“THE OFFER” IS MAGNIFICENT BEHIND SCENES TALE OF “THE GODFATHER”

By STEVEN TRAVERS

It is official. The theatrical release is dead. The best fare is now found on television and streaming. The latest, perhaps best example of this, is the incredible series currently running on Paramount+ titled The Offer.

This is the true story, based essentially on the recollections of The Godfather producer Al Ruddy but also including stories and fables from Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and a million tales told out of school; myth and magic fueling decades of Hollywood insiders drinking at The Whisky, the Chateau Marmont, the Cock ’n Bull, Sardi’s and P.J. Clarkes.

Where do we start? First, The Offer describes in pristine detail the absolute apex of Hollywood’s golden era, the 1960s and 1970s, specifically 1967-72. As Biskind wrote in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, this is the age of the “New Hollywood.” The movie business had been started essentially by Jewish entrepreneurs who escaped Russian pogroms and loved the country that made them rich.

But anti-trust lawsuits, age and the changing taste of the movie-going public in the turbulent ‘60s portended a seeming death knell. The old patriarchs sold their studios to corporations. The worst studio of them all was Paramount, recently bought at garage sale prices by an Austrian tycoon named Charlie Bluhdorn, head of Gulf + Western in New York. Charlie likes the glamour, but intends to sell his little plaything for a profit.

He hires a 30-something washed up actor named Robert Evans to run his studio. He is a joke, the laughing stock of Hollywood. It is obvious he is the face of Paramount as they get sold off for spare parts, a convenient fall guy. The problem is Evans, who happens to be better looking than any of the stars of his movies, is a brilliant filmmaker with a flair for knowing what young people want. He makes a string of hits, reviving Paramount, thus keeping his job . . . for now. His biggest hit is Love Story, and as a bonus he lands its star, Ali MacGraw, as his new bride. Bluhdorn is infatuated with him.

Episode one opens in the mid-1960s featuring a young Al Ruddy (Miles Teller) bored out of his mind working at the Rand Corporation. Ruddy is a USC man at a time in which USC and UCLA are producing great young filmmakers. Prior to this, film school graduates were locked out of the business, but with box office receipts way down, the new corporate titans running studios like Paramount and UA are turning to them for new, exciting material.

Ruddy pitches and produces Hogan’s Heroes, but wants to make big screen epics, not TV sit-coms. He approaches Evans, played marvelously by British actor Matthew Goode. Evans is as legendary and mythical a figure as show biz has ever created. In an industry of lies and B.S., the stories about Bob Evans are too true to be believed, yet they are. Goode captures his mannerisms, his unique cadence (a must-listen is Evans reading The Kid Stays in the Picture), his sex appeal, and his show-boat manner (clothes, Jaguar, women). A scene of Evans and Ali at a swank, til-dawn party in the Hollywood Hills, complete with alluring starlets, is nothing less than delicious, as is an earlier showing of the Chateau Marmont introduced by The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” that is nostalgia-plus. This is the ‘60s!

While The Offer is entertaining, to truly enjoy it – especially the Evans mystique – one should read The Kid Stays In The Picture, watch the 2002 documentary of the same name, and become an expert on the Hollywood of this era (long gone and never coming back). 

Evans likes Ruddy. “You remind me of me,” he tells him. He gives him a look-see deal at Paramount. What timing! A failing New York City novelist named Mario Puzo (Patrick Gallo) has just written The Godfather after his wife tells him to write about an Italian family just like theirs, adding the difference is “they kill, and show why they do.” It is an immediate best-seller and will stay on top of the list for a good long time. Evans has optioned it and gives Ruddy a chance to produce it, but on the cheap. 

However, Frank Sinatra (Frank John Hughes) hates the book. One of the leading characters of the novel is Johnny Fontane, described by Sinatra as “a degenerate singer.” It is widely rumored Fontane is based on Sinatra. Fontane makes up a large portion of the book. He is Godson of Vito Corleone, who strong arms a movie producer into giving Johnny the lead in a new war picture. This is apparently based on Sinatra’s role in From Here to Eternity, in which his then-wife Ava Gardner flew from Africa, where she was shooting Mogambo, to beg movie big-shot Harry Cohn into using Frank as Maggio (which won him an Academy Award).

