Johnny Martino’s name isn’t as well known as some of his co-stars in The Godfather, but his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning 1972 crime film was pivotal: As Paulie Gatto, it’s his absence that gets Vito Corleone shot; not long after, Paulie gets himself murdered in return. In fact, his death inspired one of the most famous lines of dialogue in the entire Godfather universe. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli” became synonymous with the franchise overnight, and rightly or not encapsulated an Italian mobster’s priorities for generations to come.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, Martino spoke with The A.V. Club about his small but unforgettable part in the film, revealing key details about his process as an actor and the personal insights he brought to the perspective of a foot soldier in a criminal organization. He also discussed his relationship with the other actors and the advice they traded while helping Coppola get through a famously troubled production to create what has become an enduring cinematic classic.
The A.V. Club: This movie has so many big stories surrounding it, about Coppola and Robert Evans and the making of the movie. From your perspective a little outside of the core cast, did you have the sense while you were making it that this film would endure, that it would make the impression that it did?
Johnny Martino: I don’t know. Everybody was a little bit unsure because Francis was young. He wasn’t sure himself what was going on. I mean, the poor guy had so much pressure on him. He’s been fired several times and he fought back and [producer] Albert Ruddy stuck up for him. He said, “No, you gotta give him a chance. It’s gonna happen.” He fought to get it done the right way and sure enough, scene by scene, that’s how I believe life is, you do things one step at a time. “Let’s do this scene. Let’s see how that works out. Check it out tomorrow,” the dailies or whatever. And it started getting a little better each time.
Each actor started getting into their character, which was really interesting. I thought Paulie was a guy who was a crook. He liked money. He’d do some bad stuff. He was a stickup guy, too. So I developed my character, and when I got into Paulie, I stayed with him through the whole movie. I never changed character. I became Paulie.
I noticed Pacino started developing his character too. There was one scene when he came into the house, when they told him come home, Sonny says come home. And he does, he comes home. I’m sitting in the living room with Clemenza and Theresa, Bobby Duvall’s wife. And I’m sitting on the chair.
Now Pacino’s gonna become the boss someday, right? So I’m sitting there and he’s walking over to shake my hand. So now I turned around, I said to Al, “On the rehearsal, don’t come over and shake my hand. Look at me. Because at this point, now, think Al, you are gonna become the boss one day. You have to be sharp already at this point in your life. You’re starting to think, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I gotta help my family out here.’ Don’t trust Paulie right now. Go over to Clemenza, shake his hand.”
So Al said, “Wow, I didn’t even think of that, John.” Yes, think of that. Him and I, in the book, [the characters of] Al and I went to school together. That’s how I got in the family. But I gave him a couple of tips here and there, because I knew the mob world very close in my life. And I said, Al, do this, do that. And he would listen. And Al says, “Okay, Johnny, I’ll do that.” Anyway, him and I became the best of friends. We talk all the time. Al is such a nice person. I love Al Pacino. We see each other occasionally. He knows a couple of friends that I know out in California.
AVC: I’m always so fascinated with what’s going on in the actor’s head, particularly in a death scene. Throughout that whole sequence, does Paulie know that he is gonna die when he takes Clemenza for a drive?
JM: No, because let me tell you something. Even in real life, you don’t know. Your best friend’s talking to you. You trusted that person. You and I, we don’t even know each other. If we met a little bit longer [ago], we’d become friends. I’m gonna trust you. You trust your best friend. I don’t know what they’re gonna do. But I did take a look when the guy got in the back. I haven’t seen him in a while and I say, “Rocco, sit on the other side. You’re blocking the rear view mirror.” I’m tipping him, letting him know, “Don’t mess around with Paulie.”
Now Clemenza is easing the situation by saying, “Sonny’s thinking of going to the mattresses already, this and that,” bim boom, getting my confidence back so I’m not worrying about the guy in the back seat. And he did that perfectly. Now we’re going for the ride. Now, in the second movie, when they showed that cut, that he goes into the restaurant, I’m sitting in the parking lot. Rocco should have whacked me already at that time, but he didn’t. So when Clemenza comes back, we went to the mattresses and everything in the takes that were taken outta the film. But anyway, I was confident now. I wasn’t worried anymore. So when he says, “Pull over, I gotta take a leak,” I say okay. I pull over, trusting Clemenza. He gets out of the car. And that’s when they decided to do the job and kill Paulie.
AVC: Since Paramount Home Video remastered this film, it looks better than ever. Was there anything that watching the new version, maybe rekindled memories or showed you something that you felt like you had never seen on screen before?
JM: I like what they’ve done with it. It was a big difference from the beginning, original film, how much clearer and better the sound. Actually, they made a lot of corrections, but it’s still the same people, the same story flowing all the way through, just beautifully. So, yeah, I think they made it very interesting with the high definition and all the Blu-ray, whatever they did with the film. And it’s been released all over everywhere. It’s just so popular now because of the hot new [version] that just came out. It’s amazing.
AVC: You said at the beginning of this that you had a relationship with the mob. Did this movie give you street cred overnight, or did it hurt your reputation because you sold out Vito Corleone?
JM: Well, a lot of people that I met, even real mob people that I met, and they would say to me, you know… Paulie Castellano and I went to a funeral once and he looked at me and said, “Johnny, it’s just a movie, right?” Who was to think that this man in the future was going to be set up to be killed just like the Godfather? But do you know, when my father found out that I’m playing this character that set up the Godfather, he said, “Charlie, you can’t do something like that!” I said “Pop, it’s a movie. It’s not the real thing. It’s just a film.”
Of course, I’m not happy about playing that kind of role. Especially in real life, I’m not that kind of person. But Paulie’s character, stick-up artist, liked money, he got conned by Sollozzo to stay home. When Brando turned around and says, “Tell Paulie to get the car,” Fredo says, “Eh, I’ll get the car myself. Paulie called in sick. I don’t mind.” But it happens. In real life, that happens. People get set up. Somebody, your best friend, is gonna set you up. And the movie pulled it off just the way it’s supposed to be in real life. And that’s what’s so realistic, that I died that way, because that’s a real thing in real life. And that’s what made it so really powerful, my death scene.
AVC: For you as someone who was in the movie and is part of that legacy, is there one experience that has lingered around this film over its 50-year legacy that you always hold onto or come back to, whether it was a moment in filming or just the experience in the subsequent decades?
JM: The Godfather is my life. From the Day One, when it came out, I’ve lived the Godfather movie. Anywhere I went, “You’re Paulie!” It’s history. And it’s part of my history, the Godfather movie, not just another movie. Even Pacino, whatever movies he did, it always relates back to the Godfather movie.
Yes, 50 years have gone by and it’s changed my life drastically. I mean, anywhere I went, parties, whatever, “Johnny Martino’s coming!” And by the way, I sing too. A lot of people didn’t know I sang, and I did the Godfather theme recently, in English and Italian; Al Martino and Andy Williams never did that, but I did it. It’s a nice version. I put a record out called Speak Softly, Love Johnny Martino.
But it’s part of my life. It’ll always be part of my life. I don’t know how much longer am I gonna live, but I’m here, God wanted me to be around all this time, and I’ve been blessed, being in a movie like The Godfather.