Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
MIKE FLEMING JR: We are seeing a lot of narrative limited series based on ventures where things went wrong — Theranos, WeWork, Uber – and two that went spectacularly right. There is more acrimony directed at Winning Time — a flagging LA Lakers franchise was infused by new owner Jerry Buss with Hollywood sex appeal and a Magic Johnson-led speed game that changed the NBA from a sleepy regional sport to a global juggernaut — and then there is The Offer, about the making of my all-time favorite American movie, The Godfather.
I loved watching Winning Time, and believe it could never have worked as well, had Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Jerry West lorded over an authorized version. They never would have approved of the account of a hedonistic early ‘80s coke and sex-fueled moment in time, one that is gloriously depicted in the Jeff Pearlman book on which the series was based, and makes Winning Time reminiscent of a movie like Boogie Nights. The owner, played by John C. Reilly, is rarely seen without a drink in one hand, and a young woman under the other arm. His players seem to score more off the court than on it — there is even a moment when Magic’s churchgoing mom asks if her son is getting enough to eat, and the orgy shot they cut to, well, that couldn’t possibly have been what mom meant.
For our purposes, I want to focus on The Offer, which focuses on producer Al Ruddy, and depicts him as the glue that held a difficult shoot together. I found it fun to watch, but I would have enjoyed it more if the narrative hadn’t strayed from the stories I spent 30 years prying out of you. And hearing another version from the late Bob Evans, and more recently from Francis Coppola. Just recently in an interview we did about his Oscar memories, Coppola told me he couldn’t recall seeing producer Al Ruddy on the set at all. In The Offer, he’s the hero who deservedly clutches the Best Picture Oscar as its only producer.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West have been vocal in their disgust for Winning Time, the latter calling for a retraction for his depiction as a high-strung tortured former player turned team exec. It’s a rare opportunity for me to have my occasional Back and Forth column partner so on the ground floor for the construction and release of The Godfather that he’s a character in The Offer. I thought our industry readers – many of whom place the Showtime Lakers and The Godfather atop their passion list – might enjoy a Friday walk through Godfather mythology, calling out the bullshit along the way. You recently called The Offer “science fiction.” It was written by Michael Tolkin, scripter of the Hollywood satire The Player. The Offer isn’t supposed to be non-fiction. First, are you as angry as Abdul-Jabbar, West and their supporters? If so, why so angry after 50 years?
PETER BART: I’m not mad about anything, but am greatly concerned about the legacy of The Godfather. Those who admire the movie, including film students and cinema scholars, deserve accurate insight into the problems surrounding its creation. Paramount has done a disservice in supporting a project like The Offer that distorts the roles of its principals and suggests that its producing team was essentially under the control of the mob during key sections of the shooting schedule.
First, a note about the filmmaking team: The Offer portrays a sort of “buddy’ relationship between the principals. In reality, Al Ruddy and Francis Coppola were not on speaking terms during most of the shooting schedule and Bob Evans looked upon Ruddy with both distrust and disdain. In The Offer, the three hug each other at the end of the shoot and vow to join forces on its sequel. In reality, the contracts for The Godfather Part II specified that Ruddy would have no connection with the project, and that Coppola would not be required to communicate with Evans on any issue. The sequel would be Coppola’s show this time, with no arguments about casting or editing.
FLEMING: How about the depiction of you?
BART: I am absent through much of The Offer, which is fine by me. The series focuses on Al Ruddy, who supposedly made all the decisions and solved all crises. I avoided the long and argumentative sessions on casting – I believed Francis’ instincts were correct on Jimmy Caan and Al Pacino. Ruddy wasn’t there either, nor at most budget meetings. In the 10th episode of The Offer, Evans is depicted delivering a toast to me at one post-Oscar party, describing me as the ‘unsung hero’ of The Godfather project. I had earlier acquired the Puzo novel and persuaded Coppola to direct the film. Now, amid all the production noise, I eagerly aspired to be ‘unsung.’
While most of the principals went on to other pursuits, I continued for seven years as vice president for production, reporting to Evans, and together we developed a group of films that stand up pretty damn well – Paper Moon, Chinatown, The Parallax View, Rosemary’s Baby, etc. I also green lit Ruddy’s next film, The Longest Yard, and helped him develop it. When Ruddy had script battles with his director, Robert Aldrich, I supported Ruddy’s position and a good movie finally emerged. In gratitude, Ruddy even offered to buy me a new car; I thanked him but said that would be inappropriate. We nonetheless continued our friendship through the decades.