Furthermore, Fontane moves to Las Vegas where he goes on a drunken sex spree with his Rat Pack-like pals. Perhaps what angered Sinatra the most was a depiction of Fontane and his wife. She mocks him, and has little respect for him as a man (a big no-no with Italians). Fontane engages in orgies, and there is a lot of back story about abortions, In fact the Fontane material could make a great stand-alone film or TV show on its own, but Sinatra hates it.

He takes his beef to Joe Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi), a rising star in the New York mob. Ribisi is a great actor who once starred in Saving Private Ryan but has seemingly disappeared of late. He makes a brilliant comeback imitating Colombo’s rough Brooklyn accent and sneer. He begins the Italian-American Civil Rights League, claiming Italians face discrimination because of their mafia affiliations. His number one target is Puzo’s book, burned at public rallies in New York. When Sinatra sees Puzo at Chasen’s he attacks him physically, and Colombo orders a car driven by Ruddy and his girlfriend blown up.

Undeterred, Ruddy pushes Francis Ford Coppola (Dan Fogler) to direct. At the time (1969) Coppola is about 30 years old with zero track record, but he is one of those New Hollywood film school graduates (UCLA) and, more importantly, he is Italian. Evans wants an Italian so the audience can “smell the spaghetti.” Previous mobster films starred Jews, not Italians, and lacked the familial warmth only Italians seem to emanate. Pushing Coppola and the Italian angle are Evans’ right-hand man Peter Bart (Josh Zuckerman) and Ruddy, who from the get-go seems to have a unique vision of what kind of film he is making.

Up until this time, Coppola had made several unsuccessful films, worked for Roger Corman, and written the screenplay of Patton. Disgusted with Hollywood, he and his film school friends from USC and UCLA (George Lucas, John Milius, Carroll Ballard, et al), have moved to San Francisco, formed American Zoetrope, and plan to make art pictures. At one point Coppola was called by 20th Century Fox and asked to come to L.A. to work on an editing machine apparently only he knew how to fix. While working, he looked up and saw the dailies of George C. Scott in Patton. Only then did he know the film he wrote was being made. 

The first movie on the docket at Zoetrope was Apocalypse Now, but at the last minute they decided to re-make Lucas’ USC student film THX 1138. Coppola had a deal with Warner Bros., but when the suits saw Lucas’ movie they reverted to the small print in the contract, requiring Coppola to pay all the money they gave him back if they disliked the way things were going, which they did. Coppola, as is his wont, had already spent the money and took The Godfather job out of desperation.

He at first explains that he does not wish to besmirch his Italian heritage glorifying the mafia, and that the novel was pulpy and filled with salacious sex, not his style, but he needs the money and quickly realizes the story is “Shakespearean, it’s Biblical, it’s King Lear, the story of a king and three sons.” He sees not a mob story, but in line with his upbringing as the son of classical musicians, an operatic family epic. 

In episode two (the first two are directed by Dexter Fletcher), Ruddy and Evans must deal with mob intimidation and interference from Gulf + Western honcho Barry Lapidus (a very smarmy Colin Hanks). For the role of Michael Corleone, Coppola wants an unknown stage actor named Al Pacino, played to perfection by Anthony Ippolito, who gets the early Pacino shyness, insecurity and soft voice down to a T. But Pacino is five-foot, six inches tall, “a shrimp” according to Evans, who has an unusual dislike for him and wants James Caan in the role. 

Charlie likes the glamour, but intends to sell his little plaything for a profit.

A scene of Evans and Ali at a swank, til-dawn party in the Hollywood Hills, complete with alluring starlets, is nothing less than delicious, as is an earlier showing of the Chateau Marmont introduced by The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” that is nostalgia-plus. This is the ‘60s!

Furthermore, Fontane moves to Las Vegas where he goes on a drunken sex spree with his Rat Pack-like pals. Perhaps what angered Sinatra the most was a depiction of Fontane and his wife. She mocks him, and has little respect for him as a man (a big no-no with Italians). Fontane engages in orgies, and there is a lot of back story about abortions, In fact the Fontane material could make a great stand-alone film or TV show on its own, but Sinatra hates it.

All the mob interference rattles Bludhdorn, played by Burn Gorman like a German staff officer. 

 Rumors of Evans’ imminent firing from Paramount threaten the entire project. Then Ruddy is “kidnapped” and brought to see Joe Colombo.

