The Godfather's Loyal Clemenza "Never" Would've Testified, Actor Said

One of the best things about The Godfather was Richard Castellano, aka Peter Clemenza, a caporegime under Don Vito Corleone.

It was downright criminal that Richard Castellano didn't reprise his great role for Godfather Part Two.
Richard Castellano - the last name ring a bell?

Never mind that the film likely served as one of the mob's greatest recruitment tools ever. And if you're wondering, I did ask a couple of wiseguys what they thought of The Godfather. One, who asked to be referred to as anonymous, told me that Don Vito actually was based on a composite of all five titular family bosses. Also, he revealed, a made guy was murdered as a direct result of the film's release, a story I'll save for another time (it had something to do with the actor who played Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo -- "a top narcotics man," in consiglieri Tom Hagen's words).

Former Gambino capo Micheal "Mikie Scars" DiLeonardo was succinct. "Epic," he described the first two Godfather films.  As for the widely despised third offering: "I walked out of the theater when the helicopters started shooting everyone. I had had enough at that point, the film had become a Bruce Willis film."

Like many of you I am sure, I thought it was downright criminal that Castellano didn't reprise his great role for the sequel. Castellano brilliantly played the portly Clemenza. He is known to have improvised one of the film's several famous lines....

To the scripted line “Leave the gun,’’ Castellano memorably added, “Take the cannoli.’’

The story that supposedly explained the actor's absence from the film I found to be oddly unsatisfying -- not quite believable even. Francis Ford Coppola -- whose unending battles with producers and many Paramount executives has been told and retold sparing few details -- apparently wasn't above acting out his own version of the ruthless mob boss when it suited him, according to an interview Castellano, who died in December of 1988, once gave.

And, yes, Castellano is related to Paul Castellano, at least according to Richard's widow, Ardell Sheridan, who disclosed this in her book Divine Intervention and a Dash of Magic unraveling The Mystery of "The Method" (Behind the scenes of Godfather 1), published in 2002. (And yes, I am still working on my Paul Castellano story. In addition, I am pleased to add, my story will include new information courtesy of a Gotti family member..)

Castellano's widow's 2002 book.

The great auteur Coppola famously said he had no choice but to drop Castellano from Godfather II. Quite clearly -- and with the requisite trace of residual befuddlement -- Coppola proclaimed on the GF2 audio commentary that Castellano's sublime character was killed off because he'd asked for too much money and also because he wanted written into the contract that he could hire his own writer to craft his character's dialogue in the film.

That simply doesn't sound like the rotund goodfella Clemenza (alas, it seems that fans including myself have (subliminally?) bestowed Clemenza's personality onto the man who played him. Castellano did nothing to allay this viewpoint when he spoke of his nuanced character, a likeable mob capo who was not one to disobey an order to kill a formerly trusted soldier when an acting boss gave him the nod). As The Godfather Wikia (yes, there is such a site, which distills bios, etc. for characters using both Mario Puzo's book as well as the films as source material) describes Clemenza:

Friendly and jovial, Clemenza was known as a storyteller among many of his acquaintances and family members - a trait that endeared him to Vito, who loved listening to storytellers. Peter Clemenza got his start selling stolen goods such as dresses and guns with Vito and Tessio as far back as 1917, and became a key figure in the growing Corleone family. Vito kept him close through the years - even making him godfather to his oldest son Santino - though this was all to control his brutal and more ambitious tendencies.
I will admit now that I never made it all the way through The Godfather book. There, I said it. But even Coppola was not fond of the entire novel. He in fact created the classic film by lifting the book's plotline involving the Corlenone family, meaning father, Vito, and his three sons, and of course, Connie. The rest of the novel -- including the woman with the too-large vagina, for example -- was left on on the cutting room floor inside Coppola's brain.

However, by not reading the bulk of the novel, one misses out on some tasty morsels, such as the deliciously demonic origin story of the Don's most loyal henchman, Luca Brasi....

Luca attempted to force [his grilfriend] to have an abortion, which she refused. On the day of his son's birth, he forced the midwife, Filomena under pain of death, to hurl his own son into a furnace, an act for which she never forgave herself, describing him as an unholy demon that night. He claimed that "I don't want any of that race to live." It was unknown whether he meant that it was because the child was half Irish, born of a prostitute, or that it was his child, and felt that he was doing the world a favor by removing his bloodline from it....

After that night, Brasi allowed himself to be arrested, after first taking an overdose of pills that left him with permanent brain damage, slowing his speech and thought patterns. He tried to kill himself in his cell with a broken bottle by slashing his throat open but he didn't die, in the end he was rescued from prison by Vito Corleone, who saw Brasi as a potential asset....

