Actor Gianni Russo has appeared in approximately 58 roles in film and television during his career. The first role he was ever cast in was the part of the abusive, and duplicitous, Carlo Rizzi, in Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola’s epic 1972 film “The Godfather.” Since Russo’s appearance in the film, it has helped to open numerous doors for him throughout his acting career, as well as with a number of endeavors he’s involved himself with throughout the years. The film role, on one occasion, even helped to save his life from drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar, under the most unlikely of circumstances. In the book “Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob,” which he co-wrote with Patrick Picciarelli, a former New York Police Department Lieutenant, and the author of a half-dozen, non-fiction books, Russo relays stories not only about his work on “The Godfather,” but the events that helped to shape his life prior to and after filming the movie. (As an aside: During a fight scene between Russo’s screen persona Carlo and Sonny Corleone portrayed by Oscar nominee James Caan (The Gambler), Sonny throws a punch that clearly misses Carlo, but he reacts as if it hits him. Russo explains that although the scene was filmed from multiple angles, and could have easily been fixed to make it look like contact had been made, once a film wins an Oscar, its original print can’t be changed).
The book is fast-paced and contains absorbing and interesting stories; it is the type of book that can easily be finished in no more than a few days. I had trouble putting it down, because half the time I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The truth is, I really didn’t care, I was so entertained, that even if there were parts that contained unrestrained hyperbole, they still held my rapt attention because of their subject matter. While some of what Russo writes is more than likely exaggerated, thanks to the passage of time, and memories not being as accurate as possible, he nonetheless, has led a very interesting life to say the least. Additionally, many of the people, places, and events he writes about, have been confirmed by a wide variety of historical sources as to being accurate accountings of what took place.
Gianni Russo was born on December 12, 1943, in the Little Italy section of New York City; his younger years were anything but idyllic. When he was seven years old, he contracted polio, and was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he would stay for the next five years. While there, he would fight off the advances of a pedophile, and had to learn to grow up quick. Released from Bellevue, he had no desire to return to live with his parents, who he felt had stabbed him through the heart by abandoning him to strangers, and a dangerous living situation. Russo toughed it out on the streets of 1950s New York, and began hustling. While selling pens outside the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel, he had a chance encounter with a man that would change his life from that moment forward. The man he met was Frank Costello, a powerful Mafia boss, whose moniker was ‘the Prime Minister,’ a person, who would eventually become the head of the Luciano crime family. Costello took Russo into his organization, and used him as a glorified errand boy, but, an errand boy that was making a considerable amount of money. As time passed, Russo’s involvement in organized crime increased, however, he would never become a ‘made man’ something, he writes in the book, he never wanted to be in the first place.
Throughout the book, Russo includes entertaining stories about numerous individuals he has known, including, but not limited to, Marlon Brando, who mentored his acting while working on the set of “The Godfather.” Brando remained Russo’s close personal friend until he passed away on July 1, 2004 from congestive heart failure. Russo had a long running friendship with Frank Sinatra, who was not only godfather to Russo’s son, but gave him singing lessons, which Russo later used to his advantage to entertain people, while running his highly successful night club, Gianni Russo’s State Street, in Las Vegas. Furthermore, he talks about the times he dreaded having to spend with John Gotti, the boss of the Gambino crime family. In addition, he writes about the years he managed the singing career of five time Grammy winner Dionne Warwick (Do You Know the Way to San Jose).
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book for me, and the one that I would’ve liked Russo to expand more upon, was when he was asked by Frank Costello to deliver an envelope full of cash to gangster Carlos Marcello at Marcello’s hangout, Mosca’s Restaurant, in Louisiana. The date he was asked to perform the task, was November 18, 1963. As Russo was walking into the deserted restaurant to give Marcello the cash, a certain man with the initials LHO exited the men’s room, and left the restaurant. After Marcello counted the money inside of the envelope, he asked Russo to deliver the following message to Costello: “it’s on;” four days later President Kennedy was assassinated. For reasons, that Costello never made clear to Russo, he made Russo leave the country, and go to Italy. Costello told Russo, he would be informed when it was safe for him to return. The aforementioned is just one of many stories, whether true or false, through Russo’s sheer bravado nature of storytelling, that as previously mentioned, kept me reading page after page, well after I should’ve gone to bed, so I could function at work the next day.
“Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob,” was published by St. Martin’s Press on March 12, 2019. I don’t want to get into anymore specifics, than I already have, and I’ve tried to talk about what is included in the book in a tangential way. This is certainly a book, that I have no interest in giving a blow by blow description about, it wouldn’t lend itself to that type of tedious review, and I don’t want to ruin Russo’s fantastically entertaining chronicles of his life thus far, for those of you interested in reading his book.
Regardless of what a reader thinks of the book after putting it down, there is no denying that with the odds against him early in life, through sheer force of will, drive, determination, and knowing how to use the contacts he made, infamous or otherwise, Russo paved his way to a successful life. Russo is the first to admit, however, that like most success stories, his achievements came with a price, especially as they pertain to his children. The good news is that at the conclusion of the book, Russo vows to work on that problem.