In episode three (“Fade In,” directed by Adam Arkin), Colombo meets Ruddy at his social club, telling him the the movie will not be made, period. A corrupt Congressman reiterates the same thing. But Ruddy invites Colombo to the Gulf + Western offices to read the screenplay, which is “stolen” by his assistant, Bettye McCartt, played by the lovely British actress Juno Temple (a double for Barbara Eden). This act of respect on Ruddy’s part impresses Colombo. At first the term “Fade In” is explained to him, and when assured that the majority of the Fontane material will be removed along with any reference to the word “mafia,” he suddenly becomes Ruddy’s best pal. 

“You’re one of us,” he tells him.

There is talk about offering the Fontane role to Sinatra. According to rumors I have heard, Sinatra went to Coppola himself and offered to play the role of Don Vito Corleone. Evans survives at Paramount and is adamant: no Al Pacino. Colombo also faces the problem of “Crazy Joe” Gallo, the reason for the last mob war who is now out of prison.

Arkin directs the next episode, “The Right Shade of Yellow.” Puzo has sent a letter and a signed copy of his book to Marlon Brando, who expresses interest in playing the Don, but Evans does not like the idea. Ruddy, Puzo and Coppola venture to Brando’s L.A. estate and meet him, played brilliantly by Justin Chambers in an Oriental robe and blonde ponytail. In a great scene, inter-posing what looks like actuall Godfather footage, Brando stuffs paper into his mouth and applies black shoe polish to his hair, all filmed by Coppola. After viewing the improvised screen test, both Evans and Bluhdorn agree Brando is brilliant and perfect for the part, which they get Brando to do for scale. The Italians, however, are divided, with Sinatra and the Congressman opposed to the film, and Colombo behind it. Ruddy convinces Bluhdorn he should be retained as producer despite the problems by saying he wants “to make a movie about ice blue killers that you love.” Bluhdorn, seeing the concept of a family opera of sorts, declares it “brilliant” and the show goes on . . . for now. Bluhdorn also agrees to Pacino as Michael, which Evans hates, but an anguished Pacino, a “starving artist” who orders everything on the menu at P.J. Clarke’s, tells Ruddy he has signed a contract to make a comedy. Ruddy talks Evans into doing a deal with another studio to let Pacino out of his contract.

After Coppola secures rights to the perfect house for the Corleone compound, the Congressman tells the owner of the house to back out of the deal, but to Ruddy’s consternation Colombo strong arms the man into letting them shoot at his home, which is in Staten Island but will stand in for the house in Long Beach, on Long Island near where Coppola grew up.

Every time one problem is solved, another pops up, this time when Bluhdorn floats the idea of selling Paramount to oil money from Texas, but after Colombo blindsides Ruddy on TV, showing all the world G+W/Paramount is “in bed” with the mob, the price for Paramount plummets and Bluhdorn turns the offer down.

In episode six (“A Stand Up Guy,” directed by Colin Bucksey), Ruddy is fired by a furious Bluhdorn after seeing the TV news showing Ruddy with Colombo. This causes Bettye to make a courageous move, which is to go to Colombo’s social club, where women are not allowed, and tell him that he is responsible for Ruddy’s firing. When Coppola calls Bluhdorn pleading to get Ruddy back, because the mob-controlled trucks will not clear out until they get the nod from Colombo, the Austrian agrees and Ruddy is back on board. Bettye says she did it not to help Ruddy, but for herself, as she is a woman in a man’s world but has ambitions. Sinatra is finally mollified by Ruddy’s promise to cut out most of the worst Fontane material from the novel.

Evans makes a famous speech to the Gulf + Western board, which can be viewed as he filmed it back in the day, on The Kid Stays in the Picture documentary (hilariously spoofed by Bill Hader in Documentary Now!, not to mention the animated Kid Notorious). There is also a marvelous scene in which Coppola takes the actors cast as the Corleone family to dinner at Patsy’s. Aside from the actors playing Brando and Pacino, actors portraying Talia Shire, James Caan, John Cazale, Gianni Russo and Morganna King, all begin to role play their screen personas, with Brando at the head of the table; Russo “threatening” Talia, who says it is “my fault”; and Caan ready to hit Russo. Oddly we have not yet seen Robert Duvall’s character, Tom Hagen. This eerily shadows the fact Duvall could not reach a contractual agreement to play the role in which he succeeds Michael as the family Don in The Godfather III, which is why it was a disappointment.

