'The Godfather,' 50 years later: A deep dive into LIers Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo's iconic film
Fifty years ago, the brick Tudor-style house across the street from Caryl O’Reilly was the scene of murder plots, strangulation, family vengeance and a loud backyard wedding hosted by a Long Island mob boss.
O’Reilly says she enjoyed every minute of it — just like millions of others around the world.
"The Godfather," the iconic 1972 Academy Award-winning movie, was filmed in her secluded Staten Island neighborhood at a house meant to be the fictional Long Beach mansion of Mafia don Vito Corleone.
"We absolutely loved it, even though it’s bloody and gory," recalled O’Reilly, vividly describing all the actors, scenery and vans full of equipment parked on her street for two months long ago. "You had to be very quiet. The people on the block loved it."
Virtually everyone who has watched "The Godfather" still seems to recall a memorable scene or a favorite line of dialogue from this story that has become part of New York lore. But few know the genesis of this classic film.
When "The Godfather" first appeared, novelist Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola (who co-authored the screenplay) were two ambitious men with deep ties to Long Island, determined to transform a Hollywood gangster movie about New York wiseguys into an epic tale of capitalism, corruption and the Italian American immigrant experience.
It was anything but easy.
Before selling the movie rights to his 1969 novel, Puzo had been a down-on-his-luck writer with a wife and five kids who toiled in his Long Island home — first in Merrick and later in Bay Shore — hoping for a bestselling book that would get his family out of debt.
Coppola, a 32-year-old movie director who graduated from Great Neck High School and got his theatrical start directing plays at Hofstra University in Hempstead, worried he might be fired at any moment because of his creative demands in making the film.
Somehow, often through the sheer force of their combined personalities, they put together what many consider one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever. Opening on March 15, 1972 in Manhattan and nine days later on Long Island, the film became a runaway hit, winning three Academy Awards — including Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and an Oscar shared between Puzo and Coppola for their screenplay. Over time, "The Godfather" saga spawned two other sequels, including 1974’s "The Godfather: Part II" which won 11 Oscars, and a third part in 1990.
It’s obviously a film filled with ear worms that have lodged themselves into people’s brains and will never disappear.”Dylan Skolnick, co-director of Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre
"The Godfather" films influenced generations of moviegoers with memorable scenes and phrases — ("I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" and countless others) — that became embedded in the American lexicon. A half-century later, the achievement of its creators is still deeply admired by film lovers.
"It’s a tribute to Coppola and Puzo’s writing, just an incredible script filled with rich, powerful, funny, and thoughtful dialogue," said Dylan Skolnick, co-director of Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre. "Lines like, ‘Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer’[which was actually said in 'The Godfather:Part II'], or vaguely silly ones like ‘Leave the gun. Take the cannoli’. It’s obviously a film filled with earworms that have lodged themselves into people’s brains and will never disappear, it seems."
The raw honesty of the characters — despite its post-World War II language tinged with racism and misogyny that might shock or offend modern viewers — seems part of its lasting appeal, said Skolnick.
"The attitudes in the film seem extraordinarily accurate about how those actual individuals at that time would have talked — those would have been the attitudes toward women, African Americans," he explained. "Anything else would have come across as fake."
"The Godfather" is still hailed as a masterpiece, which turned the gritty streets of New York into a stage for violent drama in the way the Old West once provided for movie cowboys or the Globe Theatre for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The passage of time also reveals more insights about this American classic. Interviews, past and present, and a review of documents surrounding the making of "The Godfather" — both the novel and the original 1972 film — show how much significance Long Island played in the storytelling and in the backgrounds of its creators.
AT HOME ON LONG ISLAND
From beginning to end, much of "The Godfather’s" drama takes place at the Corleones' Long Beach home — a gated suburban sanctuary with a big leafy backyard. It’s in sharp contrast to the big-city streets where the Don’s other Mafia "family" associates made their living with organized crime activities, including shootouts and violent extortion based on offers that can’t be refused.
The film starts with a big joyous family wedding and ends with a climactic baptism scene, both taking place on Long Island, along with many other important scenes based here. Even the film’s infamous "horse head" scene in Hollywood — the decapitation killing of a prized thoroughbred owned by a famous producer who refused The Godfather’s wishes — was actually shot at the former home of Newsday founders Harry Guggenheim and Alicia Patterson in Sands Point.
Long Island looms throughout the story, as much as any scene in adjacent New York City.
