It’s 1989 and It’s just been announced that Francis Ford Coppola is going to be doing a third installment in The Godfather franchise. This is a big deal. By then, the first two films were already historic masterpieces, and had rightfully taken their place in the pantheon of the greatest films of all time. Because of this, there were a lot of boxes to check: Coppola would have to create a third installment that managed to move the plot forward, serve as an essential chapter on its own right, and live up to the reputation of the first two. There were so many moving parts that could ultimately go wrong, but if anyone was up to the challenge, it was Coppola. This time around, however, he would need a new antagonist and he found one in Joe Mantegna.
Mantegna, who won all sorts of acclaim and a Tony for his work onstage in Glengarry Glen Ross, would play Joey Zasa. A “bella figura”, as Mantegna saw it, who ultimately finds himself at odds with the Corleone family. It’s a role that easily could have pivoted into stereotypical gangster territory. However, Mantegna opted to rise above that, seeing the films not as a series of gangster movies, but family movies. And while the third installment itself has been dragged through the mud over the years, Mantegna’s portrayal of Zasa still holds its own as a standout performance in the overall trilogy.
In celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary, Coppola has delivered The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. By reworking certain elements of the film, Coppola allows us to finally see a final product much closer to what he had initially envisioned And while the changes are primarily with regards to the structure of the bookends, the new cut affords fans and viewers the opportunity to reevaluate the film and see it through a new lens. Three decades later, despite its flaws, this new cut manages to do exactly what Coppola set out to do with it — warts and all.
In honor of the film’s release this month, Consequence spoke to Mantegna about his role in the film. Together, they discussed how he viewed the character, the John Gotti comparisons, a surreal moment upon arrival in Italy, the “process”, his memories of Coppola and Al Pacino on the set, his own first thoughts upon seeing the original cut, and its surprising legacy.
On Landing the Part
I think Coppola had a familiarity with me. When I did the play Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway, that opened up a lot of doors for me in the film industry. I mean, I won a Tony Award, the show won a Pulitzer Prize, I wound up doing it for a year on Broadway. Every director on the planet saw the play. And I think that upped my stock in terms of being a viable actor.
And then also I did this movie a couple of years prior to Godfather called Wait Until Spring Bandini, which was based on the John Fante book. And Coppola was a huge fan of Fante, and in fact co-produced the movie. [American] Zoetrope [Coppola’s production company] co-produced the movie. It was mostly foreign, though. It was Italian and Belgium and had American producers, because Fante had a big following in Europe as well. John Fante was like Charles Bukowski’s favorite writer. So in certain literary circles, especially in Europe, he was very popular.
Anyway, I did that movie. I was one in the leads in that movie with Faye Dunaway. So I knew Coppola was familiar with me as an actor, though I had never met him at that point. Obviously enough so that he cast me in the role [in The Godfather Part III] without a meeting or an audition or anything like that. So I got hired and that was that. As my friend Vinny Guastaferro said to me when I got cast, “Hey man. You’re gonna be in the Italian Star Wars.” It was a big deal.
On Finding Out He Got the Part
There’s an interesting story behind how I found out. I knew I was up for the role. But that’s all. And you hear that a lot with any role. “You’re being considered.” For all you know, there’s a list of 10 guys. I remember it was a Friday night, and I was going to this restaurant in my neighborhood here in California to pick up something for my wife. It was an Italian restaurant. And I walk in the door – I knew the owners, who were two brothers – and the one owner looks at me and he goes “Joey, you son of a bitch. You’re going to be in Godfather III.” And I said “What?” And he said “You’re gonna be in Godfather III. Come on! Don’t be shy. Come on!”
And I’m thinking What the hell? Why is this guy at the Italian pizza joint saying this to me? I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “Joe. Come on. My nephew works at the casting office for Paramount Pictures. They just finished the meeting up there. They put the pictures of the actors up on the wall.” He said they had Al Pacino… He said, “They put your picture up on the wall. They cast you in the part. You know that.”
Of course, I don’t wanna tell the guy that I don’t know that. So I say, “I know I’m being considered for a role in it. But you never know…” I’m trying to downplay it as much as I could, but I’m thinking I just want to get out of this restaurant and get home so I could call my agent. Because it was Friday night. It was late in the day. It was like 6 o’clock after hours.