FLEMING: Ah, now I’m thinking they should put up a stone for Ruddy. The Longest Yard is another favorite movie of mine –so much so that I have Paul Crewe’s Mean Machine jersey, Number 22, autographed by Burt Reynolds, on display in my house. And hey, Reynolds, told me in an interview that he wanted to play one of the Corleone sons, but was prevented because Marlon Brando didn’t like him, apparently because Reynolds reminded Brando so much of himself. Here’s what he said: “I never had any dealings with [Brando] whatsoever, never really even sat down and talked to him. But when The Godfather came along, I thought I had the chance of being one of his sons because of the physical likeness. He made sure I wasn’t, and I never understood why.” Reynolds had written in his memoir that he had been considered for Michael Corleone, and when I told him he seemed too fully formed to evolve like Al Pacino did from an idealistic war hero outsider to a stone killer devoted to his father, Reynolds said, “I felt exactly the same way you did. The Jimmy Caan part would’ve been better for me, physically, and I would’ve loved to have done it. I liked Jimmy, and I think he’s a good actor, but I would’ve loved to have done that part.” Peter, I can’t get enough of these classic Hollywood stories, but I’ve sidetracked you. Please continue, but do tell how close Burt Reynolds was to playing Sonny Corleone…
BART: If his name was seriously considered, I never heard it. But every actor in the business supposedly had also been considered for Brando’s role, and, after watching his ‘audition,’ I never thought for a moment that anyone had a chance. Contrary to The Offer, Ruddy was not invited to that taping. I wasn’t either.
FLEMING: In our last interview, Coppola told me he couldn’t remember seeing Ruddy on set at all, and surmised that Ruddy had busied himself smoothing things over with the Mafia. The Offer depicts the Ruddy relationship with Joe Colombo as a key factor in overcoming the ‘dangerous’ opposition to the New York based production. Apparently, Ruddy changed Colombo’s outlook from over-my-dead-body to, we-have-to-get-this-movie-made. Colombo was head of his own crime family while somewhat hypocritically starting the Italian-American Civil Rights League, an enterprise which denied the Mafia’s existence (his day job) and claimed hard working Italians were unfairly being stereotyped as criminals.
BART: According to The Offer, Ruddy’s heroic intervention put a halt to repeated Mafia threats on the lives of Evans and Coppola. In reality, the Mafia threats apparently were Ruddy’s invention. Further, Ruddy made a grave mistake in advising the press that he’d been willing to change the script to satisfy demands of the mob – dropping mention of the word Mafia, for example. In reality, that word was used only once in an early draft of the script. When Charles Bluhdorn, chairman of Paramount’s parent company, Gulf & Western, learned that Ruddy had promised that Colombo’s Civil Rights League would share in the proceeds of the premiere, he fired his producer. Quickly realizing that the firing would generate harmful publicity and scare his stockholders, Bluhdorn reluctantly instructed Evans to re-hire the producer.
FLEMING: Was the rear window of Ruddy’s car shot up by gangsters as a warning, as we saw in The Offer?
BART: Only if you ask Ruddy.
FLEMING: Dramatic semi-documentaries supposedly take broad liberties with the main characters. Did you believe Evans was accurately portrayed?
BART: The personalities are drawn satirically, not factually. Bob Evans in The Offer is a chain smoker and martini drinker who disappears on benders and pays scant attention to his wife, Ali MacGraw, and his infant son Joshua. Josh is never even acknowledged. In fact, Evans never smoked and was a loving father to Josh.
FLEMING: I know Bob Evans had his own problems, and he did regret being distracted when he sent wife Ali MacGraw off with Steve McQueen to make The Getaway and lost her. But I always found him to be remarkably gracious and kind. A quick story: when Paramount-owned Simon & Schuster rejected the Evans memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, a film source in New York gave me the galley pages, saying, you have to read this dishy book! I wrote a whole column about it. It was too long, in need of editing, but I wrote that if S&S kicked this book to the curb, it was only because they didn’t want Evans telling the Paramount story. Much later, I get this call from Evans, who told me that Disney chief Michael Eisner read the column, asked Evans to get a copy for him and his wife, and by the time they returned after the weekend, Eisner directed his publishing imprint Hyperion to make a deal.
Evans insisted I have a quote on the back cover of the book. “The greatest book ever written,” he suggested. I told him I hadn’t read every book ever written, so that wouldn’t be truthful. We settled on “The best Hollywood memoir I’ve ever read,” which wasn’t far from the truth. I asked why he was so insistent, and he said, “I have a career again because of what you did.” The book was getting raves, the audiobook with his narration was an industry favorite, a docu was in the works. So there’s my quote, atop those from Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and David Brown. The Sesame Street song ‘One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong’ flashes through my head each time I look at it. I don’t really believe that I got this great book published; surely someone else would have seen its potential and a smart man like Eisner would have found it somehow. I bring it up because, I cannot think of another person in Hollywood who would have remembered, and would memorialized it on the back of the book. Now, Peter, another character, Charles Bluhdorn, to me comes off as that sinister figure who tries to bribe golden ticket holders in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Was he really that hands on during the making of The Godfather?