"Long Island is sort of a separate place, very accessible to the city, but a very different character, very suburban in some ways," said Rodney F. Hill, a Hofstra University associate professor who has taught film studies classes about Coppola’s work and interviewed the director. "‘The Godfather’ definitely portrays this quality of Long Island. Coppola had a very strong sense of Long Island as a place."
Puzo’s novel, set in postwar New York, is full of local references. "Long Beach," home of the Corleone family, is mentioned 30 times, and "Long Island" another eight times. "Jones Beach" comes up four times, along with fleeting references to Merrick, Westbury, the Wantagh Long Island Rail Road station, Sunrise Highway, Meadowbrook Parkway, Northern State Parkway and the Long Island Expressway.
Several scenes take place in cars, the quintessential Long Island experience. This includes the scene where The Godfather’s oldest son Sonny (James Caan) gets murdered at the Jones Beach causeway tollbooth (actually filmed at Mitchel Field), and along the swampy roadside on the way to Long Beach where the traitorous Paulie Gatto is left for dead. ("Leave the gun. Take the cannoli!", instructs Peter Clemenza, a hit man who is also a family man from a residential neighborhood, in a memorable improvised line by actor Richard Castellano).
Puzo biographer M.J. Moore said the Corleones’ Long Island mansion evoked the real-life Cape Cod compound of the Kennedys, prominent in the 1960s when Puzo imagined his novel. "The idea was just so comforting in a way," Moore said. "Create a fortress where the family can be always set apart from the chaos, the mayhem and the unpredictableness of the outer world."
Along with the novel’s familiar Long Island settings, the film gained even more authenticity by featuring many native New Yorkers in its cast and crew. Al Pacino, who played youngest son Michael Corleone, was born in East Harlem. James Caan, who played Sonny, grew up in Queens and attended Hofstra. Actress Talia Shire, the sister of Coppola who played Connie Corleone in all three films, was born in Lake Success. Robert DeNiro, who starred as young Vito Corleone in Part II, grew up in Manhattan. And Lenny Montana, who played Corleone hit man Luca Brasi, was born in Brooklyn and buried in Farmingdale.
Puzo died at his Bay Shore home in 1999 at age 78. Coppola, now 82, declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a 2016 essay about the film, Coppola emphasized why he wanted a real-life New York sensibility for "The Godfather," and not for it to look like just another gangster flick filmed on a Hollywood back lot.
"I was convinced that New York was a real character in the story and that the film had to be shot in New York City," Coppola said, even if it was more expensive to produce. "This was not a popular idea."
Remarkably, Coppola and Puzo prevailed in putting together "The Godfather." Their shared vision begins, at least in part, with understanding their experiences on Long Island.
CREATORS' LONG ISLAND ROOTS
In Puzo’s fiction, Long Island was portrayed as a promised land, the place where Italian immigrant families like his own could find their piece of the American dream.
In his 1965 novel, "The Fortunate Pilgrim" (Atheneum), the main character is a widow based largely on his real-life immigrant mother, Maria, and her children living in Manhattan’s Hell's Kitchen and yearning for a suburban home. "Like conspirators, they would make plans for the family’s fortune — a house on Long Island, college for the brightest child," he described.
Puzo’s own father was institutionalized for mental illness, leaving his mother to struggle out of poverty. His mother’s strong will embodied the main character of his next novel.
''Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother,'' Puzo explained in 1997. ''My mother was a wonderful, handsome woman, but a fairly ruthless person.''
After serving in World War II, Puzo managed to buy a house on Long Island, where he lived with his wife and five children. Puzo earned his living churning out true adventure stories for a men’s magazine firm, and as a freelance writer.
Overweight and diabetic, Puzo loved cigars and gambling. He had trouble paying his bills. His first two novels didn’t earn much. "At that time, Mario’s life was a pressure cooker," said Moore. "A lot of hectic, chaotic, overlapping priorities."
Puzo's third novel, originally called "Mafia," gained the backing of a big-time publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and eventually Paramount Pictures for a Hollywood gangster film. But he was no organized crime expert.
''I'm ashamed to admit that I wrote 'The Godfather' entirely from research," Puzo said the year the film debuted. "I never met a real honest-to-God gangster. I knew the gambling world pretty good, but that's all.''
To Puzo's delight, "The Godfather" became a bestselling novel. The Puzos moved from their Nassau County tract home to a more spacious house in Bay Shore. "The great thing about money is that it takes a lot of worries off your mind," Puzo later said. "If your tire gets busted, before I wrote 'The Godfather,' that was a tremendous calamity — the cost of a tire was something [where] you’d have to lay awake at night wondering, ‘How am I going to pay for these tires?’"