So I run back to the fucking house and I call my agent, and I said, “What the fuck? The pizza guy at the corner just told me I’m in the movie.” He goes, “Yeah! I just got the call. I was just gonna call you.” So, literally the pizza guy heard it from his nephew before my agent heard. Of course, it didn’t dampen the excitement; it gives me a little story to be able to tell.
So, that’s how I found out.
On Playing a John Gotti “Type” Character
Yeah. It was pretty obvious there was certainly going to be a Gotti influence in there, because of the whole bella figura and the way he dressed. Up to the point, in fact, where I was on the set once in New York shooting right across the street from the Ravenite Social Club, which was Gotti’s headquarters. Literally two of his bodyguards were introduced to me by his stunt coordinator who knew them. As you can imagine, these were big tough guys who I guess on occasion would even act as extras in the stunt world — and they just wanted to meet me. They basically said “Oh, Mr. Mantegna. We hear your character is somewhat based on Mr. Gotti.” I didn’t know how to answer that. I was like, “Well, I don’t know. You’d have to talk to the writer or director about that. I don’t know.”
Read ahead for his interpretation of Zasa and his stories on Coppola…
On His Interpretation of the Character
I’ll tell you this. When I read it, my goal was not to “thug it up,” in other words: make it like one of these “these-them-those guys.” Because I thought, That’s been done. And the other thing was that I had too much respect for the franchise. I said, “The Godfather, this is not just about gangsters. This is about family.” I also thought of it in terms of royalty. They are like the royal family in a way. And I thought of the whole thing. I thought the mafia in a way is this whole … it’s structured like the military. It’s no accident that it’s successful. There must be a reason behind it, and part of it is because there’s a certain kind of discipline.
So what I hopefully brought to it – and some people actually brought it up to me – I tried to elevate the way Joey Zasa thought of himself, and even in the way he spoke. Because I thought, If this guy dresses this way, and he wears thousand, two thousand dollar suits, I’m not gonna have it be like a bowl in a china shop. I want to show a guy that, not that he is that educated or that slick, but he thinks he is. So he knows enough about language and how to carry himself and he tries to be almost like a prince in a kingdom.
That all went through my head. So, when I would do these scenes, especially that one big scene where I’m speaking to the whole group at the round table, I kind of felt like Coppola felt this way, too. Because there was that scene where they’re passing around that tray of rings and stuff, gifts for each of them. I thought, This is perfect. This is just where I’m coming from. This is like medieval times in a way. We’re in the palace of King Arthur. And Pacino’s character is the king and now he’s passing out little gifts, little trinkets to the princes in the fiefdom in the kingdom. And I think of myself as being one of them, and now I’m catching a little grief right now for whatever reason. And I’m a little upset because obviously I just had my ear bit off by somebody who I don’t think deserves to be in the fiefdom. He’s a relative. Well, I mean, he’s a “bastardo”. I say that line.
So that’s what I hoped to bring to the character. So, even when I sit in a chair or when I walked around, I wanted to justify that I had the line: “People think of me as a bella figura.” And then also, this was an ad-lib that Coppola let me keep in the movie. So when I get to a line like, “Yeah, I’d like to get a little pin from the Pope,” that was a Joe Mantegna ad-lib when we were doing a rehearsal of the scene. Coppola wanted to hear us do it in our own words, and I respect Coppola for understanding that this is a guy who is trying to be more than he is, and on occasion will revert back and slip back into his roots which are pretty rough and tumble and rough around the edges. And he still is a thug, underneath it all. So, that was my take on the character.
On the Most Surreal Moment
Well, you know what kind of stands out in my head is really the process itself as much as anything else. In other words, we’re shooting in Rome at Cinecittá Studios, which has this history itself. I remember my first day as I arrived in Rome, I had to go for a costume fitting at Cinecittá. So, they send me to Cinecittá, and I’m thinking, Wow. This is where Fellini did all his movies. And it was an old soundstage, kind of like MGM or Universal.
