Gianni Russo Was A Real-Life Italian Gangster, And He Played Carlo In 1972’s The Godfather

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It’s Carlo Rizzi’s most wretched moment. Mobster Michael Corleone has arrived at his home, determined to find out who killed his brother Sonny. “Don’t be afraid,” says Corleone. “Come on, do you think I’d make my sister a widow? I’m Godfather to your son, Carl.” Believing he’s safe, Rizzi relents. He admits it. He had Sonny killed. “Good, good,” says Corleone. “Leave now; there’s a car waiting to take you to the airport.”

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The Godfather is celebrated by many as the most perfect gangster movie of all time. And the climactic confrontation between Rizzi and Corleone is one of its most memorable and terrifying scenes. Pacino’s performance is stellar. As is that of Gianni Russo, who plays the sniveling Rizzi. But unlike Pacino, Russo was not then a professional actor. On the contrary, he was a bona fide Italian-American mobster.

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Apparently, Russo had spent much of his early life hanging out with wise guys. Indeed, he had supposedly been immersed in the horrendously violent New York crime scene, which has been controlled by the so-called “Five Families” of the Italian-American Mafia since 1931. His experiences, it would seem, were ideal preparation for his eventual role in The Godfather.

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In the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo upon which the movie is based, the character of Rizzi is a small-time criminal from Nevada who aspires to join the New York mafia. He is, in the words of Puzo, a “punk, sore at the world.” In fact, Rizzi’s character arc is one of the most important subplots of the whole saga. Indeed, the film opens with his wedding.

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The wedding takes place in the summer of 1945. Some 500 guests assemble in the gardens of the Corleone mall. The spread includes copious amounts of wine and fine Italian food. Rizzi is marrying Connie Corleone, the daughter of Don Vito, the Corleone patriarch. Her brothers are Michael and Sonny. But the wedding is not without controversy, as Don Vito does not entirely approve of Rizzi.

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Nonetheless, after becoming Corleone’s son-in-law, Rizzi thinks he will be able to fulfill his ambitions and rise through the ranks of the mob. However, his dream is not to be. Corleone permits him to run a closely supervised sports book, but nothing more. In fact, he orders his consigliere to keep Rizzi out of his inner circle.

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Denied his shot at the big time, Rizzi grows resentful towards the Corleones and starts acting out. He cheats on Connie, and he also hits her. Italian honor codes prevent Corleone from intervening. But when Sonny sees his sister sporting a black eye, he accosts Rizzi in the street, losing control and brutally beating him up.

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With his pride wounded, Rizzi plots revenge. He decides to murder Sonny. To make it happen, he strikes a deal with Emilio Barzini, the Corleone family’s principal enemy. Barzini’s thugs then ambush Sonny while he is driving on a causeway. As Sonny pauses at a toll booth, they pull up next to him, draw their guns and open fire, killing him.

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Vito and Michael quickly realize that Rizzi is responsible. But again, for reasons of honor, Vito cannot kill him. Instead, they decide to play the long game. Vito promotes Rizzi and allows him to operate a labor union. Michael pretends to make him his de facto lieutenant. But by luring Rizzi ever deeper into the family business, Vito and Michael actually extend their control over him.

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Michael eventually inherits the entire Corleone empire and stamps his authority on his enemies. He gets Rizzi to confess to Sonny’s murder, promising him exile instead of execution. Believing he is about to be driven to the airport, Rizzi gets into a car waiting outside his house. He is then garroted to death by Sonny’s godchild.

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Speaking to Vice in 2019, Russo said that his final scene with Al Pacino – who played Michael Corleone – was his “only great scene” in the whole film. Moreover, he credits his performance to the tutelage of Marlon Brando. “Marlon took a liking to me early on for the strangest reasons,” he said. “Brando showed me the mechanics… [He told me] you’re going to be projected on this major screen… people are going to know if you’re believable or not. You have to show fear.”

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Of course, Russo still had something that Brando didn’t – namely a lifelong association with the mafia. In his 2019 book Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob, he describes how he became embroiled with wise guys from a young age. In fact, Russo’s whole life story seems to have followed a “rags-to-riches” arc that fans of the gangster genre will find familiar.

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Arriving in the world in 1943, Russo was raised in the poor neighborhoods of Little Italy in Manhattan and Rosebank on Staten Island. At the age of 7 he was infected with polio, which forced him to spend five whole years at Bellevue Hospital. It was there, according to claims in his book, that he committed his first murder. The victim, asserts Russo, was a pedophile called Harold. He apparently knifed him to death in a bathroom.

