The Offer: Just About Everybody Refused

The Godfather is… one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment. Vincent Canby, New York Times

The Offer is a ten-part television series, created by Michael Tolkin (above on the set) for Paramount, based on the never-before-revealed experiences, recollections and memories of Albert S. Ruddy during his time as the producer of the 1972 film phenomenon The Godfather, from inception, through withering production struggles, to its eventual triumph at the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, with seven other nominations, including Best Director and three separate nominations for Best Supporting Actor.

Joe Dolce appears in every Quadrant.
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The Godfather is a tale told, via a three-film triptych, of the fictional Corleone family from its peasant origins in Sicily to its supreme position as the most powerful of the New York organised-crime families. It is a moving exploration of American culture, politics, family and corruption featuring an array of endearing characters that you will never forget. A commercial film phenomenon, it did more business in the first six months than the previous top box-office holder, Gone with the Wind, had done in thirty-six years.

Steven Spielberg was so stunned when he saw The Godfather, he said, “I … felt that I should quit.” Mark Seal, in his wonderful book Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli, wrote that the film is “that rarity—a work of art that is also a blockbuster”.

Amazingly, at the pinnacle of his commercial acclaim with the film, Ruddy turned down a money-in-the-bank offer to produce the sequel, The Godfather Part II.   

The Offer’s account of the often dangerous tribulations that Ruddy, writer Mario Puzo, director Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount Studio head, Robert Evans, went through to create this classic movie is as compelling as the film itself.

The Offer opens with Mario Puzo (right) buried under a mountain of gambling debt. He has written two critically well-received novels, but both have been commercial failures. Needing to earn money to support his family and settle his debts, he grudgingly whips together a fictional manuscript titled Mafia, writing, as he puts it, “below his gifts”.

The book, with a new title, The Godfather, becomes a dark-horse best-seller and is optioned to Paramount for film rights, but Frank Sinatra, believing the whimpering character of crooner Johnny Fontaine is based on him, hates it. Sinatra solicits the help of Joe Colombo, head of one of the New York Five Families, to stop the production of the movie. Colombo creates the Italian-American Civil Rights League, bringing anti-defamation pressure against the movie studio. (Mark Seal notes the irony of “a Mafia boss doubling as a civil rights leader”.)

The head of Paramount, Robert Evans, and his boss, Charles Bluhdorn, CEO of the studio’s parent company, Gulf & Western, have chosen Albert Ruddy to produce the film adaptation. Ruddy picks Francis Ford Coppola to direct and asks Puzo and Coppola to co-write the screenplay.

The production faces challenges from the first day, with persistent intimidation by mobsters and ferocious disagreements over the choice of the key actors. Evans and Bluhdorn do not approve of Coppola’s wishes to use either Marlon Brando, who has a reputation for being extremely difficult to work with, or Al Pacino, who is still an unknown New York stage actor.

To solve his gangster problems, Ruddy arranges a meeting with Joe Colombo (left) to try to explain to him the non-exploitative and “family” nature of the movie. Ruddy’s argument is so pro-Italian and persuasive that, after he agrees to remove the words Mafia and Cosa Nostra from the script, Colombo throws the full support of the Italian-American Civil Rights League behind the production.

Ruddy sets up a discreet screen test with Brando at his home. When he shows the jaw-dropping footage to Evans and Bluhdorn, they reverse their opinions and agree that Coppola can hire Brando—but for a fraction of his usual fee. Evans also reluctantly agrees to let Al Pacino play the part of Michael Corleone, on condition that James Caan is cast in the part of the oldest Corleone son, Sonny. (Caan later remarked to Seal, “I won Italian of the Year twice in New York, and I’m not Italian.”)

A highly strung mobster named Joe Gallo, who holds a grudge against Joe Colombo, is released from prison. Colombo is shot (below) by one of Gallo’s men at an Italian Unity Day rally, and falls into a coma for six months. In retribution, Gallo is murdered by Colombo’s hitmen.

Upon completion of the filming, way over budget and almost two and a half hours long, Coppola is ordered by the studio to reduce the length by half in order to get maximum showings a day at cinemas.

Members of the Colombo family who faithfully supported the production are now rudely not welcome to the premieres. Purloining a cut of the film, Ruddy organises a private showing for them in New York. (Ruddy later told Seal, “There must have been a hundred limousines out front. The projectionist called me and said, ‘Mr Ruddy, I’ve been a projectionist my whole life. No one ever gave me a thousand-dollar tip.’”)