So, I go in and you push open those huge doors that lead you into the soundstage — these big solid-proof doors. I remember they told me, “Yeah, go into that soundstage. They’re waiting for you.” So I go and I push the door, and as I push it, all of a sudden this sound comes emanating from within. And what comes from within is an orchestra playing [The Godfather theme]. And it was the orchestra rehearsing for the scene that we were going to shoot within a couple days: This party where my character first kind of makes an appearance where there’s an orchestra playing and they’re playing that song.
And the hair went up on the back of my neck in a way, because I thought, This is a song that over the last 20 years that you would hear people play at parties. It was part of the lexicon of music and the world. The Godfather theme. You’d hear it, especially if some Italian guy is having a birthday. But I’m thinking, This is the real deal. This is not just somebody playing this at a backyard barbecue for fun playing it for their Uncle Guido. This is from the movie The Godfather III that I’m about to do. And so that will always stick in my mind. That moment of, “Yeah, you’re here now. This is the real deal. This is not some pretend thing here.”
I remember sitting next to Coppola and talking to him off-camera sometimes, just because we happen to be sitting in the chairs next to each other. And I remember Sofia was doing a scene in front of me with Andy [Garcia] or whatever, and we were by that church where we did that opening scene where he’s getting the medal. It might have been while we were shooting that scene. I remember Coppola saying as an aside to me, “Wow. It’s interesting to be here with Sofia doing that because in that scene in Godfather I where the baby’s being baptized, she was the baby in that scene.” And I didn’t know that. And I didn’t know if anybody else knew that. But when Al and Diane Keaton are holding that little baby girl, that really was her. And now here she is as an adult, playing the part.
Also a lot of Francis’s family was there. His father was there, his mother was there, his sons were there, and the one son had passed away, Gio. But Gio’s girlfriend, who had had a baby that they named Gia — and that’s important to me because I have a daughter named Gia — she was there working in the costume department. Partly because he wanted to keep his granddaughter close of his son who had been killed in that boating accident. So, my point is there was a lot of drama in reality, but it was so wonderful, because I have such respect for Francis.
I have a lot of relatives in Italy, so I took a weekend off to go visit my relatives in the South. When I came back, I brought him some wine because my uncle was in the wine business — and he loved it. So we went in his trailer – they called it the war wagons. He had this big trailer which he’d work out of, and he would be cooking in there, and he showed me some of his wine, and I gave him the bottle from my cousin. So, being Italian American as I am, and having Italian roots in Italy, as I do, that made it even more special. And obviously he’s one of the greatest directors ever in the history of cinema, so to have that privilege of being that close to him and working with him was great.
Read ahead for his memories with Pacino and seeing both cuts…
Pacino was very giving as an actor — and Coppola would do that. He would go, “Let’s just do one for fun. Let’s just do a run-through without the script and ad-lib what you think these characters would say.” And Al being the theater guy that he was and, me, of course, being the theater guy that I was, we embraced that. “Okay, great.” And we would do it.
Coppola wound up using some of it. He actually filmed some of it when we weren’t even aware of it. Like that line, “I’d like to get a little pin from the Pope,” that made it into the movie and I didn’t even know he was filming it because that was one of my ad-libs. But in doing all of that, Al was right there and would go with it, and he would do the same thing. He would throw in stuff.
So, he’s a consummate actor. I mean, it’s no accident he’s had the career he’s had. It’s like you’re playing with the Yankee’s of the 50’s. You’re playing with one of the best teams in the world. And you’re just hoping to be one of them. You figure, “Well, they put me in a position. They told me to play left field and I’m next to Mickey Mantle and all those other guys, so I guess I’ve got to produce.”
On Seeing Part III For the First Time
Well, whenever I sit down to watch anything I’m in, it’s very difficult for me because it’s hard to be objective. Because what happens is you get lost in the process. So, in other words, I’m watching a scene, and besides watching the content of the scene, I’m thinking Oh yeah. That’s the day my daughter came to the set. It gets clouded a little by the reality of the work that you did to make that happen. And it’s hard to get lost in the moment, at least initially. Maybe you see something a few times and then it helps in a way. And then you can maybe appreciate it for what it is. But for me, it’s somewhat overwhelming. I think asking an actor who’s in something, they’re not going to be the best judge of how something is coming off or what the ultimate effect of it is.