Over the next several months, Puzo traveled to Hollywood and wrote a first draft of a screenplay based on his novel, while Paramount searched for a director — preferably, they said, with an Italian-American background. Ultimately, they decided on Coppola, then best known for sharing an Oscar for screenwriting the 1970 film, "Patton." Although the studio wanted cheaper facilities in St. Louis, Coppola insisted the movie should be filmed in New York City and Long Island, where Puzo’s novel actually takes place and with which Coppola was most familiar.
"Coppola really didn’t like the novel when he first read through it and didn’t want to make the film," recalled Hofstra's Hill. "But when he decided he really should take the offer from Paramount and make the film, he reread the novel and found ‘Oh this is really a story about family’ and that’s the angle that he could draw upon to make it really special."
Unlike the Puzo family’s humble immigrant origins, Coppola came from a distinguished artistic clan, already solidly middle class. His father, Carmine, was a composer who had performed with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, and contributed his own music to his son’s films, eventually sharing an Oscar with Nino Rota for "The Godfather: Part II."
Hill said Francis Ford Coppola’s ability to overcome many obstacles in making "The Godfather" is traceable to the lessons he learned at Hofstra as a student on a play-writing scholarship in the late 1950s. At that time, all student plays were directed by the faculty. Sagely, young Coppola founded a combined drama and musical club (called the Spectrum Players, still in existence) which allowed him to become the first student director inside the campus’ big new Playhouse in 1959.
"If I ever had a school and a moment in the sun, it was at Hofstra," Coppola said years later. "That was where I first had any sense of self-esteem or that I could do anything or that I had some gift that could be shared with others. Until then, I was just a low-achieving kid who had flunked algebra."
Through his theatrical productions at Hofstra, Coppola learned the value of preparation, both in rehearsing with actors and also with putting together a "prompt book," where each scene was carefully thought out with his own notes. A decade later, Coppola used this same approach with the notebook he prepared for "The Godfather," in which he melded Puzo’s novel and initial script into a final version that became a film classic.
"When I was a theater arts student in college, one of the many things I learned (among lighting, sewing, rope knot tying, animal glue cooking, and cable coiling) was how to make a ‘prompt book’," Coppola later wrote. "This was very much the way I configured 'The Godfather' notebook."
But Coppola always gave credit to Puzo for his original story idea and made sure his name appeared prominently on the big screen.
Today, scholars like Hill and Moore say this remarkable collaboration between the two is visible throughout the 1972 film, especially in key scenes filmed on Long Island and in New York City. Like another successful entertainment phenomena from a slightly later era, Moore said, "those two [Puzo and Coppola] were as complementary to each other as [John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney."
THE LONG BEACH WEDDING
Like Coppola’s film, the first chapter of Puzo’s novel begins by introducing Vito Corleone on the day of his daughter’s wedding, held outside on the lush grounds of his Long Beach home — a far distance in status and mobility from the Hell’s Kitchen ghetto where he began.
In Puzo’s description, the august crime boss — called "The Don" or, more reverentially, as "Godfather" by his guests — "never forgot his old friends and neighbors though he himself now lived in a huge house on Long Island." Next to that line, Coppola’s scribbling in his notebook was even more specific: "Long Beach."
Unfortunately, "The Godfather" couldn’t find a suitable home anywhere on Long Island so they filmed the Corleone home scene at the Tudor-style residence on Longfellow Avenue on Staten Island. The home’s original owners are now long gone, said neighbor Caryl O’Reilly, but not the memories.
Some of the neighbors played extras in the wedding scene, O’Reilly said, and they all had to wear security badges to get into their tightly guarded street during the filming. The exteriors of the Corleone home were shot on Staten Island, including the outdoor wedding.
Coppola deliberately contrasted the dark criminality of Vito Corleone’s business world with the sunny wedding scene. "It’s very family oriented on one side of the coin, but the other side of the coin is where he [The Godfather] goes back into the house and they are all kissing his ring," said O’Reilly. "To me, that was as much telling the setting of what this was going to be than the wedding. That was very powerful."
Hofstra’s Hill agrees. "It’s such a jubilant joyful occasion. Everybody's having a great time, the large extended family and all their friends gathered to celebrate this great event," said Hill. "You have the two worlds created there in the opening of the film, The shadowy crime family world, and the bright, family-oriented part of everyday life where he is the father of the bride."