The tales of Brasi's prowess soon became legend. One such incident involved Brasi killing off Benny Amato and Joey Daniello, two of Al Capone's henchmen hired to kill Don Corleone. Brasi subdued both of them and tied and gagged them with towels stuffed in their mouths. He then leisurely hacked Amato to pieces with an axe. When he went to finish off Daniello he found that he had gone through a shock convulsion and choked to death on the towel.

Brasi's talent, it was said, was that he could do a job, or murder all by himself, without confederates or backup who might rat him out. Since Luca made sure to leave no witnesses either, this made a criminal conviction almost impossible. He is also known for killing, in two weeks, six men who attempted to kill Don Corleone at a festival....

The Turk was wise indeed to take Luca Brasi out first....

To any storyteller -- and most cinephiles -- the very notion of simply adding a writer to draft dialogue not organically composed as part of the whole story is at the very least bizarre. (There's more to writing fiction, including screenplays -- good ones, anyway -- than meets the eye, such as subtext, thematic constructs, symbolism, balance, rhythm and poetry, etc.)

You can never have too many Godfather clips...

Since first hearing it on the DVD, I swallowed Coppola's commentary about the "demanding" Castellano with a shovelful of salt.

An interview with Richard Castellano I recently discovered seemed to finally explain why Frank Pentangeli, and not Clemenza, showed up at the Corleone family's Nevada compound. (Castellano's explanation has a huge flaw in it, alas, though I didn't find it until revising an initial draft of this story.)

"Frankie Five Angels" is no Clemenza but he did a damn good job...

Frankie Five Angels was clearly based on Joe Valachi.

The New York Post reported this seemingly more-realistic reason, which came from Castellano's own mouth.

Interviewed in 1981, his acting career had nearly run its course; he was answering phones for a company based inside a friend’s Guttenberg, NJ garage.

During a five- hour interview, he was especially eager to talk about his clashes with Coppola on “The Godfather’’ and its sequel — and how their conflict damaged Castellano’s career.

According to the actor, the original script for “Part II” had his character testifying before a congressional committee against the crime family headed by Michael Corleone. The scene was ultimately rewritten for another character, Frankie Pentangeli, played by Michael V. Gazzo.

“I saw Clemenza as a teacher,’’ Castellano said. “He teaches how to make spaghetti, how to use the gun. [Coppola] can’t tell me that Clemenza, after years of loyalty to the old man, would go in and testify against organized crime. Not unless you proved to me . . . that he had become a fearful man, that he had become a betrayer.

“The demands on me were impossible. I had settled on a price and everybody else’s was settled upon mine. [Coppola] had me losing weight to play Clemenza as a young man. I was down to 194 pounds. When I received the script five minutes later, it had me rolling in at 300 pounds.’’ Castellano says that after he bowed out of the project — Bruno Kirby Jr,. played the young Clemenza, who is said to have died before the “Part II’’ scenes set in the 1950s — Coppola promised to tell the press he had turned down the role for artistic reasons.

“The next thing, I saw Coppola quoted as saying that I asked for more money than anyone else, that I asked to rewrite the script. Once the lie gets out, the lie is told, and it takes.’’ (Coppola said in a DVD documentary a few years ago that Castellano was dropped because he insisted on approval of his character’s lines).

Castellano said Copolla really went for him after he'd had the gall to intercede while Coppola was engaged in a heated argument with his cinematographer, Gordon Willis. Castellano was trying to defend Willis. According to Castellano, Coppola got his revenge while shooting Clemenza's final scene. The heavyset actor had to walk up four sets of stairs repeatedly, as Coppola kept finding faults with each take.

One thing Castellano wouldn’t comment on was a rumor that he had connections to organized crime. After the actor’s death, his widow wrote in a book that he was nephew to Paul Castellano, the Gambino crime family boss who was assassinated in 1985...

The only problem with Castellano's explanation for dropping out is that Pentangeli committed suicide, as was common among ancient Rome's emperors, or something like that, as explained in the film -- so the character never really did Michael any damage during the hearings. 

Unless, of course, Coppola's bitter half got the best of him -- and he rewrote the script based on Castellano's input about Clemenza the teacher....

PS: Castellano, as for his "Clemenza would never rat" line, I like the fact he honestly (and carefully) worded that phrase. If he'd said "I never would've played a rat" he'd have opened himself to allegations of being disingenuous.

In Incident on a Dark Street (a 1973 made-for-TV film starring, ugh, William Shatner), Castellano played a mob informant.


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