BART: The Austrian-born Bluhdorn had a love-hate relationship to movies. He loved musicals and, before Evans and I joined Paramount, green lit disasters like Paint Your Wagon (Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin singing to each other). But Bluhdorn also hated losing money. He had zero interest in The Godfather until the book became a best seller. Then he smelled the money. When I spent time with Bluhdorn we would talk mostly about dealmaking — Bluhdorn passionately wanted to acquire major American brands. He also courted the friendship of Fidel Castro and wanted to convert him to becoming a capitalist. The Offer accurately portrays Bluhdorn’s dicey relations with his own board of directors at Gulf & Western. The board was impatient with Bluhdorn’s movie adventures and wanted him to concentrate on less volatile industries. When Love Story opened to lines around the block, Bluhdorn and I surveyed the scene together in a limo and he was so thrilled that he impulsively bolted from the car, rushed up to the startled theater manager and shouted, “don’t just stand there watching the crowd — raise the f*cking prices! Charles Bluhdorn, according to The Offer, made frequent visits to the set of The Godfather and even tried to pick up girls who worked on the film. In fact, he made perhaps one visit and, while he had a temper, was meticulously cautious about his public behavior. Bettye McCart, Ruddy’s secretary is depicted in the film as an important problem solver who summons Bluhdorn to meetings and helps make decisions on casting and even locations. In fact, McCart, a very gracious woman, now deceased, remained based in Los Angeles, not on the set. Her ubiquity in The Offer apparently was prompted by the insistence of Paramount + to find a female character who could play a role in a very ‘guy’ movie.
Once The Godfather had been completed and had won its Oscar, Ruddy, Coppola and Evans exchanged hugs of friendship and vowed to proceed on the sequel. Oops… in reality none of them were on speaking terms, nor had they been during most of the shoot of the initial Godfather.
FLEMING: Why were they not speaking? Was there something specific that happened between Coppola and Evans, and Coppola and Ruddy? Coppola told me that when he won the Oscar for Patton, he was in New York waiting to be fired from The Godfather and his pal Martin Scorsese said, ‘well, they can’t fire you now’…How much danger was Coppola in for his job at that point? It doesn’t seem the best environment for a director, to feel in constant danger of losing his job, his back against the wall, though it brought out the best in the director. Did either Ruddy, Evans or you make him feel that way?
BART: Coppola was a very young, insecure filmmaker and this was his first conventional studio film. He was upset by the presence of the studio’s ‘numbers guy’ – Jack Ballard, a seasoned but obstinate production executive – who often challenged him on the pace of his ‘takes’ and random delays. Ballard also wrongly warned the director that studio executives were looking at the ‘dailies’ and were gravely dissatisfied with the work. This report was simply untrue. The only executives who were seeing dailies were Evans and I and we both felt that, except for a few early glitches, Coppola’s work was superb.
FLEMING: Another antagonist is Frank Sinatra, who goes as far as calling Colombo to squash The Godfather. Here is what Coppola told me recently about Sinatra. In The Offer, his menacing presence not only prompted Vic Damone from playing Don Corleone’s singing godson Johnny Fontane, the singer denounced the project from the Vegas stage with Ruddy, Coppola and Puzo looking on from front row seats, hours after Damone agreed to play the role. “What I remember about Sinatra is, before I made the picture I ran into him,” Coppola said. “I didn’t know him. But he recognized me and I remember he was nice, sort of. He said, ‘why don’t you and I buy The Godfather and I’ll play the old man.’ I remember him saying that to me. I heard that he ran into Mario and was a little more negative. But that’s what I remember what Sinatra told me. He said, let’s buy it and I’ll play the Godfather…what he was saying was that he would play the old man.” Coppola, who’d had once considered Evans’ suggestion of producer Carlo Ponti, and then Laurence Olivier (who was too ill at the time), clearly had his heart set on Brando.
BART: In The Offer, Sinatra wanted to shut down the production and even hired some ‘muscle’ to make that happen. But I happened to encounter Sinatra during pre-production and he clearly venerated Puzo’s book. I saw no indication that he posed a danger to the production or to its cast.
