When Marlon Brando died last week, accolades poured in from around the world. He was heralded as a great performer and an enormous influence on a generation of actors.
But the one group on which Brando might have had the most influence exercised its right to remain silent.
I’m not talking about the Screen Actors Guild.
I’m talking about the mob.
A lot of mugs can pull a trigger. It takes a studious sociopath to remember his lines before delivering the kill shot. Thanks to Brando, underworld tough guys have never run short of material.
Just as movie tough guy George Raft taught his Hell’s Kitchen pal Benny Siegel and a generation of less notorious killers how to sneer and deliver a one-liner before knocking off the competition, Brando’s performance as don Vito Corleone gave a whole new generation of hoodlums something to aspire to.
Namely, a sense of tradition and an ounce of class.
How popular is “The Godfather” with the boys?
When law enforcement agencies carry out search warrants, they are required to record a list of “returns,” those items collected and catalogued as evidence. Over the years, scores of copies of “The Godfather” have been duly noted at the homes of a legion of mobsters.
And not just those of Italian-American extraction. Ghetto gang-bangers and barrio bad boys alike have been known to keep copies of “The Godfather” series as close to them as their favorite sidearm. Russian and Asian organized crime figures have done the same, whether or not they’ve managed to obtain dubbed versions of the Coppola classics.
Some will add “Goodfellas” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village” to their list of favorites. Others will augment their collection with copies of “Scarface,” both the original 1932 version starring Paul Muni and the foul-mouthed 1983 remake featuring Al Pacino.
Perhaps a younger generation of gangsters one day will look at Tony Soprano with a sense of reverence and respect, but for more than 30 years Brando set a high standard. When Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail” says, ” ‘The Godfather’ is the ‘I Ching.’ ‘The Godfather’ is the sum of all wisdom,” he was only half joking.
The traditional mob is known to take its “Godfather” very seriously.
As a boy growing up in Boston, Anthony Fiato was partial to the local mob soldiers and to silver-screen tough guys such as John Garfield. By the time he joined the ranks of the street mob, Fiato saw how Raft and Edward G. Robinson had influenced the mannerisms of the older made mafia men.
By the time “The Godfather” came out in 1972, it raised the hoodlum element to a whole new level. It was, Fiato says, like watching a bunch of whiskey drinkers sip champagne with their pinkies extended. He still laughs when he recalls the impact “The Godfather” had on Boston mob guys Paulie Intiso and Nicky Giso.
“After seeing ‘The Godfather,’ Paulie altered his speech,” recalls Fiato, a reformed mob hit man who now is a federally relocated witness and the subject of my book “The Animal in Hollywood.” “Paulie started acting like Marlon Brando and talking like him. Paulie was raised in the North End, and suddenly he’s talking like Vito Corleone. It was incredible. Paulie was a ‘dems and dose’ kind of guy, and every other word he would swear; but after the movie came out, he starts to articulate. He starts philosophizing.”
It wasn’t the first time Brando had an impact on the street element. Fiato recalls “Crazy Joe” Gallo wearing black shirts and white ties after Brando set the trend as Sky Masterson in the 1955 film version of “Guys and Dolls.”
As if to illustrate how much a part of American street culture Brando had become, Fiato nails the “coulda been a contender” scene from “On the Waterfront.”
Fiato’s former associates loved Brando, but they hated the fact he’d played the punchy palooka Terry Malloy, who in the end ratted out the racket boss.
Experience has taught Fiato that sometimes art imitates life.
After all these years, don Marlon Brando’s godfather portrayal seems more legitimate than all the gold-plated gangsters on the street.