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Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli

The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather

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About The Book

This “wickedly pacey page-turner” (Total Film) unfurls the behind-the-scenes story of the making of The Godfather, fifty years after the classic film’s original release.

The story of how The Godfather was made is as dramatic, operatic, and entertaining as the film itself. Over the years, many versions of various aspects of the movie’s fiery creation have been told—sometimes conflicting, but always compelling. Mark Seal sifts through the evidence, has extensive new conversations with director Francis Ford Coppola and several heretofore silent sources, and complements them with colorful interviews with key players including actors Al Pacino, James Caan, Talia Shire, and others to write “the definitive look at the making of an American classic” (Library Journal, starred review).

On top of the usual complications of filmmaking, the creators of The Godfather had to contend with the real-life members of its subject matter: the Mob. During production of the movie, location permits were inexplicably revoked, author Mario Puzo got into a public brawl with an irate Frank Sinatra, producer Al Ruddy’s car was found riddled with bullets, men with “connections” vied to be in the cast, and some were given film roles.

As Seal notes, this is the tale of a “movie that revolutionized filmmaking, saved Paramount Pictures, minted a new generation of movie stars, made its struggling author Mario Puzo rich and famous, and sparked a war between two of the mightiest powers in America: the sharks of Hollywood and the highest echelons of the Mob.”

“For fans of books about moviemaking, this is a definite must-read” (Booklist).

Excerpt

Prologue Prologue TO THE MATTRESSES!
Let’s go to bed,” Robert Evans said in his grand Beverly Hills home, which the movies built.

The house, known as Woodland, was a “hidden oasis”—a French Regency estate, a “miniature palace,” Evans called it. It was walled off from the world on two private acres, shaded by hundred-foot-tall sycamores, redolent with the scent of thousands of roses. Once the residence of Greta Garbo, it had been, for forty years, the proud habitat of the mogul who turned Paramount Pictures, on the precipice of collapse, into the most dominant force in film.

Evans, the impresario who had risen from the womenswear business of New York City to international fame and fortune as an actor-turned-producer-turned-studio chief, was now seventy-eight, his voice strangled by strokes. But his mind was still sharp, and his home was lined with photographs should his memory ever lapse. He lived with those memories: the ghosts of the greats who gathered here, the deals that were consummated here, the movies that were screened here, and the loves that were kindled here.

It was 2008, and I had come to interview Evans for a Vanity Fair magazine story about the making of his most celebrated movie, The Godfather. He was prepared for me. His butler, Alan Selka, a very proper Englishman, opened the doors and escorted me to the dining room, where I waited for Evans at a table covered with clippings and mementoes from the production and its aftermath.

When the master made his entrance, it was impressive: his black hair slicked back, his face deeply tanned, his smile a dazzling white, his eyes staring out through rose-colored glasses. When he launched into his memories of the movie, his voice was as deep and melodic as a cello sonata.

“It’s stranger than fiction,” he told me.

Then Evans, a legendary lothario, suggested we go to bed together.

“What?” I blurted out.

A fire had consumed his famous screening room in 2003, Evans explained, and since then he and his friends had watched movies in his bed. I followed him to the master bedroom. In his heyday, Evans entertained so many starlets here that his housekeeper would place the name of the previous evening’s date on a card beside his coffee cup the next morning, so he could address her properly at the breakfast table. He had become production chief of Paramount Pictures in 1966, at the tender age of thirty-six, resuscitating the moribund studio and guiding it from the grave to its former glory with hits like Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, and The Godfather. He helped propel the career of his close pal Jack Nicholson, who starred in his studio’s 1974 production of Chinatown. His ex-wives numbered seven, including the actresses Ali MacGraw, Leslie Ann Woodward, Catherine Oxenberg, and Miss America Phyllis George.

Now, Robert Evans, a master of staging and seduction, was leveling his immense powers of persuasion on me. The butler arrived with food and drink, and a large television screen was readied to run parts of The Godfather.

“Take those shoes off,” Evans commanded as I hovered next to the bed, which was very large and covered in fur. There was a story he wanted to tell, and it might take a while.

So I climbed into bed with Robert Evans to hear the story of the film that had both made him and destroyed him. Today the movie features prominently in virtually every list of the all-time greats, a masterpiece that, upon each viewing, reveals some new jewel or fresh truth. But the process of making it was unlike that of any film before or since. Hollywood’s greatest movie about the Mafia seemed to have been produced in some ways in tandem with the Mafia, as the capos of the Mob went to war with the tough guys of the movie business, in some instances trading places, mobsters as actors, filmmakers as fixers. And no one knew the behind-the-scenes story better than Evans, who had financed its struggling author, green-lighted its development, hired its producer and director, and fostered its creation, some would say far too obsessively for a studio head, until the movie became a global hit, and, for Evans, a curse.

