Francis Ford Coppola was just a few months into production on The Godfather when he began directing the fictional assassinations Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) orders against family rivals. On June 28, 1971, as a Corleone hitman aimed his prop gun under Coppola’s direction, a very similar scene was taking place just four blocks away. Joe Colombo, a professed real estate agent who led the Italian-American Civil Rights League in protesting stereotyped depictions of Italians in film, was approaching a podium to make a speech during a rally at Columbus Circle in New York. He was oblivious to the very real gun being aimed at his head.
For months, Colombo had waged war against the Paramount movie, asserting it propagated an exaggerated fiction about the existence of the mafia. Colombo had intimated there would be labor issues, production delays, and other, less defined obstacles that could threaten to curtail the studio’s multimillion investment in their adaption of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. He could make such statements because, in addition to his real estate interests, Colombo was a major figure in organized crime.
Before Colombo could utter a word at the rally, a man disguised as a press photographer dropped his camera, raised a revolver, and shot Colombo three times in the head and neck. Colombo’s men immediately retaliated, shooting the assassin dead.
For Paramount, any sense of relief would be short-lived. In making sure nothing interrupted filming of The Godfather, producers had made a very public—and very costly—pact with the mob.
When prodded by reporters, the outspoken Colombo would deny there was any such thing as a mafia. “Mafia, what’s a mafia?” he was once quoted as saying. “There is not a mafia. Am I head of a family? Yes. My wife and four sons and a daughter. That’s my family.”
A cursory investigation of Colombo’s past would reveal otherwise. After commandeering the Profaci crime family in the mid-1960s, and capitalizing on the void left by incarcerated boss “Crazy” Joe Gallo, Colombo quickly rose through the ranks of New York’s notorious Five Families. He had been indicted for tax evasion and accused by the FBI of running a widespread gambling and extortion ring.
Most suspected criminals would keep a low profile. Instead, Colombo decided to go big. Co-creating the Italian-American Civil Rights League, Colombo decried sensational media stories regarding Italian-Americans in general. He found support in members of his ethnicity—nearly 45,000 members—who were tired of the stereotypes. An Alka-Seltzer commercial with the catchphrase “That’s-a-some-a-spicy meatball” was an early target, and the League had success getting it removed from the airwaves. He also lobbied to have the word “mafia” taken out of scripts for television’s The FBI.
In rallying law-abiding Italians and depicting himself as the aggrieved party, Colombo was successful in helping to stifle reference to the terms “mafia” or “la cosa nostra” in popular culture. As soon as Paramount announced plans to produce The Godfather, he had acquired his biggest target to date.
The film version of the Puzo novel had been brought to the studio…
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