“I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
Everybody loves an origin story. The comic book films are loaded with them. Fans have this unquenchable curiosity. We want to know how our heroes became what they are. The same can be said for our favorite movies. I recently read It’s Alive. It was a look at the making of Frankenstein through the eyes of the various principals. But it was also a story of the studio system at the time of the early 1930’s. I spoke to the author, Julian David Stone, and we talked about how much that story is an integral part of the story of that one particular film. You can listen to that chat here. Now Paramount + has given us a limited series event that takes us back to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and takes a dramatic look at the making of The Godfather. Appropriately enough, it’s called The Offer, and it just might be the best season of television I’ve seen in at least a decade.
While the majority of the story is told from the point of view of Albert S. Ruddy, the film’s producer, that’s not an exclusive perspective for the series. The material is based on his memories of the experience, and he serves as one of the associate producers on the series. We still do get to spend moments with characters when Ruddy wasn’t present to witness the events of that particular scene. Certainly the series develops a necessary focus by using Ruddy as the nexus of the story. Still, we would have been deprived of many interesting aspects of this origin story if that had been the show’s exclusive point of view.
We start with struggling writer Mario Puzo, played by Patrick Gallo. He’s at the book signing for his recent work and doesn’t even sell a single copy of the book. He’s frustrated, and it’s suggested he write a mob story because a mob element was the most popular part of his failed book. He fights the idea, but his wife, and his habit of needing to eat place him in the position of making the attempt. It’s all wink to the audience when he struggles against the effort, because we all know he’s going to cave, and he’s going to write one of the best selling books in all of English literature. When it came out, it outsold every book printed except for the Bible.
Enter Albert S. Ruddy, played by Miles Teller. He’s a computer engineer working for the Rand Corporation. He hates his job, and after a chance meeting he finds a partner to pitch some television series ideas to CBS. The result was Hogan’s Heroes. But after five years on the sit-com, he’s not feeling the job anymore. He appears to be a restless guy. He takes a flyer and accosts CBS Executive Robert Evans, played by Matthew Goode, as he’s parking his car on the Paramount lot. He wants to be a film producer, and Evans likes his moxie enough to give him a chance. He’s given an office and the best asset he’ll get at Paramount, a secretary named Bettye McCartt. Of course, she knows the biz more than Ruddy does and pushes him toward success. He decides he wants to produce a film based on Puzo’s hot The Godfather. No one at Paramount is interested. They see gangster movies as cheap genre and pretty much out of fashion. Ruddy pushes on and approaches Francis Ford Coppola, played Dan Fogler, and with writer Mario Puzo, they set out to create a script that can get the film greenlit.
If you know the story behind the making of this film, you know there are a hundred stories, and many of them are actually true. This series attempts to pile them together and focus on the struggle the trio of filmmakers went through to get the movie made. Many of them you already knew. Some you might have heard but questioned. Others you figured were too made-up to have actually happened. The film tries to incorporate elements of all of that while being both a love letter to Godfather fans and as much a love letter to film fans in general who have an interest in that time period in the studio system. The series certainly does a lot of film and star name-dropping. It covers the casting of Love Story. Takes us on the sets of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and Steve McQueen’s The Getaway. Quite a few other films and actors are mentioned or quickly cameoed. So the show really does try to put you in the middle of the Paramount lot and system from the jump.
The film is populated with some solid casting. Some nail it completely. Others are a little hit-and-miss, but never miss by much. I came to this show after watching three seasons of A Discovery Of Witches. It turned out to be more than an interesting coincidence when it came to actor Matthew Goode. In the supernatural series he plays a man of few words, an ultra-stoic vampire. Here he plays the Paramount executive in charge of the studio, and it’s such a 180 degree performance that I actually went back to the earlier show just to make sure I had the right guy. What a testament to Goode’s acting ability. Bob Evans is a complete reproduction of the Hollywood stereotype movie guy. He talks fast. Gets pissed fast. And parties, like booze and drugs, are about to disappear forever. This slick-talking guy becomes both a nemesis to the Godfather trio and a savior. His motivations change depending on how they might cost him. An example: he’s completely dead-set against unknown stage actor Al Pacino to play the pivotal role of Michael. Ruddy has to go around him and employ several tricks to get his man. But once Pacino was in, Evans would go to the wall to keep him. He’s a truly interesting character with a complicated psyche brought to life by an amazing actor in an amazing performance.