His mind slipped back across the decades, to the grandest night of his life: March 14, 1972, the world premiere of The Godfather. A freak snowstorm had paralyzed New York City, but the advance buzz on the movie was red hot, its star Marlon Brando featured on the covers of both Life and Newsweek. And there he was, Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production, entering the Loew’s State Theatre with his third wife, the actress Ali MacGraw, on one arm, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on the other.

“When the lights went down and Nino Rota’s music swelled, my whole life seemed to pass before me,” he would write in his 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture. “Watching this epic unfold, I felt that everything my life was about had led up to this moment.”

“Two hours and fifty-six minutes later, Diane Keaton asked Al Pacino if he was responsible for all the killings,” Evans wrote.

“No,” Pacino lied.

Then the credits rolled. Evans sat in the premiere audience, stunned in the darkness, along with everyone else. “No applause,” he wrote. “Not a sound—just silence.”

It’s a bomb, he thought, then turned to MacGraw and Kissinger, their faces solemn.

But it wasn’t a bomb—it was a cultural phenomenon. The audience was in tears. When the lights went up, Kissinger turned to Evans. “Bob,” he said, “when you can sit and watch a gangster who’s killed hundreds of people, and yet when he dies the audience is crying, you’ve made yourself a masterpiece.”

After the screening, during an ecstatic party in the ballroom of the St. Regis hotel, Evans played master of ceremonies, “introducing anyone and everyone”—the writer, the director, the cast, all of whom were on their way to becoming legends. And Paramount was on its way to becoming one of the richest and most powerful studios in Hollywood. “The Godfather did more business in six months than Gone with the Wind did in thirty-six years,” Evans said. “It was the first time a picture opened in four hundred theaters.”

In the process, the film created something Hollywood had never before imagined possible: a work of art that is also a blockbuster.

“The screaming, the fights, the threats that never let up since day one of filming, were worth it,” Evans concluded. He paused at the memory of the battles—over the script, the cast, the location, the budget—that had threatened to derail the movie before a single frame was shot.

“The fighting,” he sighed. “Tremendous fights.”

Fifty years after its premiere, so much has been written about The Godfather, yet some things remain overlooked, or misrepresented. Many accounts of the movie are more Hollywood legend than historical fact, as many of those involved in its making have sought to play up their role in its creation. Thus, some of what has been said and “written about The Godfather is wrong,” said Peter Bart, who was present throughout the film’s birth as Evans’s second in command at Paramount.

I wanted to know how the film was created—“behind the screen and in front of the screen,” as Evans put it. In the process, I hoped to learn not only the secrets of the movie itself but also what it revealed about creating great and enduring art. Through years of research, and interviews with everyone from studio executives to Mob affiliates, I have sought to untangle the competing narratives and self-aggrandizing contentions that continue to enshroud the film. The real story, I found, is like the man I climbed into bed with—an unlikely amalgamation of brute force, artistic choice, market necessity, genius, and dumb luck. Evans would be dead a dozen years after his bedroom confessions, but now, after half a century, the film he banked everything on has attained the status of myth, an integral part of America’s collective consciousness. Based on one of the bestselling novels of all time, it revitalized Hollywood, saved Paramount Pictures, announced the arrival of Francis Ford Coppola as one of the great directors of the new era of film, minted a new generation of movie stars, made its writer, director, and producer rich, and sparked a war between two of America’s mightiest powers: the sharks of Hollywood and the soldiers of the Mob.

“It’s the best picture ever made,” Evans told me in bed that day. “It broke a whole barrier of film. It was opera, it was new filmmakers, great ideas, and fighting the organization. And I loved fighting the organization.”

“What organization were you fighting?” I asked.

“Paramount,” he said—meaning not just the studio, but the way movies had always been made. “The Boys,” he added, meaning the Mob. “But they’re both the same. Everything is monetarily focused. And I was looking to touch magic. Magic, to me, lasts longer. Why is it that Mozart is remembered far longer than Napoleon? Because the world of art is remembered far longer than the world of greed.”

Just then, as if on cue, the lights in the bedroom dimmed. The screen flickered to life, the soundtrack swelled, and the now-famous cast began to parade before us, like decorated soldiers who had triumphed in a long and bitter war. The Godfather once again wove its hypnotic spell. Yet the tale it told is eclipsed by the story of how it came to be. Years before its first words were committed to paper, it began with a body engulfed in flames, cities stricken with fear, and real-life criminals who survived to reveal a world of violence and betrayal beyond the imagination of any writer.