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After beating polio, Russo left the hospital and entered into the world of commerce by trading pens on the street. He was just 12 years old. One of his patches was the sidewalk outside the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where mafia boss Frank Costello had a penthouse. Costello would sometimes pass Russo in the street and touch his shoulder for good fortune – that is, until Russo told him not to. That gesture of defiance apparently impressed Costello.

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Indeed, it took some guts to tell Costello what to do. Known as “the Prime Minister of the Underworld,” Costello had clawed his way to the top of the Luciano crime family – one of the Five Families of the New York mafia – and helped to establish a vast and influential crime network called the Syndicate. His rackets reportedly included bootlegging and gambling.

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“Early on in my life, fortunately, [Costello] took me under his wing and mentored me in a way that no one could do,” Russo told Vice in 2019. “He gave me experiences and opportunities that I could’ve never had just being an Italian immigrant from Mulberry Street. My family was less than middle class. And here I am today.”

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In fact, Costello employed Russo as a messenger – a role which soon expanded into global money laundering. His errands supposedly took him all over the world. Speaking to news website NorthJersey.com in 2019, Russo recalled those early days. “They all knew me as The Kid,” he said. “I was allowed everywhere.”

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Then, at the age of 18, Russo visited Miami for the first time. And it was there, working the local nightspots, that he got a taste for showbiz. This would prove to be a lifelong passion. Indeed, according to his memoir, he soon became acquainted with high-fliers like Liza Minelli, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

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According to Russo, Monroe had a relationship with him for four years, despite being twice his age. “You had to meet Marilyn to know her,” he said to NorthJersey.com. “She believed in everybody, and wanted to give everybody a hug – and anything else they wanted.” Furthermore, according to Russo, Monroe did not kill herself – contrary to the conclusions of a Los Angeles County coroner.

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The mob, Russo has claimed, had wanted to blackmail the Kennedy brothers into curbing their anticrime initiatives. As such, they attempted to acquire compromising photos of the brothers’ separate romantic dallies with Monroe. However, Monroe refused to help the mob. Instead, she apparently planned to go to the media. And that, says Russo, is what got her killed.

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“[The Kennedys] felt that if she did go [to the press], it’s gonna get a lot of negative publicity,” Russo told NorthJersey.com. “These are two Catholic boys who are married. They’d lose the Bible belt. He was the first Catholic president, and he won by a very small margin. All they needed was this thing going on.”

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Russo claims to have been on personal terms with John F. Kennedy, too, back when he was a senator. And according to Russo himself, he partied with the future president at the Sands Hotel. Furthermore, he says he watched him toot lines of cocaine from the belly of Hollywood sex symbol Juliet Prowse. “I was surprised,” he told NorthJersey.com. “I’d never taken a drug in my life.”

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But Russo’s brush with the Kennedys supposedly didn’t end there. In November 1963 Costello dispatched him to a certain Creole restaurant in New Orleans. His mission was to deliver an envelop to Carlos Marcello, a mafia don known as “Little Man”. After delivering the message, he visited the bathroom and almost knocked into a passerby. When he returned, he received Little Man’s response: “Tell Frank it’s on.”

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A few days later, Kennedy was assassinated. And when Russo subsequently saw a photo of Lee Harvey Oswald, it all became clear. According to Russo, Oswald was the very same man he had passed on his way to the bathroom in New Orleans. “They convinced [Oswald] if he shot the president he would go to Cuba,” he told Fox Business News in 2019. “This guy was a communist already.”

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According to Russo, the mob had killed Kennedy for revenge. Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy, had struck a deal with Frank Costello, claims Russo, supposedly asking him to rein in his union bosses. In return, the president would invade Cuba, where the mob had lost substantial business interests during the Communist revolution. Costello kept his end of the bargain, but the invasion never happened. Instead, Bobby Kennedy decided to go after the mob.

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Russo clearly loves a good yarn, but he has also downplayed his involvement with the mafia. Instead, he has asserted that he merely enjoyed the friendship and protection of heavyweights such as Costello. “I was always on the periphery,” he told Fox Business News in 2019. “I never wanted to join that club.”

