the Colombos, and the Italian Anti-Defamation League. I negotiated a deal where they would let the movie be shot in New York, I would play Michael, Sonny, or Carlo, and the League would get to control the events for the premieres in every city and raise a lot of money. That’s basically how I got the part.

When you were filming the movie with Francis Ford Coppola and all the other actors did you or anybody else have any foresight on how big the movie would become?
Nobody knew. In fact, while we were shooting we were being threatened by Paramount that they were going to close it down. Francis Ford Coppola fought for Al Pacino to play Michael. They already had Michael cast with Jimmy Caan and Carmine Caridi was supposed to play Sonny, but Francis was adamant about getting Al Pacino to play that part. It’s funny, because Pacino was already cast in a movie with Columbia Motion Pictures called The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. They [had to] make a deal with Columbia and traded Carmine Caridi for Al Pacino. That’s how Jimmy Caan got Sonny and I got Carlo.

None of us even knew if the movie was going to be released. They were even threatening Francis Ford Coppola. They didn’t like his direction at first and they were going to bring somebody else in. Thank God as we progressed they started seeing the dailies coming in and they started to see Pacino develop from being that meek little soldier at the wedding scene, in my character’s wedding actually, into Michael Corleone as we [would come to] know him. It was perfect.

What was it like working with Marlon Brando and what do you remember most about him?
Marlon took a liking to me early on for the strangest reasons. I still brag about it today. I mean, Marlon Brando was my only acting teacher and Frank Sinatra’s my only singing teacher. Anything you saw me do in the movie, and to me my only great scene was the last scene in the movie, the rest were all physical and violent. But to go through the end scene with Pacino, who is a brilliant actor and well trained, Brando showed me the mechanics. [He told me] you’re going to be projected on this major screen in these theaters and people are going to know if you’re believable or not. You have to show the fear.

Hollywood Godfather

What do you remember most about hanging out with Sinatra?
I was with him at Caesar’s Palace and his mother was late. He’s on stage, the first show at Caesar’s. He was doing two shows a night at that time. Just before his last song he asked the audience to pray for his mother because [her] plane is missing. See, we already were told that she died, but they didn’t want to tell him until after the first show. We found out minutes before and the audience was already in the house. We figured let him go do the show. Well, not me, I had no decision in it, but they did. When he went back stage they told him his mother’s plane hit a mountain and she passed on. That night on stage was the second time I saw the humanity come out of this man. He teared up and cried.

What do you think about the state of the mob today and how is it different from when you came up?
I’ve had this conversation numerous times. Early on in life it was an organization. It was for a good purpose because immigrants that came to this country were being abused and taken advantage of. They organized to get some respect and get equality. Money gets involved and then all of a sudden that’s not what it’s about anymore. When you get down to knowing the mob, it’s all about money. It’s all about earnings. That’s how you move up in this organization. The respect has gone out the window. There’s very few men of respect today. It’s all about money, greed, and any way you can make it.

I don’t think you can ever have an organization today because the electronics [have led to] cameras everywhere. Even myself, I’d probably be doing life somewhere. You’re under a microscope and they’re all rats. They interrogate you and you are rolling over on the guy that you worked with all your life. Look at Sammy the Bull and John Gotti. John gets caught on tape saying that he’s gonna whack Sammy. Well, that blew Sammy away. Sammy wasn’t a rat. John made him a rat. After [the] Gotti fiasco and then Anthony Spilotro with the Chicago mob, what was known as gangsters are no longer [around].

I mean, I know more about this than most people in the world. I was around it all my life since I’m 12. So do the math. That’s like 64 years now. I watched the best and I still have very close friends that are well respected, but they’re old timers. I mean, look at Sonny Franzese right now, he’s 102. He’s still out. He’s still around. I mean, they got him on parole. The guy, he’s 102, he’s in a hospital. What’s he going to do? It’s crazy. But no. That life is finished. It’s finished.

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