Hands down, The Godfather is one of the most iconic films in history. Its individual performances are among the most-admired, its lines are among the most-quoted and its themes, among the most-imitated. It was nominated for 10-total Oscars, winning three, including Best Picture and Best Actor, on the heels of a brilliant performance by Marlon Brando.
Considering how much rich cinematic history is involved with Francis Ford Coppola’s film, fans always reminisce about one of its most-memorable lines, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”, via the late Richard S. Castellano’s character, Clemenza.
The other ill-fated character involved in that monumental scene who meets his unfortunate demise, the driver, Paulie Gatto. It is such an important scene because it sets the tone for the rest of the film, in that, do not ever go against the Corleone family. He didn’t have many lines, let alone scenes, but Johnny Martino’s portrayal of the character was fantastic. It was his performance that made Paulie a favorite among die-hard fans of the film.
Don’t let the screen time fool you. The Gatto character is mentioned during the early parts of the film in the double digits. He is not only incredibly recognizable, but extremely important to the film. No one knew what he was up to and his doublecross almost paid off in killing Vito Corleone. The book, by Mario Puzo, tells a slightly different tale than the film because Paulie is actually used by Sollozzo, played by Al Lettieri, as he is unaware the plan is to murder him.
“He was kind of a cute character in the beginning of the movie,” Martino said. “It’s funny. He’s at a wedding with the Godfather and he’s thinking about a wedding purse. I think the viewers like me at the beginning of the film, kicking the camera and stuff, but when they found out I set up the old man, ‘The Don’, it was curtains for Paulie. I can’t imagine not being in the film though. It was an amazing experience. One of the greatest movies of all time.”
The story, on the other side of the camera, regarding the character is an amazing one. It is one of those true Hollywood ‘Did-You-Know?’-type stories. Though Robert De Niro did win an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, arguably one of the greatest sequels in any franchise, ever, he initially auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Sonny Corleone (James Caan), but was in on Paulie as well. When Martino went in to read for the part, he did the Gatto death scene and read alongside Garry Marshall, the creator of Happy Days, in front of then-Paramount President Robert Evans.
“I had met one of the producers on the film, Albert Ruddy, at a party in 1970,” Martino said. “I called him because I wanted to be in the movie. I auditioned, got the call that I got the part and went to New York to start filming. Al came up and asked me what made me call the day I did to audition and I told him that it was just a hunch. He told me how lucky I was because I had beat out guys like De Niro and Jerry Orbach. If I would not have made that phone call on that exact day, I might not had been in the movie, De Niro would have been Paulie, but then he would not have been in The Godfather: Part II.”
Martino began singing and acting as a teenager in his native Brooklyn, N.Y., along with John Cassavetes, at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His singing career launched after an appearance on the Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, where he performed, Baby Sitting Baby. He recently recorded the song, along with others, and will release an album, featuring songs in both English and Italian, in February of 2018. He also has a book about his life, written by Richard Lester, titled, A Wish Beyond the Stars: The Johnny Martino Story. He now lives in Central Florida with his wife and two sons.
“It’s a great book that tells my whole story,” Martino proclaimed. “It talks about my family, nine children, one girl and eight boys, and talks about my career. It covers how I started as a singer and then became a Hollywood actor and got to meet people like, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. It has been an amazing ride.”
One of the more fascinating stories from his childhood though, growing up in the presence of one of the most-notorious Italian-American gangsters in history, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Historically, he is considered to be the ‘Father of Organized Crime’ in the States.
“In 1947, I was 10-years-old,” Martino said. “My father took both my brother and I for a ride to this office building. My father got out of the car to greet a gentleman that came out and then the man gets in the car, along with my father, and sits in the front seat. He looks at me and asks me if I understand English, I told him I did. He asked me to always speak it in his presence because he missed America and ‘Lucky’ Luciano was my uncle.”
In what was a fitting end to the interview, while Martino was talking about Luciano, The Godfather score started to play loudly.
It was his ringtone.