About The Author

Art Streiber / August

Mark Seal joined Vanity Fair as a contributing editor in 2003, covering stories as varied as the Bernie Madoff scandal, Ghislaine Maxwell, Tiger Woods, the fall of Olympian Oscar Pistorius, the making of classic films such as Pulp Fiction, and many more. His 2016 Vanity Fair article “The Over the Hill Gang,” about a gang of retired thieves who pulled off the biggest jewel heist in British history, was the basis of the 2018 film, King of Thieves, starring Michael Caine. In addition to Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli, he is the author of the books Wildflower and The Man in the Rockefeller Suit. His website is Mark-Seal.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (October 19, 2021)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982158590

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Raves and Reviews

“Mark Seal’s seductive book about the making of The Godfather – often with help of the men it was about – could be a movie itself. He couldn’t have gotten any closer and lived to type about it.”
Nicholas Pileggi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family and Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas

"As gloriously Homeric and entertaining as The Godfather itself. I learned something new on almost every page."
Graydon Carter, editor, Air Mail

“Rollicking and entertaining, Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli lays bare not only the massive executive egos at war during The Godfather’s journey to the screen, and the artistic struggles of the young and despairing Francis Coppola who thought he had a failure on his hands, but also the fascinating tales of how the mob muscled in and protected its production. Mark Seal has chronicled a classic cinematic history that conjures all the alchemy of The Godfather’s magic.”
Maureen Orth, international bestselling author of Vulgar Favors: The Hunt for Andrew Cunanan, the Man Who Killed Gianni Versace

“If you love The Godfather, or American movies, or American gangsters, or just a truly great read, Mark Seal’s Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli is the book for you. It’s the rollicking inside story behind the making of what may be America’s greatest movie – I couldn’t put it down.’'
Bryan Burrough, #1 New York Times bestselling coauthor of Barbarians at the Gate and Forget the Alamo

“Absorbing and unforgettable. As sweeping and vivid as The Godfather itself, Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli captures moviemaking at its most tumultuous. Mark Seal is a master storyteller, bringing to life the embattled young director Coppola, the unpredictable Brando, and the upstart Pacino with made-for-Hollywood panache.”
Robert Draper, New York Times bestselling author of To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq

“A revealing and entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes machinations of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic film. Masterpiece yields masterpiece with this exuberant page-turner.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A ne plus ultra page-turner on the making of the ultimate mafia movie."
— The Globe and Mail

Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli captured me with its joyful energy, extensive research and breathless enthusiasm.”
— Glenn FrankelThe Washington Post

"In his detail rich and decidedly definitive saga . . . [Seal] has done a remarkable job of transforming this crazy patchwork quilt into a solidly structured narrative that’s almost as astounding as what Mario Puzo got on the page and Coppola on the screen.”
— Tom Zito, Alta

“If you think the 1972 movie The Godfather is dramatic, wait until you hear its backstory—from how Mario Puzo wrote his 1969 novel (the basis for the film) in a desperate frenzy to pay off his many debts, to the filmmakers’ battles with real-life mobsters. It’s a fitting tribute on the cusp of the great film’s 50th anniversary in March.”
— Christina Ianzito, AARP The Magazine

". . . a thorough, detailed, and beautifully written account of the creation of a masterpiece, as much of a page-turner as the novel that inspired it all." 
— Jason Bailey, The Playlist 

“Combining extensive research with insightful new interviews, this chronicle of The Godfather could be the definitive look at the making of an American classic.”
Library Journal, starred review

“[Seal] makes us an offer we can’t refuse with this detailed, fascinating, and frequently surprising look at the origins and filming of The Godfather … Few movies have had such tumultuous origins and turned out to be undisputed classics, and Seal does a superb job of telling us exactly how this happened. For fans of books about moviemaking, this is a definite must read.”
David Pitt, Booklist

“A wickedly pacey page-turner, stuffed like Vito’s cheeks with character and detail.”
Kevin Harley, Total Film

“A colorful new book … that tells you everything you thought you knew about the making of The Godfather but didn’t … such a page-turner.
— Michael Granberry, The Dallas Morning News

“Lives up to the title and delivers epic indeed. Written by the veteran reporter Mark Seal, even if you think you knew it all about the making of this classic, there’s plenty of surprises still left.”
— Richard Rushfield, The Ankler

Engaging, informative, and fast-paced . . . a great deal of fun—gossipy and gulpable.”
Kyle Smith, Claremont Review of Books 

A blow by blow, bullet by bullet account of the way it went down . . .The Godfather is a film about whose making you can never grow tired of hearing, fact or legend. Seal has, in this book, reminded us exactly why and perhaps added to the list of the best film books ever written.”
— The Comic Crush

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