“The Godfather” holds a revered position in film history with the Corleone crime family saga – starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan – perched at No. 2 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.
However, the 50th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 mob masterpiece has resurrected the negative opinion of one critic critic: Frank Sinatra.
The Chairman of the Board was not a fan of “The Godfather,” an opinion Sinatra made abundantly clear as Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel was being adapted for film. In a legendary blowup at Hollywood eatery Chasen’s, Sinatra snarled, “Choke. Go ahead and choke” at Puzo, who was taking a meal break from writing the film’s screenplay.
The infamous confrontation sparked the imagination of Michael Tolkin, creator of “The Offer,” a new Paramount+ series (premiering April 28) about the making of “The Godfather,” which features a re-creation of the fracas.
“The only story I knew about making ‘The Godfather’ was that Mario Puzo got into a fight with Frank Sinatra at Chasen’s,” Tolkin said last month about the 10-part series. “So I had five minutes in the show written, and I just needed nine hours and 55 minutes more to fill it in.”
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Sinatra’s vocal rebuke simmered for years.
“In many ways, Sinatra loomed over the ‘The Godfather’ production from afar,” says Mark Seal, author of “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather.” Sinatra partly owned the Las Vegas Sands hotel, where Puzo researched his novel on the mob.
Even before the book came out, Puzo’s publisher received a letter “from Sinatra’s lawyers demanding to see the manuscript,” Puzo wrote in his 1972 essay, “The Making of the Godfather.”
The publishers politely refused the request. When “The Godfather” was published, many assumed the novel’s central Johnny Fontaine character – a hard-drinking, womanizing, past-his-prime crooner who turns to the godfather to revive his career with a movie role – was modeled after Sinatra.
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When making the movie, the Paramount legal team “showed concern” about the possibility of being sued by Sinatra. “I reassured them the part was very minor in the film. Which it turned out to be,” Puzo wrote.
The simmer boiled over at Chasen’s when Puzo ran into Sinatra, an entertainer he referred to as an “idol from afar.” Puzo was dining with “Godfather” producer Al Ruddy as Sinatra greeted John Wayne in the room. “They both looked absolutely great, better than on the screen, 20 years younger,” Puzo wrote.
Another well-connected diner insisted on introducing Puzo to Sinatra. It went south quickly, with Sinatra saying, “I don’t want to meet him,” after the two approached his table. Puzo apologized by saying, “Listen, it wasn’t my idea,” which Sinatra assumed was a reference to the Fontaine character.
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“Sinatra started to shout abuse” and threatened to beat him, the author recalled.
“What hurt was, here he was, a Northern Italian, threatening me, a Southern Italian, with physical violence,” Puzo wrote, calling it “roughly equivalent to Einstein pulling a knife on Al Capone.”
Puzo, who died in 1999, left without incident. But Ruddy, whose recollections form the basis of “The Offer,” gives a more vivid account in the book “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli.”
“There are two waiters holding Mario back. They dragged Puzo out, put him in my car,” Ruddy told author Seal, noting that Puzo was upset afterward, lamenting, “In the house where I grew up, my mother had two pictures in the kitchen: one of the pope and one of Sinatra. And the fact that Frank Sinatra doesn’t like me, or would think I would do anything to hurt him, breaks my heart.”
Sinatra used his influence to meddle with the film’s casting. Singer Al Martino, who played Fontaine in “The Godfather,” told Seal he was warned off playing the part. “If you take the role, Sinatra will bar you from Las Vegas,” Martino recalled being told, adding that he continued to play Vegas. “I’m the last guy you could threaten. I got hard-nosed about it. I took the bull by the horns!”
At the 50th anniversary celebration of “The Godfather,” where a fully restored version of the film was unveiled (out Tuesday on ultra HD Blu-ray), Coppola told USA TODAY about his own chance encounter with Sinatra, who died in 1998, before filming. This run-in was far more lighthearted, with Sinatra even quipping about taking on the Brando role as head of the crime family.
“He sort of jokingly said, ‘Why don’t we buy this (movie) from Paramount and I’ll play the godfather,'” Coppola says. “That’s what I recall.”