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RUSSO, GIANNI – THE GODFATHER (The Coppola Restoration)

Gianni Russo, scored his first acting role in The Godfather (1972); he visited Australia specifically to present the world premiere of the remastered and restored 35 mm print of The Godfather, part of the The Coppola Restoration of the Godfather Trilogy*, at a black tie screening at Sydney’s State Theatre (July 22, 2008) with accompaniment by a 65 piece orchestra. Andrew L. Urban asked him about the Popes and Presidents he knew, and his trysts with Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly among others.

With a singularly nebulous background, which, by his account, included stints as a Las Vegas nightclub emcee, radio personality, and jewellery tycoon, and no acting experience, Gianni Russo won the role of Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather (1972) on the basis of his screen test. “You could say that,” he says now, laughing lightly in that throaty, Godfather-family kind of way as we talk in Sydney. But maybe, he suggests, it also had something to do with the fact that it was Russo who flew from Los Angeles to New York to have a little talk to Joe Colombo (1914 – 1978), the head of one of the five big Mafia families to persuade him to co-operate with the filmmakers for filming The Godfather. Colombo’s Italian Anti-Defamation League had shut down early production of the film in Manhattan

"I know all the criminals"

It is a fitting way to get a movie started about the way the Mafia operated on a network of favours and relationships. How did Gianni know Colombo? “I knew them all … that’s where I come from. I know all the criminals,” he adds, and after a pause “. . .unfortunately.” Russo was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in the Rosebank section of Staten Island. He has Mob connections and his uncle was a soldier in the Gambino crime family. He has successfully defeated twenty-three federal criminal indictments on a variety of charges stemming from alleged organized crime associations.

Since his debut as Carlo Rizzi, Russo has remained busy as an actor, mostly playing assorted "wiseguys" and Mafia types. He was appeared again with Marlon Brando in a small role in The Freshman (1990) in which Brando parodied his Don Corleone role to good effect.

Russo claims that he has personally known three popes, five United States presidents as well as every Mafia boss in the United States. On one visit to Rome in the 70s, within a 90 day period he attended two Papal inaugurations and two Papal funerals. But he doesn’t know the current Pope – as yet.

"romantic trysts"

He also claims to have had romantic trysts with Marilyn Monroe, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liza Minnelli. He dated Dionne Warwick for a decade. That’s on the public record, but what isn’t much written about as yet is his relationship with “a woman we all think of as a saint … Grace Kelly. She was a gift from Mr Sinatra,” he confides.

As for Marilyn Monroe, who Russo refers to as “a sorry soul”, he says “we related to each other because we both had abusive fathers.” They met while he was a junior ‘shampoo boy’ in a hair salon frequented by Monroe. “She’d ask for me, and then one weekend when she was staying at the Waldorf, she was having her hair done and she again asked for me. I went up there on Saturday afternoon . . . and left on Monday …”

"a biography"

It won’t surprise you to learn that Russo has written a biography, from which he has extracted material for a screenplay, Don’t Shoot the Messenger, which he says David O’Russell will direct.

Russo is also an accomplished singer and in 2004 he released a CD called Reflections that pays homage to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

Published August 7, 2008

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Gianni Russo

*Paramount DVD release of The Coppola Restoration: August 7, 08


Grace Kelly

Marilyn Monroe

Marlon Brando as the (God)father of the bride, Talia Shire as Connie and Gianni Russo as Carlo (1972)

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