You don't have to be Italian to appreciate Tom Santopietro's "The Godfather Effect," but it sure doesn't hurt.
Especially since Santopietro's hybrid of memoir and Hollywood history is all about la famiglia -- both the real-life Italian clan he grew up with in his hometown of Waterbury, Conn., and the Corleones, novelist Mario Puzo's fictional mob family that loved one another to death in "The Godfather." Santopietro, whose previous works include "Considering Doris Day" and "Sinatra in Hollywood," here explores how the Oscar-winning film "The Godfather," which turns 40 this year, revolutionized the Hollywood portrayal of Italians and also helped him understand and gain an appreciation of his own Italian heritage.
Not that Santopietro was raised in an atmosphere even remotely close to that of Michael Corleone. Santopietro's mother, Nancy Edge Parker, who was of English descent, and his physician father, Olindo Oreste Santopietro, were among the Waterbury country club set. Santopietro was educated in private schools. At home, he learned little about his Italian heritage, despite having grandparents who came to America from Southern Italy. It wasn't until seeing the first 10 minutes of "The Godfather Part II" (1974), Santopietro writes, and seeing young Vito Corleone arriving at Ellis Island, that he finally made a connection to the similar journey his grandparents made roughly 70 years earlier.
Unlike previous Hollywood incarnations of Italian mobsters -- such as 1932's "Scarface" starring Jewish actor Paul Muni -- "The Godfather," Santopietro explains, struck a chord because it was the first film about Italian mobsters made by Italians. Amid the violence, Sicilian culture also takes center stage, from the lavish wedding that opens "The Godfather" to the scene where Clemenza teaches Michael how to make sauce. Even signature phrases ("I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse"; "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli") have become part of American vernacular.
Santopietro also unreels the behind-the-scenes drama on the "Godfather" films, starting with the rift between director Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount execs over casting Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone (the studio insisted on a screen test). Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn, even Danny Thomas sought the role, but Brando got it, helped in no small part by stuffing tissues into his mouth to nail Corleone's speech pattern.
Frank Sinatra also makes an appearance in the book. He was not enamored of Johnny Fontane, the thinly disguised version of the singer that appears in Puzo's book and in the film. When Sinatra met the author, he threatened to tear his head off. While such anecdotes are slickly told, it's too bad Santopietro didn't add fresh insights from Coppola or others who worked on "The Godfather" or its two sequels rather than relying on previously published material.
In the end, it's the personal moments, such as Santopietro taking his aging dad to revisit the field where he played baseball as a child, that are most rewarding. The films make up the shell of "The Godfather Effect," but it's the connections with family that give it a center as sweet as cannoli cream.