At this point The Offer has four more episodes to go, and audiences are on the edge of their seats waiting for them each Thursday. For us Godfather cinephiles, we know a few essential facts, some of which have been foreshadowed. First, the “knives are out” not just for Ruddy and Evans, but for the unproven Coppola. A tight-knit veteran crew thinks he is in over his head, and when they get a look at how dark many of the early scenes are, both in-doors and outside, they will complain that the film will be ruined. This of course enters the rumor mill and makes its way back to Hollywood (a similar thing occurred after Martin Sheen’s heart attack on the Apocalypse Now set).

When Coppola goes to the bathroom, while sitting on the toilet, he will overhear crew members talking about how incompetent he is. The main complainers will be cinematographer Gordon Willis ( T.J. Thyne) and Aram Avakian (Geoffrey Arend), who has been told that when Coppola is fired he will take over The Godfather. Evans will develop a dislike of Coppola, and will be prepared to axe him, but will have to wait until the Academy Awards for 1970 are over, when Coppola will win the Oscar for his screenplay of Patton, and they will discover they are all stuck with him. Eventually an argument will ensue over the film’s length, with Coppola cutting it to satisfy the Gulf + Western suits; Evans arguing he made “an epic into a trailer,” apparently forcing the cut scenes back in. 

To this day, the two have argued over these points. As a general rule, most of the cast agree it was Coppola who made the changes or refused the changes, that made it a great film. We also should see Coppola’s father, who orchestrated much of the haunting music in The Godfather.

We already have seen the beginning of the unraveling of Evans’s marriage to the gorgeous Ali MacGraw (Meredith Garretson), in which Evans attempts to stop her from going to Texas to film The Getaway with Steve McQueen. She will have an affair with McQueen and they will divorce. Evans to his dying day will lament how he blew it, how she made made him promise he would never leave her, but he failed. 

“A man who says he knows the mind of a woman . . . knows nothing,” he will lament.

Though the Duvall character is not yet listed in the credits, neither is McQueen, or the actors playing Clemenza and Tessio, not to mention Sollozo and Sterling Hayden’s Captain McCluskey. Hopefully they will play out over the next four episodes. I look forward to seeing the friendship between Evans and Henry Kissinger, who will turn down an invite to The Godfather premiere because the Nixon Administration is setting up landmines in Haiphong Harbor, but is talked into it by his pal. Whether actors portraying Evans’ buddies Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson will appear remain for now up in the air. One can only hope. We have, however, already seen Lou Ferrigno as Lenny Montana, a real-life mobster who was Colombo’s muscle, and will be chosen to play the feared Luca Brasi.

One of the show’s most delightful twists is the use of foreshadowing based on conversations from The Offer that will later appear in The Godfather. The “kidnapping” of Ruddy reminds one of the trip Michael takes with Sollozo and McCluskey when the car seems headed to New Jersey, where he will not have a gun to kill them with, only to make a last-second turn on the bridge back to the Bronx. 

Also, Colombo takes a meeting with other mob captains, but is nervous, as if they might take him out, and stands looking at the table much the way Michael stared down Sollozo and McCluskey before shooting them both dead. A dead rat sent to Evans to intimidate him foreshadows the dead fish sent to Sonny Corleone after the death of Luca Brasi. When the FBI raid Colombo’s social club, one of the G-men tells Colombo, “Congressman Biaggi says hello,” which sounds a lot like the hit men announcing, “Michael Corleone says hello” after the botched attempt on Frankie Pentangeli’s life at the headquarters of the Rosato brothers. During the negotiations to sell Paramount, Lapidus reveals a chink in their armor, and afterward incurs Bluhdorn’s wrath when he tells him, “Never reveal what you are thinking during negotiations.” This is just like the Don excoriating Sonny after he reveals he is “hot” for Sollozo’s drug deal. In a classic scene at P.J. Clarke’s (easily my favorite Manhattan bar), production assistant Andrea Eastman (Stephanie Koenig)  tells Ruddy all the problems are worth it because “this is the life we have chosen.” This of course mirrors Hyman Roth, basically in the role of Meyer Lansky, telling Michael he forgives the killing of Moe Green (based on Bugsy Siegel). 

There are several other incidents of this nature and no doubt there will be more. I cannot wait.

Additionally, there have been recent rumors of a “making of The Godfather” theatrical release starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Evans, Oscar Isaac as Coppola, directed by Barry Levinson, but this project may have stalled. From a personal angle, as the author of Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now, I have a few lines in the water, hoping somebody will decide a TV/streaming series detailing behind-the-scenes adventures in the Philippines, L.A. and San Francisco (1967-79) will be just as exciting as The Godfather.

Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.

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