Gianni Russo has hustled since his days selling ballpoint pens on the streets of New York. It was his desire for wealth that landed him the role of a lifetime—Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather. When he heard mafia don and Italian American Anti-Defamation League head Joe Colombo was trying to shut down production, he acted as the middle man between Colombo and Paramount Studios.
“Most mobsters like to make money,” Russo recalled. “I thought he was missing a golden opportunity. I arranged a meeting and my bonus was that if it worked, I would get a role.”
It worked and the rest is history. The Godfather won three Academy Awards and, 45 years later, continues to be a must-watch. And Russo’s own star continues to shine.
Russo will be at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts for a special screening of The Godfather (the Long Island Orchestra will play the score) Friday, May 19 at 7:30pm. First, we spoke about his own life on the streets and how Marlon Brando helped him step outside himself and into a role that brought back memories of his darkest days.
You’re best known for your role in The Godfather, but you’ve been open about your experiences in organized crime. What’s the backstory?
I was raised by Frank Costello. He took a liking to me when I was on the streets of New York selling ballpoint pens as a kid. He was the father I never had. I was very sick for five years with polio starting in 1949. With that, I had a limited education and I realized early on what the value of a dollar was. Ballpoint pens had just come out and I decided to sell them.
Your hustle landed you your role in The Godfather. How did the role change your life?
For the last 45 years I’m recognized as a wife beater—which is not a great thing—but it brings you notoriety…so many other actors were just gangsters but I’m so well remembered because of the role.
What was it like for you to play an abusive man?
It went against everything I believe in. My father beat my mother. One of the hardest scenes for me to do was to beat Connie while she was pregnant.
How were you able to reach out of your comfort zone, given everything you’ve been through, and deliver such a memorable, realistic performance?
Marlon gave me things to use. “Get into your father’s head but understand you’re only acting.” You have to realize what’s going on. It’s a fantasy world when you’re doing these characters. Marlon was the master.
What are some more light-hearted behind-the-scenes stories filming The Godfather?
During his time in makeup, [Marlon Brando] asked the assistant director to bring in the actors that are going to take him out of the ambulance. Marlon just told them, “Understand this, if you drop me, you will never work again in this business.” When he left, he told the stunt coordinator to come in and he said, “Line my mattress with 50 pound weights.” The guys got in and he reminds them not to drop him. As soon as they pull the gurney out, you could see the look on their faces. They weren’t expecting this weight. The guy on the inside is pushing it towards them. As soon as he gets to the end waiting for his legs to drop, he lands on Marlon Brando. He got up and ran out of the gate. We never saw him again.
The movie still resonates with people today. What is it about the movie that allows it to pick up new fans decades later?
I do nightclub acts and see young kids all the time. The generation spans four generations now. Grandfathers waited for their sons to turn 14 so they could watch it with them. It’s a legacy you’re passing on and it’s this movie called The Godfather. Other than the violence, there’s a lot of life lessons. I tell [kids] it’s not about the violence, it’s about respect, shaking a man’s hand and looking him in the eye.
You recently became a spokesperson for Don Corleone Organic Italian Vodka Sambuca, and Tilles will be serving it May 19. What are some of your favorite vodka cocktails?
We’ve created a lot of special drinks with it. One is two parts vodka, one part Black Sambuca. It’s an interesting drink and great for after dinner. Sambuca is nice and sweet. Me, I like it straight up. Put some olives or a jalapeño in it.
What are you most looking forward to about the event.
I love that it’s at a college [LIU Post]. My new motive in life is “Yes you can.” Today, without education you go nowhere. I was in a generation where you could make it. I’ve fortunately achieved so much and it was just the drive. A doctor told me I’d never walk again and I do. It’s the message I want to send. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.
If You Go
What: The Godfather Live
When: Friday, May 19 at 7:30pm
Where: The Tilles Center Concert Hall, Greenvale Tickets