Robert Evans’s wife, the actress Ali McGraw, leaves him for Steve McQueen, and, in a state of severe depression, Evans goes into seclusion, losing interest in the film’s opening. Ruddy persuades McGraw to accompany Evans, along with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to the Hollywood premiere.

After multiple nominations and wins at the Academy Awards, Evans announces a sequel, The Godfather Part II, but Ruddy declines to be involved, choosing instead to develop his own production company.

The creator of the series, Michael Tolkin, wrote the screenplay to The Player (1992), adapted from his own novel of the same name, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. For The Offer, he spent ten hours interviewing Ruddy. He told Nobuhiro Hosoki of Cinema Daily:

This is a story about making a movie about a family. So we wanted to make The Offer about a family—or really, three families. There’s the mobster family, there’s the Al-Ruddy-making-the-movie family, and then there’s the studio-Paramount-Pictures family. The dynamic is there—there’s a scene in The Godfather where [one of the capos] Clemenza is cooking, making his sauce, and gets into a tiff over whether it should be fried or broiled. The delight of showing that these powerful people are, first and foremost, people who exist in the real world was exactly what we wanted to convey.

Actually, Tolkin’s quote isn’t entirely accurate. In his funeral memorial to Puzo, Coppola describes working on the script:

I remember how [Puzo] would “grade” my different drafts. Once in a description I wrote, “Clemenza is in the kitchen, browning sausage in the olive oil”. Mario crossed it out, with the note: “Clemenza is frying garlic in the olive oil … Gangsters don’t ‘brown’, gangsters ‘fry’.”

Albert S. Ruddy was born in 1930 in Montreal. He left a writing job at Universal Studios when Marlon Brando’s father hired him to produce Wild Seed (1965). He co-created Hogan’s Heroes for CBS, a smash hit television series that ran for six seasons from 1965 to 1971. He produced The Longest Yard (1974), based on his own script, which was later called “the first successful modern sports movie”. In 2004, he won a second Best Picture Oscar, for Million Dollar Baby, which he shared with Clint Eastwood. Coincidentally, Eastwood was the one who had presented him with the Best Picture Oscar for The Godfather three decades earlier. Ruddy’s first wife, Françoise Wizenberg, changed her name to Ma Prem Hasya when she became a follower of the Indian spiritual leader Bhagwan Rajneesh. She was instrumental in helping Rajneesh acquire the Oregon ranch that was developed into Rajneeshpuram. She divorced Ruddy and married Rajneesh’s personal doctor, George Meredith. Ruddy, now ninety-two, has been together for forty-two years with his present wife, Wanda McDaniel, an executive vice-president for designer Giorgio Armani.

Francis Ford Coppola was born in 1939. He co-wrote Patton (1970), which won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The Godfather Part II (1974) was the first sequel to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. He also won two other Oscars for The Godfather Part II—Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director—making him only the second person to ever win this trifecta for the same movie. The Conversation (1974) won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, as did his next film, Apocalypse Now (1979). Les Zig commented in Cinema Scholars:

After mixed reviews of The Godfather Part III, Coppola planned a sequel that focused on [Sonny Corleone’s illegitimate son] Vincent dealing with the repercussions of [Michael Corleone’s daughter] Mary’s death. It also involved the political maneuvering required to be a Don. Just as The Godfather Part II did, the story would be intercut with a previous timeline exploring a younger Sonny’s life. The younger Sonny was allegedly going to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio. However, when co-developer Mario Puzo died, Coppola decided not to go ahead.

In The Godfather Part III, Sofia Coppola, the director’s daughter, had replaced Winona Ryder at the last minute to play the part of Mary Corleone. Sofia had appeared, eighteen years earlier, as a baby boy, in the key baptism scene in the first Godfather movie.

Mario Puzo was born in 1920 and came from the gang-infested New York City neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, referred to at the time as “the most dangerous area on the North American continent”. In Camille Paglia’s 1997 interview with Puzo for the New York Times, they discuss his “rude awakening” during his Second World War army service:

As a veteran of street fist fights, he thought he was a “tough guy” until he was tossed head over heels by strapping farm kids in the hand-to-hand combat of basic training. After that, he became “non-violent”, as he puts it, adding, “I’m a wimp, essentially.”