On the Reception at the Time
It was apparent that obviously some things happened that weren’t supposed to happen. Because of that, it’s going to create a stir. I mean, I know the whole thing about Sofia replacing Winona Ryder at the last minute, and why that happened. But at the end of the day, I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason and, in this particular instance, Francis deserved whatever freedom he wanted to make the movie he wanted to make — based on what he did with Godfather and Godfather II. Whatever he felt he should do to make this movie what it is, you gotta let it go. You don’t tell da Vinci, “Yeah, we saw what you did with The Last Supper, but we really think with the Mona Lisa you should put the smile on the face.” Nah, you don’t do that. You gotta let it go and let it speak for itself.
I think what ultimately happens is you’ve got these two movies that were monumental. I mean, let’s face it, Godfather I and II were done pretty close together. Now, 18 years have gone by, and they hear that there’s going to be this sequel. The expectation is through the fucking stratosphere. People are hoping that it’s going to now be the third greatest movie on the planet. It’s almost like when a movie star dies suddenly. James Dean was a great actor, but the fact that he died in this car crash unexpectedly made him an even greater actor than he ever could’ve possibly been. Or Marilyn Monroe dying tragically. The icon of her is almost greater than the talent that she was. Because they never had a full chance to run the whole course and fulfil and be able to say “Okay. We can look at the whole pastiche of their life, and this is what we think.” So in this case, it was a similar kind of thing. It was like “Okay, we’re ready. Here it is! 18 years have gone by. You better knock our fucking socks off.”
It’s kind of funny. Along with the criticism, and some of it was vicious, there was some from the other side — and some of it was very reputable. Even The New York Times, as I recall, gave the film some very positive stuff. And I’ll tell you what I found most interesting, and this is something that I discovered late…
When I talk to people today – meaning the last 10 years, especially; and I talk to younger people, and when I say younger, I’m 73 years old, I’m talking to people even in their 50’s or their 40’s — [they] have no memory of those first two movies back at the time they came out. It wasn’t like, “Oh man. We’ve got to go see The Godfather.” Some of them weren’t even born yet, let’s put it that way. The Godfather movies, to them, are like me talking about silent movies or something. So, you talk to them, and a surprisingly large amount of people in that age group, they’ll say, “Hey man. You’re Joe Mantegna. You were in Godfather III, right?” I go, “Yeah.” And they’ll say, “Yeah. My dad just turned us onto those movies. And we watched them all just last week. And number III was my favorite!” And I’ll go, “Really?” And they’ll go “Yeah,” without hesitation. And on occasion I’ll say, “Why?” And they’ll go, “Well, no. We liked them all. They were great. But that third one,” whatever reason.
And I thought to myself, Huh. That’s kind of funny. And I’m thinking maybe that is partly due to the fact that they’re coming in with no baggage, no anticipation. In other words, they are being introduced to it as this trilogy of films and you just take them for what they’re worth — and they buy it. They buy the third one because they didn’t go in with this thing of, “I saw the first two 18 years ago and it had this incredible impact on me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.” So I thought that was an interesting take on it. And that’s why it will be interesting to see how this new one resonates. If nothing else, for those who haven’t seen the Godfathers at all – and there’s got to be some people out there – they find that it holds up in other ways for other reasons. I don’t know. Again, I’m not the right person to ask because I’m part of the process.
On the Coda Cut
Well, Coppola wanted to name it that from the beginning. Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. So, obviously, he had a whole different take on how he wanted to do it anyway. So, then you throw in a fly in the ointment, and suddenly he had to make casting changes, and this and that in order to release it by Christmas Day.
That’s life. It’s like, “God laughs at those who makes plans.” So, in other words, there’s something to be said. It’s opera. The opera of making the movie was as interesting as the movie itself in many ways. And that’s life and that’s what makes it so exciting and interesting. Movies are just a reflection of life, anyway. And The Godfather saga, it is about family. It’s such a great representation of that particular family.
And yet, so many people can relate to it or embrace it. I never think of it as a gangster movie. I think of it as a family movie that happens to be about people who are in that line of work. I think it’s great that they’re releasing it now. I’m glad Francis had that opportunity to put the Coda on it. On the trilogy. To be able to say, “Okay. At least I got a shot.” He’s done that with other films, and directors of his status should have that capability. It’s their work. It’s their art. And if they want to make an adjustment, why not give them that opportunity if possible?