Both Puzo and Coppola were aware of how much this wedding scene — which takes place in August 1945 as World War II was ending and a victorious America rejoiced at the zenith of its power — contrasted so much with their own contentious Vietnam War era when both the novel and film were put together. As Moore explained: "1945 seems like a golden age long lost because by 1969, remember how deep we were into the Vietnam quagmire and the horrendous racial tensions in America."
By today’s standards, "The Godfather" film’s depictions of women and people of color appear terribly dated and even overtly offensive, Moore said. But the wedding scene accurately reflects some views at that time in an idealized way.
"For the women and the children — and for the men who needed respite from that violent world outside of the Long Island compound — you had this marvelous, almost alternative reality," Moore said of the wedding within the gated community with high stone walls. "They reflect the American society of the years and the decades that the narrative itself is evoking. The women are definitely background figures most of the time."
O’Reilly remembers how producers transformed their modest neighborhood into a huge guarded fortress, using large hard plastic sheets that looked like granite stones to build up the Hollywood facade of the tall walls around the Corleone mansion. The real walls on the property were half that size. Inside her garage today, O’Reilly keeps as a memento one of the plastic sheets discarded when filming was done.
Along with the wedding scene, O’Reilly watched another scene filmed outside her door. It’s the scene where son-in-law Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo) is taken from the family house into an awaiting car and then strangled for his betrayal, with Carlo’s feet kicking out the front windshield as the vehicle leaves through the gate.
All day, the cameras kept rolling, filming different angles of Carlo’s demise. "They probably did it about 20 times, and wanted to get it perfect," O’Reilly recalled with a devilish smile. "You know, you have to die perfectly. It has to be just right. It took a long time."
THE HORSE HEAD AT SANDS POINT
Coppola paid special attention to the so-called "horse head" scene in his prompt book that broke down Puzo's novel into scenes. The biggest potential "pitfall," Coppola wrote to himself, was "that it is not horrifying enough. If the audience does not jump out of their seat on this one, you have failed."
This sequence in Puzo’s novel involved a visit by lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to a Hollywood producer, Jack Woltz (John Marley), who refused to cast Vito Corleone’s "godson," singer Johnny Fontane (played by real-life singer Al Martino and reminiscent of Frank Sinatra) in an upcoming movie. Following the refusal, Wolz woke up in bed with the severed head of his prized thoroughbred. Woltz got the message and soon Fontane got the part.
"The Godfather" fans are still enthralled by the horse’s head scene, filmed at Falaise, the historic mansion run by Nassau County, adjacent to the Sands Point Preserve.
"When they [tour guides] bring them into the dining room [which had been converted into Woltz's bedroom for the film] and mention that this was used for the infamous horse head scene … you always see the gentlemen perk up and ask all sorts of questions about the movie," said site director Michael Butkewicz, laughing.
Before the filming, Falaise had been the grand home of Newsday founders Alicia Patterson and her husband Harry Guggenheim, himself the owner of thoroughbreds including Dark Star, winner of the 1953 Kentucky Derby. The crew actually filmed several scenes on the property.
There are the stables, where producer Woltz affectionately pets his beloved thoroughbred Khartoum as lawyer Hagen looks on.
"The context was that Mr. Woltz, the Hollywood producer, was showing off his prized horse to Tom Hagen — I think it was more bragging than anything else; that’s certainly the way it came across to me in the film," said Joseph Cesarelli, the Sands Point Preserve Conservancy’s project manager overseeing the stables today.
In what was once the living room of Newsday's owners, "TheGodfather" crew created an elegant dining room and filmed the scene where Woltz informed Hagen over a meal that he was refusing Don Vito’s request.
Today, Falaise has the same large fireplace, with its carved stone mantle, seen prominently in "The Godfather" along with other original furnishings used in that scene.
But the highlight was the conversion of Falaise’s real dining room into the fictional bedroom of producer Woltz. The film crew carefully removed its contents and installed a king-size bed with an elaborate headboard.
Shockingly, "The Godfather" crew used a real horse’s head, taken from a dead horse imported from a meat factory, for the bedroom scene. "Mr. Coppola didn’t like the prop head they came up with so they actually went to one of the slaughterhouses, found a horse similar in looks to Khartoum, and Mr. Coppola said, ‘When you slaughter that horse, I want the head’," Cesarelli said.
On screen, the image of poor Khartoum’s head was horrifying to audiences, just as Coppola planned. But for those present at Falaise, the real dead horse head, a stand-in, was even more so.
"The stench was absolutely putrid, awful and disgusting according to those involved, especially for the actor in bed with the horse's head," Moore said.