Puzo is listed in articles and bios as having, at various times, three different middle names: Cleri, Francis or Gianluigi. He wrote Second World War stories for True Action magazine under the pen name Mario Cleri. His brother went by the name Antony Cleri.

He had intended the third Godfather film to be called The Death of Michael Corleone but the studio objected. In 2020, a new director’s cut was released with his original title.

Puzo wrote two well-received novels before The Godfather but neither had made money. The Dark Arena (1955) concerned an American war veteran who returns to Germany in search of his girlfriend, and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965) was based on his mother, who Puzo said was the real influence for the character of Don Corleone. The book was made into an Italian mini-series, Mama Lucia (1988) starring Sophia Loren.

Puzo said:

I was forty-five years old and tired of being an artist. Besides, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was really time to grow up and sell out, as Lenny Bruce once advised. So I told my editors, OK, I’ll write a book about the Mafia ...

He originally envisioned a Mafia trilogy of novels comprising The Godfather (1969), The Last Don (1996) and Omertà (2000). The Last Don was made into a very fine mini-series, starring Danny Aiello as Mafia patriarch Don Domenico Clericuzio. (“Clericuzio” is a variation on Puzo’s pen name, “Cleri”, which means “God of help” or “luck”.) The Last Don is a Romeo-and-Juliet story of a doomed love affair between children of two warring Mafia families. As in The Godfather, the patriarch’s goal was to have his family assimilated, one day in the future, into the legitimate business world.

Puzo told Paglia, “The role of women has changed since I wrote The Godfather.” She commented, “Hence, The Last Don, which chronicles an amoral movie industry as well as the bloody criminal underworld, features hard-driving professionals who are women.”

Omertà is the least successful of Puzo’s trilogy. He died before it was finished and it was completed and published after his death. Jules Siegel, reviewing it for the San Francisco Chronicle, suggested that it may have been cobbled together by “some talentless hack” editor but also admitted that he could be rationalising, “avoiding what is probably the correct analysis—that [Puzo] wrote it and it is terrible”. The story concerns itself with Astorre, the son of another godfather, Don Vincenzo Zeno, who dies in Sicily, leaving the care of his young son to a merciless Mafia chieftain, Don Raymonde Aprile. There is a romantic interest for Astorre but the story concerns itself primarily with his international banking concerns, and, once again, a dream to make his businesses legitimate. Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, “God forbid that I should criticize the author of the great GF, but I gotta be honest with you: the man has lost his touch.” A television adaptation was in development in 2016, with Sylvester Stallone cast in the lead role, to be directed by Antoine Fuqua, but after six years it still hasn’t materialised.

Others of Puzo’s novels include Fools Die (1978), about the seedy and glamorous gambling world of Las Vegas, something of which Puzo had first-hand experience. The Fourth K (1990), about a fictional Francis Xavier Kennedy, nephew of President John F. Kennedy, was also a commercial failure. The Family (2001) was Puzo’s last novel, about Pope Alexander VI and the Borgias. He had been working on this book for two decades, in between working on others, and it was only completed after his death by his longtime partner and successful novelist Carol Gino.

In 1984, Puzo wrote The Sicilian, a fascinating story based on the real-life Robin Hood-style bandit Salvatore Giuliano. In this book, Puzo delves into the history of the Mafia in Italy. Sicily was an Islamic emirate from 831 to 1072. The Normans overthrew the Saracens in the eleventh century and Sicily became feudalistic. Puzo writes, “Mafia, in Arabic, means a place of sanctuary, and the word took its place in the Sicilian language when the Saracens ruled the country in the tenth century.”

The Sicilian was made into a terrible film, of the same name, directed by Michael Cimino, who critic Roger Ebert said at the time “continues his record of making an incomprehensible mess out of every other film he directs”. The amount of compromise that went into reducing Puzo’s book to this mush of a film is illustrated by a single example: in the novel, Michael Corleone, during exile in Sicily (expanding on his story from The Godfather) receives instructions from his father, Don Corleone, to assist the bandit Giuliano to escape his enemies, both police and rival mafia clans, and accompany Michael back to America. But all references to The Godfather, including the character of Michael Corleone, were removed from the film adaptation for copyright reasons! This kind of studio pressure also existed throughout the making of The Godfather (as is clearly depicted in The Offer)—but was strenuously rejected and overcome.

