Just when Joe Mantegna thinks he’s out, they pull him back in. Thirty years after his iconic performance as Joey Zasa in The Godfather Part III, director Francis Ford Coppola is taking care of all family business with the re-edited and restored The Godfather Part III Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, a Paramount Home Entertainment release available from Redbox for purchase, or to stream On Demand. The third film in the trilogy has a conflicted legacy. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Released 18 years after Part II, a masterpiece on par with the original, Part III initially failed to meet high expectations, but it has steadily grown in estimation (the website 25YL recently called it “a brilliant closure”). Coppola’s new edit has a new beginning and ending as well as changes to scenes, shots and music cues that more fully reflect his original intentions.
Interviewing Mantegna was an offer we couldn’t refuse. He is the consummate character actor. He originated the role of Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway, for which he won a Tony. His films with David Mamet (including House of Games and Things Change) are among the most potent director-actor collaborations of our time. And for almost two decades, he’s voiced Fat Tony, one of the most beloved supporting characters on The Simpsons. But he is especially proud to be a part of “the Italian Star Wars” and he has some great stories to share. Like: if you miss your stop while riding the Rome subway at night, George Hamilton is the person you want to be traveling with.
Redbox: Some actors say they want to do a particular movie just for the poster. Was being in a Godfather film like that for you?
JM:For me, it was just being a part of that trilogy. When I got the role, one of my closest friends told me, ‘Joe, you’re going to be in the Italian Star Wars.’
Redbox: What do you remember about the audition?
JM: I’ll tell you a funny anecdote. My agent told me I was on a short list of actors being considered for the film. It was a Friday and I was going to pick up some dinner for my wife and I at this local Italian restaurant in Studio City, California. I walk in and the owner looks at me and says, ‘Joe Mantegna, you son of a bitch, you’re going to be in Godfather III.’ I’m like, ‘Am I dreaming? Why is this guy telling me this?’ He goes, ‘My nephew who works in the casting office called me and he said they just finished the casting. They have this wall with pictures pinned to all the people who are going to be in the film, and they just pinned your picture under one of the characters.’ I run home and I call my agent, literally 5:30 on a Friday night. I tell him that the local restaurant guy just told me I’m doing the movie. He said, ‘I just got the call and I was going to call and let you know.’ But I found out from the pizza guy first. So, there was no audition. The first time I met Coppola was the first day on the set.
Redbox: You’re no stranger to film sets at this point in your career, but what’s it like to arrive on a Godfather set?
JM: First of all, I was going to Cinecitta studios in Rome; where Fellini made films. I get to the studio to do costume fittings. It wasn’t even the first day of shooting. I push open the soundstage door and I hear an orchestra playing the Godfather theme. I got chills up my neck. I realize I’m not at some Italian kid’s birthday party; I’m on the set of The Godfather.
Redbox: Of the first two Godfathers, do you have a favorite?
JM: I don’t. I think the second is the best sequel to a movie ever made, without question. But this is interesting: Over the course of the last 30 years, I’ve had numerous occasions where I will be talking to somebody, maybe in their thirties, and they will mention that the third one is their favorite. I realized that for them which film is their favorite is based on at what point in their life they were introduced to The Godfather saga. Maybe they watched it with their dad. They didn’t grow up having seen the first two and then waited 18 years before the third one with all that expectation.
Redbox: Your dapper character, Joey Zasa, is said to be based on John Gotti. One of my favorite stories about Ben Hecht, who wrote the original Scarface, is that at one point, associates of Al Capone came to visit him and asked if Paul Muni’s character was based on Capone. Hecht told them that letting people think it was about Capone was part of the show business racket. I read that you were approached by some Gotti associates.
JM: Exactly right, same thing. We were shooting in New York in Little Italy. I’m sitting in my cast chair on the set. We are shooting across the street from John Gotti’s social club. So, these two guys come over; very big men, but very well-dressed and very polite. They said, ‘Mr. Mantegna, very nice to meet you. We had heard that your character is somewhat based on Mr. Gotti.’ I remember my reaction was similar to Hecht’s. I said, ‘You’d have to talk to Mario Puzo and Coppola as to where they draw their inspiration. I’m an actor, I play the part.’ Meanwhile, I’m wearing this $5,000 suit (editor’s note: the late John Gotti was considered to be the best-dressed mobster of all time). They said, ‘Okay, great.’
Redbox: What is the hang like on a Godfather set? Did you press Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Coppola for Brando stories?
JM: You don’t do a lot of questioning. That’s why Andy Garcia and I became so close; to this day we live three blocks from each other. We were the new guys. We’re just happy to be there. You don’t want to be that guy who’s like, ‘Hey, tell me all those stories about what’s Brando like.’
When I was shooting my first scene, my first line was to Al. I remember they’re just about to start, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m about to talk to Michael Corleone, one of the most mythical characters in cinema.’ For a second, I had a jab of fear, but then I said to myself, ‘Fuck this. I’ve been working in theatre, television and film building to this moment. I started thinking in terms of a baseball player who did little league, pony league, college ball and the minors. Now I’m in fucking Yankee stadium, I’m I’m in the World Series and they’re about to pitch me. If not now, when? And if not me, who? So, it was like, ‘I’m in, let’s go.’
Redbox: As with all the Godfather films, Part III is impeccably cast. Do you have any stories about working with Eli Wallach and George Hamilton?
JM: I’ll tell you a great story. We were all staying in the same hotel in Rome. Cinecitta studios was not that close and Rome traffic being what it is, getting to and from the hotel could be an adventure. So, George and Eli and I took the subway on occasion rather than a car. One time we were on the subway. We got lost in conversation and the train stops. We hear the conductor saying, ‘End of the line.’ We missed our stop and it’s the last train of the night. The three of us don’t know where we are. I explained to the conductor that we passed our stop. The conductor looks at me like he doesn’t know who I am, and he gives Eli Wallach the same look. Then he looks over at George and he goes ‘Dracula!’ (from the comedy, Love at First Bite). George being George turns on the charm. He says a couple of words to the guy and now the conductor goes, ‘No problem.’ He takes out these keys and he starts up the train and takes us back. You can see the workmen (at the passing stations) cleaning up and they’re shocked. There’s not supposed to be any train. They’re like, ‘Where the hell did this come from?’
Redbox: What do you think of Coppola re-editing the film? Will you see it?
JM: My feeling is it’s Francis Ford Coppola. Why would you not allow him to do that? I think Francis has earned that right. Paramount, in their wisdom, said, ‘Okay sure, let’s see what you got in mind.’ I personally look forward to seeing what it is and how it’s changed. I’m just happy for him that he is able to close the book on it.