SUPERFANS DEBATE THE STEREOTYPES
Godfrey Palaia, 68, who lives in Aquebogue, has been an avid fan of "The Godfather" since he was a teenager in Brooklyn. In his Bensonhurst neighborhood, he and his youthful pals watched Coppola film a memorable scene involving Peter Clemenza pulling out of his driveway, on his way to kill another gangster who betrayed the Corleone family.
What ‘The Godfather’ did was squash a lot of those stereotypes that were established by non-Italians.Godfrey Palaia, 68, a 'Godfather' fan
"We saw the Clemenza character come out of the house several times. Someone yelled ‘Quiet on the set’," remembered Palaia. "We obeyed them and watched it happen — several times, multiple takes. By the end of the day, we felt fulfilled, that we saw something special."
A lifelong film buff, Palaia has seen many movies and still ranks "The Godfather" among the greatest. "This movie is replete with memorable and quotable lines," said Palaia, operations manager of Patchogue’s Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center.
Before "The Godfather," Palaia said Hollywood's organized crime characters usually featured non-Italian American actors and directors with seemingly no connection to the culture. He said Coppola and Puzo’s creation, with its portrayal of the Corleones as an Italian-American family and with a deep understanding of customs and rituals, was a major step forward.
"What ‘The Godfather’ did was to squash a lot of those stereotypes that were established by non-Italians filming other non-Italians in roles that they had little or no real knowledge of," Palaia said. His favorite lines from the film, he said, all have to do with the idea of family.
Yet, Palaia said he is disturbed by "several negative stereotypes and character traits" in the film, especially by today’s standards. Female characters are often portrayed as docile and subservient, and characters like Sonny Corleone as "shirtless, wife-beating non-intellectuals who are prone to hotheaded violence and to principles that are paternalistic," he said. "Some Italian Americans might seem to be OK with that, but I view it as brutal and it’s a stereotype."
Growing up in Ozone Park and Howard Beach, Queens, Jean Kruger said many of her contemporaries used memorable lines from the film as part of everyday banter. But she admits to having mixed feelings about the film’s stereotypical depictions.
"Most Italian Americans are not mob connected — they’re upstanding citizens," said Kruger, 74, of Bohemia. "I come from an Italian neighborhood. In terms of women, there are a lot of stereotypes in there. … It is a product from the time we came from, when the movie was made. But things have changed, thank God."
At the time of its 1972 debut, "The Godfather’s" controversial portrayal of Italian Americans had already caused much debate. A group called the Italian American Civil Rights League protested vehemently. The film’s producers agreed to take the word "Mafia," which appears in Puzo’s novel, out of the script.
Putting "The Godfather" in context today is still vexing. The original film’s depictions of women and racist comments about Blacks can seem shocking to modern audiences. Others described the film as a mirror of who we were then, and perhaps even now.
Both Puzo and especially Coppola presented their film as "a sociological reflection" of America at that time, without embracing or approving the characters' comments or actions, said Stanislao Pugliese, Hofstra history professor and expert on the Italian American experience. "This is the kind of racism that pervades society and not just gangster society, unfortunately."
For those born after "The Godfather" debuted, the film may be viewed fondly, almost campily, from a historical vantage. Many now repeat the film’s phrases as part of the American vernacular and celebrate the gangsters' over-the-top mannerisms with little afterthought.
"I don't find the film offensive personally," says Matthew Myers, 39, of Oakdale, whose family has Italian roots. "And even if I was more Italian, I don't think I would [object] any more. I think a lot of Italian Americans kind of glamorize that, they go along with it, for better or worse."
The legendary tale put together by Puzo and Coppola still attracts much debate and big crowds. A restored version, juiced up in 4K Ultra HD, is playing in movie theaters on Long Island and across the nation, reminiscent of its splashy debut many years ago.
After the 1972 original, the two co-creators with the Long Island background went on to produce a stellar sequel — which particularly emphasized the immigrant journey of young Vito Corleone common to early generations of Italian Americans — as well as a third "Godfather" film in 1990. Coppola later directed many other well-regarded films, such as "Apocalypse Now," and owns a winery in Northern California.
Though Puzo loved to visit Hollywood, he stayed in Bay Shore, becoming a scriptwriter as well as continuing to write novels. After all those years of trying to come up with a hit, Puzo was grateful for his success and willing to share the credit.
"Francis Coppola was the key to Godfather One because he cast it and fought with the studio," said a grateful Puzo in a rare television interview three years before his 1999 death. "He was a genius moviemaker. He did everything with that book that I would want to be done. I didn’t know much about the movies. That was my first job. As the years went on, I realized how much he had done to make that a great movie."