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In fact, it was acting and not crime that proved to be his life calling. Russo got into the game after reading a Los Angeles Times article that suggested Paramount wanted to cast unknowns in their upcoming crime epic The Godfather. “Sicilians would be Sicilians, Jewish doctors would be Jewish doctors,” Russo said to Vice. So Russo filmed his own screen test for the parts of Carlo, Sonny and Michael – but was promptly rejected.

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It might have ended there, but as fate would have it, the mafia were seemingly furious about Paramount’s plans. The Anti-Defamation League – an Italian-American advocacy organization – started lobbying against the studio for their “negative” depictions of Italian-Americans. Ironically, the head of the Anti-Defamation League was none other than Joe Colombo, a well-known gangster.

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Seeing an opportunity, Russo supposedly acted as a mediator between Paramount and the gangs. He helped them to strike a deal. And, in the process, he secured himself a plum role in the movie. “I negotiated a deal where they would let the movie be shot in New York [and] I would play Michael, Sonny or Carlo,” he told Vice.

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Meanwhile, in exchange for their cooperation, the gangs supposedly received their cut of the proceeds. “Money talks,” Russo told NorthJersey.com. “I said [to Colombo], ‘What you’re gonna ask for, if you sanction the movie, you want the world premiere in every major city. The night before or the night of, you’re gonna do the big gala. You get $100 a ticket.’” He claims that the mob accepted these terms.

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The Godfather proved to be one of the most successful movies of its time, but according to Russo, it nearly wasn’t completed. “None of us knew if the movie was going to be released,” he told Vice. “[Paramount] were even threatening Francis Ford Coppola. They didn’t like his direction… they were going to bring somebody else in.”

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Fortunately, Paramount seemingly came to trust Coppola. And for Russo, playing Carlo Rizzi proved to be a transformative experience. “The Godfather changed my life,” he told Vice. “It opened doors for me in so many ways – socially, and in every other way.” Indeed, Russo went on to act in a slew of smashes including The Freshman, Sea Biscuit, Rush Hour and others.

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Russo, too, has made a name as a singer, having learned from Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. “I was with him at Caesar’s Palace [when his mother died],” he told Vice. “He went backstage [and] they told him his mother’s plane hit a mountain and she passed on. That night on stage was the second time I saw the humanity come out of this man. He teared up and cried.”

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Russo’s career in show business didn’t spell the end of his edgy adventures with international high-fliers, though. For one thing, he claims to have aided the Shah of Iran with his finances in the run-up to the 1979 revolution. For another, he says he set Marlon Brando up with a legal counsellor after his son was charged with murder. And most disturbingly, he alleges that he barely escaped being murdered by Colombian cocaine baron Pablo Escobar.

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The story begins in 1988, when Russo was managing a nightclub in Vegas. One night, a customer of the establishment started getting abusive – so Russo intervened. This person attacked Russo with a broken bottle, so Russo pulled his gun. He fired, killing the man. Later, the shooting was determined to be a justifiable homicide, thereby ensuring that Russo served no time. But the man he had killed happened to work for Escobar.

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“I had taken out this very powerful guy, this guy who was supposed to be setting up Vegas for [Escobar],” said Russo to NorthJersey.com. “They had been working on that for a year. I didn’t know that.” Realizing that Escobar would probably have him killed, he travelled to Colombia and presented himself to the drug lord. “He was the most scary guy I ever met in my life,” he said.

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Escobar supposedly had Russo tortured. But he then found out that Russo had played Rizzi in The Godfather, one of his favorite movies. He demanded that Russo act out his final scene from the film. Russo was to play Rizzi. Escobar was to play Corleone. They even had a car waiting to take him to the “airport.”

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“When they said they wanted to do that scene, and then they took me down to the car, I said, oh… I’m dead. They’re gonna take me to the jungle and I’m done,” Russo recalled to NorthJersey.com. But of course, Russo had no choice but to play along.

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Escobar’s people ushered Russo into the waiting vehicle. But instead of garroting him, they really did drive him to the airport. Then, they broke into laughter and let him go. “When I got to the airport, I was so relieved I couldn’t believe it,” he said to NorthJersey.com. “I just wanted to get out of there.”

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So Russo’s role in The Godfather not only brought him fame, but it supposedly saved his life too. But it’s doubtful he would have anything to do with the mob of today. “The respect has gone out the window,” he told Vice. “There’s very few men of respect today. It’s all about money, greed.” Indeed, like Don Vito in The Godfather, Russo represents the last of an older, more respectful generation. Alla vostra salute! Or in other words, cheers

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