It’s not lost on me that this is not a typical interview. Phrase something not to Gianni Russo’s liking, and I could find myself in hot water with the Italian mafia. Though Russo is quickly to assure me that is not the case.
It’s not a surprising misconception.
From reading the first couple chapters in his new memoir The Hollywood Godfather, one might assume the same.
“I was not actually associated with the mob,” he says over a phone call. “I just grew up with them all my life. It’s what would be your neighbors.” Russo has come a long way from his humble apartment on Mulberry street and serving as a messenger for mentor and infamous mobster Frank Costello. “I was fifteen on the street doing errands for Costello, basically carrying money back and forth.” He lived in Little Italy when it used to be Italian. On any given day, he could be found carrying several thousands of dollars cash in his pocket.
The Italian Mafia respected Russo, but he did not grow up to be one of them. There were subtle differences, like the mafia carelessly murdered people. Russo did not – not without good reason.
What would be a climax in most fictional novels is merely the introduction to his acclaimed memoir.
It leads with him at an already established and successful point in his life, almost a decade after having starred as his most famous role to date as Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather.
At a club owned by the actor in Las Vegas, Russo is intervening between a woman and a gangster from the Medellin Cartel – a fact unbeknownst to him – resulting in the gangster smashing a bottle of Cristal in his face. Legally carrying, Russo shoots him twice in the head.
The second chapter travels farther back to a seven-year-old Russo, newly diagnosed with Polio, and quarantined to a ward for five years. While committed, one of the male workers tried to molest him in the bathroom – a pedophile Russo had been warned to avoid – so he stabbed him with an impromptu weapon.
Understandably, these were two pivotal moments in the actor’s life, but they are only a chunk of his story. The mafia is only a chunk of his story. The Godfather is only a (meaty) chunk of his story.
Russo did not arrive to his well-known role of Carlo Rizzi traditionally.
“You know, I didn’t need the money, but I wanted the opportunity. At 25-years-old, who doesn’t want to become a movie actor? So when the book came out called The Godfather, I pursued it only to realize that they were only interested in using real actors for the movie.
But then, Joe Colombo, who was running the anti-defamation, protested the way they were portraying Italian Americans. So I took it as my opportunity, and knowing the mob as well as I do, I knew it always comes down to money.”
Paramount had been ready to pull the plug on the picture but Russo successfully intermediated a deal to please both parties. Colombo agreed to the movie in exchange for rights to a gala at the premiere in every city. A deal that never came to be, because Colombo was shot and killed in the second rally of Columbus Circle.
“At least I got the park,” Russo says. “We were well into the film by then, and they weren’t going to recast me. And that’s how I got in the film business.”
He chuckles. “Nothing I do is conventional.”
From just a thirty minute phone conversation, Russo was able to tell juicier insider stories and drop more names than you could ever hope to find on Page Six. The magic in his tales are the iconic elbows he rubbed against, mostly now dead. From having a hit put on his life by Pablo Escobar, taking singing lessons from Frank Sinatra and having an affair with Marilyn Monroe (some elbows rubbed more literally), Russo lived and continues to live an incredible life.
“I was writing the book along my travels. I was always keeping diaries. I have eleven children and nine grandsons, and they always want me to sit back and ask me to share stories. ‘Papi tell me that story, and tell me this story,’ so my life has always been like a story.”
A story that now has the world sitting on his lap begging for another one, though some are better not told before bed time.
Russo has faced very real obstacles and dangers in his life, yet he never let it stop him.
“I wanted to encourage people – like myself, low middle class people of New York – I wanted to inspire young people. No matter what the color of your skin or background, if you have a dream just do it. If I can do it, anybody can.”
When asked about how he dealt with such risks, he laughs.
“You’re talking to a guy who has been shot three times, stabbed, thrown out a window… So I know about risk. All you can do is work hard and be a good person.”
And who is a good person to someone who has often been at the center of a morally ambiguous crowd of mafia members, celebrities and politicians?
“A good person is someone who gives you their word and means it. And respect is a big thing in my life. Everyone’s trying to outsmart the next guy with smart attorneys and documents. I was taught that you look a guy in the eye, you shake his hand, and your word is your bond. That’s what you live on.
Even in the new mob, they don’t have respect anymore. It’s ridiculous, because of greed and the amount of money that is being made on drugs. It’s ironic because that is one of the things Mario Puzo pointed out in his book: Don’t get into drugs.”
Ultimately, Russo’s story is one of empowerment and creating your own path. This is a man who could have had his future decided for him but chose to do something greater. The memoir finishes with one sentence: Yes you can. A sentiment Russo wants every reader to believe.
And as far as a possible movie goes, he’s less than coy. “I’ve made 46 movies throughout my life; why not make the 47th one about me?”