Mel Gussow of the New York Times wrote, “With the help of Mr Coppola, Mr Puzo [has] humanized people who in other fictional and cinematic forms had often been condemned and reviled.” Puzo told Paglia that he considered himself “a Romantic writer with sympathy for evil”.

Mario Puzo died in 1999 of heart failure aged 78. Francis Ford Coppola, reflecting on their creative partnership, said:

I remember once we were being introduced to some tough looking characters, one of who took me by the collar and said, “Remember, you didn’t make him, he made you.” Mario Puzo was everything that … Life magazine showed, but in full-life dimension for me, and I will never forget him and already miss him. He’s on my top ten list of serious American writers of his time; a wonderful man to know and love. 

Coppola, who had no part in the making of The Offer, found the television series slightly inaccurate. He told Variety, “That’s the point of view of, I guess, the producer [Ruddy] … but it doesn’t really reflect what really happened, in my opinion.”

Hugh Feinberg of Cinema Scholars wrote:

If you don’t take everything so seriously, The Offer is a fun show to watch. It’s well cast and well-written. It’s also a deep dive into the age-old question of “What does a producer actually do?” … still, there is such a thing as artistic license, and it’s clearly on display in The Offer. If you can get past all of this, and just enjoy the series for what it is, you realize how difficult and remarkable it is that any movie ever gets made, especially one as complex as The Godfather.

* * *

While working on this article, I discovered a few common threads in my own life.

When the mob boss Joseph Colombo was shot in 1971 while speaking at an Italian-American Civil Rights League rally, somebody remarked: “This is going to take Italian-American relations back twenty years.” In 1981, I applied for the position of musical director of the Lygon Street Italian Festa, in the Melbourne inner suburb of Carlton. I was told, quite frankly, by the pezzonovante organiser, that I could not be considered for the position as he was “trying to get Italians in Australia away from the stereotypes of spaghetti and concrete”. When I suggested that the Melbourne Italian construction moguls behind Grocon had made their fortune in concrete and that the girth of Luciano Pavarotti pretty much indicated that he didn’t diet on tofu and salad, I was told that my recent hit song “Shaddap You Face” “had taken Italian-Australian relations back twenty years”.

I also had some dealing with one of the current incarnations of the old Italian-American Civil Rights League. In 1981, I released my Italian-flavoured version of Jimmy Soul’s 1963 calypso hit “If You Want to Be Happy”. Out of the blue, I received a letter from the writer of the song, Frank J. Guida:

Frankly, I never dreamed anyone could come up with such a great and incredibly different arrangement … The whole Italo-Anglo melodic fusion is absolutely fantastic. As a hard-nosed and proud Italian-American, I do not in any way find it offensive or demeaning … as a charter member of The National Italian American Foundation … I informed our president in Washington D.C., Frank Stella … after listening to how good it is, I shall insist they all go out and buy a copy immediately!!

Two years later, the Lygon Street Italian Festa was under different management. I reapplied and was successful at getting the musical director position. I must have made them an offer …

5 thoughts on “The Offer: Just About Everybody Refused

  • Tony Tea says:

    If your song had taken Italian-Australian relations back twenty years, how far back did organised crime take Italian-Australian relations?

  • MaxQMcGraw says:

    Joe, that opening sentence (paragraph) is almost as long as Puzo’s book.

  • john mac says:

    At twelve years old when “The Godfather” came out , my parents got home raving about it and I couldn’t wait to see it . When I did , around 1976 , I was not disappointed , and since have probably seen it 50 times ! The sepia tone , note perfect performances by all , the pivotal horse’s head scene , and the glorious revenge finale stay with you . “Godfather II” was a brilliant bookend , with the rest more cashing in to me. Also in a similar vein and equally transfixing were “Taxi Driver” , and “The Deer Hunter” , Scorsese’s body of work surpassing Coppola’s I believe , and Cimino’s talent wasted ultimately , though loved the little known Eastwood/Bridges film “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” and “Heaven’s Gate” , then universally canned , gets better with age !

    • Tony Tea says:

      I’ve loved Thunderbolt & Lightfoot ever since I saw it at the Yarrawonga drive-in in the late 70s. And Heaven’s Gate is way better than its reputation.

  • john mac says:

    PS , JD-still can’t believe you penned “Shaddupa your Face ” ! Hope the royalties are still flowing in !

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