FLEMING: Ted Lasso’s Juno Temple is nonetheless irresistible in the role of McCart, and Matthew Goode replicates the mannerisms of Evans in an interesting way. Miles Teller plays Ruddy as a hunky outsider who figures out how to navigate the frustrations of the industry, starting his career by helping to create Hogan’s Heroes. While not as slick, the Ruddy character reminds me a bit of John Travolta’s loan shark-turned producer Chili Palmer in Get Shorty. Unfortunately, Coppola and The Godfather author Mario Puzo come off as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, portly pals looking for unhealthy things to eat while waiting for Ruddy to save the day and tell them what to do. I have spent a lot of time with Coppola. He is a genius, and a great storyteller. He loved Puzo, who was writing highbrow novels that weren’t selling, who wrote the mass market mob tale as a last gasp at supporting his family. I read in Mark Seal’s superb book Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli that Puzo had a gambling problem, and needed to feed bookies along with his wife and kids. I suspect both of The Godfather’s creative architects are poorly drawn caricatures. You know them much better.
BART: The opening credits declare that The Offer is “based on the experience of Albert S. Ruddy in producing The Godfather.” I cannot recall ever seeing a credit of this sort on a previous project. Films are normally based on books or plays, not on someone’s ‘experience.’ Indeed, my personal ‘experience’ on the film is consistent with that of Coppola and Gray Frederickson, the skilled production executive who actually produced the film, and also of Fred Roos, who was the principal adviser on casting. Typically, it was Roos who nursed the principals though the long debates about Al Pacino and other cast members.
FLEMING: Were mobsters all over the set, as implied by The Offer?
BART: I have been asked over the years whether I ever saw ‘mob’ figures on or around the set. The answer is ‘yes’ – but as observers, not bosses. They were fascinated by the novel. James Caan interviewed some of the mob visitors and apparently emulated their mannerisms. Al Lettieri, who played Sollozzo, reportedly was related to a member of the Genovese family. Nick Pileggi, the reporter who wrote stories about the making of The Godfather for The New York Times, recalls seeing mob figures observing the key exterior scene in which The Godfather is shot. They were present as observers and fans he recalls, not as ‘enforcers.”
FLEMING: I am veering back to Winning Time and specifically Abdul-Jabbar. He’s a fine columnist, and I recall him speaking out against Quentin Tarantino over his depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Lee was a close friend of Abdul-Jabbar, taught him martial arts and Kareem memorably squared off against Lee in his final film, Game of Death. When I watched Tarantino’s film, in which Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth throws Lee against a car door, I laughed out loud. But thought its narrative purpose was to show why Booth was unemployable, a soldier/killer who was unable to restrain himself when Lee boasted he would beat heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali in a no holds barred fight. I later read in Tarantino’s novelization that he wrote the scene after hearing how disliked Lee was by American stuntmen. He didn’t respect them, and would hit them during scenes, knowing they dared not hit back. One was reputed to have fought Lee because of this, so there was more to that scene. Tarantino’s unwillingness to remove the scene cost the film a lot of money because it didn’t play in China.
Winning Time re-creates Abdul-Jabbar’s scene in Airplane! where, as the airline pilot, he grabs the kid who visits the cockpit, after the youth criticizes his unwillingness to get back on defense. Co-pilot Peter Graves’ banter with the kid is much worse. After, the kid asks for the star’s autograph and Abdul-Jabbar tells him to go f*ck himself. Abdul-Jabbar denied he ever said that to any kid, and the Airplane! filmmakers wrote an editor’s letter in the LA Times attesting it never happened on the set. I liked Winning Time so much I bought the Jeff Pearlman book it was based on, and right there, it says Kareem did say that to a kid. Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t pee without someone standing there asking for an autograph, something the big man was uncomfortable with. Clearly, The Winning Time architects transposed that anecdote to the cockpit of the airplane. It worked, from a narrative standpoint.
Peter, my 86-year old mother called me the day after The Offer landed on Paramount+ to tell me she loved it so much, she binged her way through the episodes. When I suggested not all the facts were true, she told me she didn’t care. So I’m thinking that shows like Winning Time and The Offer ought to be regarded first and foremost as fun entertainment, and if they need to take creative license to provide that, they will. A series that infuses the Mafia in the making of the most famous movie about organized crime figures, is an irresistible narrative that will never be boring. The infusion of the Lakers with Hollywood decadence (the first season stopped well before Magic Johnson announced he’d contracted HIV), is also a propulsive storytelling tool. Kareem accused Winning Time of being boring, but I think maybe only he feels that way. I think the makers of these series aren’t trying to please you, Coppola, Abdul-Jabbar or Jerry West. If you want a laudatory version of the Magic Johnson story, you can watch They Call Me Magic, the new docu on Apple TV+. What say you?
BART: On a personal level, I applaud the emerging genre of ‘dramatic documentaries’ but believe they should be ruled by a sense of creative responsibility. The lawyers have mangled the definitions of legalistic terms like ‘defamation’ and ‘malice’ — even the basic term ‘life rights.’ I think we should nonetheless uphold the meaning of ‘responsibility’ not only to living people, but also to legendary movies like The Godfather.