The true villain in the series would have to be Barry Lapidus, played by Colin Hanks. He’s the legal mind and personal aid to studio president Charles Bluhdorn, played by Burn Gorman. These guys have a lot of chemistry, and Colin Hanks isn’t playing a one-dimensional bad guy even if there are some mustache-twirling moments. It’s quite a statement of his performance that he makes such an impact when most of the time he’s playing with Gorman or Goode, and often both. Under the story of the making of The Godfather there is also the story of Gulf-Western, the Paramount parent company, trying to sell the studio. That means Lapidus and Bluhdorn are thinking about value, while the film team are just trying to make a great movie. There are times when events surrounding The Godfather make that job a lot harder and eventually lead to the studio staying put. It’s true that The Godfather and The Godfather Part II saved Paramount Studios in more ways than one.
One of those troubling issues comes from the real mob guys of the day. When the book came out and made a splash, Frank Sinatra was quite upset about the Johnny Fontaine character and the rumors that it was really Ol’ Blue Eyes himself being depicted. We get a quick introduction to his anger when Puzo happens to run into Sinatra at a restaurant. Frank doesn’t hold back. When word gets out it’s also going to be a movie, Sinatra convinces his mob contacts that the movie would reflect badly on all of them. Now you have the mob actively trying to stop the movie, even leading to Ruddy’s back windshield getting shot out. Ruddy gets a break when Joe Columbo, played wonderfully by Giovanni Ribisi, is making a power grab to have his own family and sit at the mob council table. A meeting with Ruddy convinces Columbo that the movie would be good for his family. Ruddy cons him into thinking he made changes that weren’t even there to look like he was allowing Columbo to guide the film. Of course, there’s a little kickback from the unions, and the mob guys get a little taste from the production budget, but not directly from any of the film’s people. Ruddy and Columbo eventually get close and become genuine friends. When a newspaper snaps his picture on stage shaking hands with Columbo, it causes a panic through both Paramount and Gulf-Western. Throughout all of these trials, the film gets made and is, in my opinion, the best film ever made, with all due respect to Mr. Welles and Citizen Kane.
The series is thick with atmosphere. There’s such a sincere effort for authenticity here that you’ll be easily transported back to the early 1970’s and feel like you’ve been a part of this production. There was a very smart decision made when it came to filming iconic scenes from the film. We get to go on such famous sets as the street where Sonny beats the crap out of Carlo and the restaurant where Michael kills his father’s enemies. The job they did of reproducing these places is detailed and shows a lot of love for the film itself. But they smartly shows the scenes themselves played out only in the reaction of the filmmakers. To try and recreate these scenes would have been dangerous. Instead they capture the moments from the awed look of the spectators. Your mind fills in those moments in front of the screen perfectly. Then there are the actors to play these famous parts.
Dan Fogler is pretty good as Coppola. He looks just enough like him to sell us the part. His passion for the film he’s making is the piece that completely sells the performance. I can really say the same thing for Patrick Gallo as Mario Puzo. The two share early and strong chemistry. Albert Ruddy has always been more a name than a face, so the performance fits just fine. The sheer perfection comes in when they cast Anthony Ippolito as Al Pacino. This performance is so spot-on it’s kind of scary. It’s not just the look. He has those shy mannerisms down and the perfect voice inflections. But it never comes across as a Pacino impression. The casting of Justin Chambers as Marlon Brando isn’t so magical for me. It’s the one performance that took me out of the story, quite honestly. The cast and crew offer praises in the extras, but it’s my least favorite casting in the series. The look appears way too made up, and while he almost has the voice, it’s just close enough to sound fake to me. I’m not saying there was anyone out there who could have done better. I don’t blame Chambers. I think it was likely an impossible job. The other actors only appear briefly, and so they work just fine for what was needed. One of the show’s overlooked characters and actors would be Juno Temple as Ruddy’s aid, Bettye McCartt. That’s obviously because the character isn’t a face front image from the film itself, but she plays a strong character here who appears sometimes to save the production singlehandedly. Every story needs an unsung hero, and she fits that part completely here.
If I have any complaint, it’s that I wish there had been more. But that’s the test of great art, isn’t it? Always leave them wanting more. The 10 hours goes by far too swiftly, and I’m left holding my plate of pasta and hoping I didn’t really see The End. The release has all 10 episodes with a good 20-minute behind-the-scenes bit for each episode. There are some deleted scenes and a few extra production bonus features on the last disc. As a critic you have to avoid getting too close to the productions you review. That’s hard for me. This show makes me want to go back and watch those first two movies again with a brand new insight. This is a busy time in this business, with Christmas discs and awards season set upon me. I’m going to have to wait and attempt to control this enthusiasm. It’s important for a critic to remember: “It’s not personal … it’s just business.”