Everyone who loves The Godfather knows the scene in which a handsome bunch of flowers arrives for the title character, Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone. They have been sent by Johnny Fontane, the crooner modelled on Frank Sinatra who, thanks to Corleone family muscle (and a severed horse’s head in a movie tycoon’s bed), has landed a much coveted part in a new film.
There is a nod to this scene in The Offer, a compelling ten-part drama about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece on Paramount+ that may have slipped under your radar when it was released last month on the new streaming service, but which you should rush to check out, with reviews calling it ‘absolutely brilliant’ and ‘one hell of a series’.
In the first episode, flowers in the form of a funeral wreath arrive for real-life New York mobster Joe Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi), sent by Sinatra (Frank John Hughes) with a note: ‘Hopefully we can make this thing go away.’
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Recognising himself in the Fontane character, Sinatra loathed Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. So when Paramount Pictures announced they were turning it into a film, with Puzo writing the script, Sinatra was enraged.
From left: Ruddy, McCartt, Evans, Coppola and Puzo in The Offer, a compelling ten-part drama about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece on Paramount+
One night, the two Italian-Americans had an altercation at an LA restaurant, leading to Ol’ Blue Eyes seeing red, yelling that Puzo was ‘a pimp’ and threatening to beat the hell out of him.
That story had always fascinated screenwriter Michael Tolkin, and on its own inspired him to create The Offer. ‘So I had five minutes of the show written and now I just needed nine hours and 55 minutes more to fill in,’ says Tolkin, who had satirised the workings of Hollywood in 1992 film The Player.
He found no shortage of material, starting with the famous line of dialogue that inspired his title – Don Corleone’s ominous death threat, ‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.’ Absorbingly, The Offer brings to life both the menace of the Mob and the machinations of movie producers – and finds barely an ethic in either camp.
It is also beautifully cast. Miles Teller excels as Albert S Ruddy, the industry outsider who had been a computer programmer before he helped create hit TV comedy Hogan’s Heroes.
He was then asked to produce The Godfather, which Puzo himself had pitched to Paramount’s head of production Robert Evans (English actor Matthew Goode) in 1967, when the book (provisionally titled Mafia) was still mostly unwritten.
The Offer dramatises Puzo’s predicament perfectly. He was a blue-collar New Yorker who became a writer, but he wasn’t well-known and any financial success he’d had was eroded by his gambling habit.
When he met Evans he had a wife and five children to support but was $10,000 in debt. He desperately needed Evans to option the film rights.
Eventually Evans did, paying $12,500, but almost more to get rid of him than anything else.
In due course, the book ended up a huge bestseller. Evans had a hot property, but still wasn’t sure whether it would translate to the screen.
However, he had the support of Paramount’s eccentric owner Charles Bluhdorn, a cigar-chewing Austrian tycoon. Bluhdorn wanted The Godfather made, but to get it done, Ruddy had to spend months appeasing the Mafia – not least by agreeing to their wishes to never use the word ‘Mafia’.
He also indulged their vanity by casting real mobsters as extras. When the film was finally ready, Ruddy arranged a discreet screening for them.
Not that it stayed discreet when dozens of flashy limos turned up outside the cinema, disgorging wise guys and their companions.
Now 92, Ruddy is an executive producer of The Offer and Teller often texted him during filming, telling him how much fun it was to play him. And no wonder.
Before he reached an understanding with Joe Colombo, Ruddy received regular death threats and even went out in public wearing a Groucho Marx disguise. ‘You wanna make a movie that’s going to make my people look like animals and that ain’t gonna happen,’ Colombo tells Ruddy in the drama.
The story of the making of The Godfather is just as dramatic as Puzo’s original. Pictured: Marlon Brando as Don Corleone
Splendid as Teller is as Al Ruddy, for a British audience the standout performance comes from Goode, silkily smooth as the urbane but unstable Evans, who is manoeuvred by Ruddy into hiring Coppola (Dan Fogler, also excellent). Coppola, though not yet 30, was fiercely single-minded.
Evans was dead against the unknown (and admittedly rather short) Al Pacino playing Vito’s youngest son Michael, allegedly calling him ‘a runt’ and ‘that little dwarf’. Yet Coppola prevailed, as he did again when studio heads raged against the plan to cast the ‘washed up’ Brando.
The director resorted to alarming histrionics, even feigning an epileptic fit, until they gave in.
The Offer gets stuck into all of that, but aptly enough, the production was not without its own headaches. Armie Hammer was first hired to play Ruddy, but was forced to withdraw following accusations of sexual misconduct.
A more routine challenge was finding actors to play movie stars who were, or would become, household names. ‘That was incredibly daunting,’ says executive producer Nikki Toscano.
‘How can anyone measure up to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino?’ In fact, Anthony Ippolito makes a very plausible Pacino, and although Justin Chambers has a much harder job playing Brando playing Don Corleone (a transformation that involved rubbing boot polish into his blond hair and stuffing his cheeks with Kleenex), he gives it a creditable shot.
It was an easier task to choose Lou Ferrigno, made famous by the 70s TV series The Incredible Hulk, to play Lenny Montana. The 6ft 6in Montana had been a wrestler who became a mobster.
His speciality was arson, and he ended up doing time in Rikers Island prison. But by the time Ruddy and Coppola were casting The Godfather, he was a bodyguard for the Colombo family.
Picking him to play the Corleones’ giant enforcer Luca Brasi was another way of winning them over. Montana himself was delighted. However, although not much fazed him, Montana was desperately nervous about acting opposite Brando in the wedding scene at the start of the picture.
Coppola duly had the brilliant idea of working Montana’s anxiety into the story, hence the sequence in which he rehearses his lines to the Don first, and then fumbles them. The nervousness was real.
Montana was a hugely popular presence on set. When Ruddy’s assistant Bettye McCartt (played in The Offer by Juno Temple) broke her watch, he gave her an antique replacement, studded with diamonds, telling her it was ‘a gift from the boys’. He didn’t tell how he’d got hold of it, but suggested that she should never wear it in Florida.
So, while it may have fewer corpses, the story of the making of The Godfather is just as dramatic as Puzo’s original. For fans, it has ended up as The Offer they can’t refuse.