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Gianni Russo: Walking The Walk

How sweet should the sweet life actually be? Step into the world of Italian-American icon - Gianni Russo. From his legendary role as Carlo Rizzi in

"The Godfather" to his extraordinary real-life journeys, Russo reveals how

he turned some impossible dreams into reality.



June, 2024

American Actor Gianni Russo
Gianni Russo photographed by Alessandro Gerini

“Are you there, my love?”

This was Gianni’s charming segue to our zoom interview.

His old world charm was palatable, but will he play by the rules?

It’s not every day that one has the opportunity to sit with a cast member of Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic masterpiece The Godfather. But rarer still is to extract insight from someone who was also quarantined (no family visits) for 5 years (at seven years old) for polio, was gifted a Rolex by the patron of the Dolce Vita Gianni Agnelli, had frequently dined with Pope John Paul II on Via Veneto, had Elvis open at his club in Las Vegas, was taught to sing by Frank Sinatra, taught to act by Marlon Brando, “made a man” by Marilyn Monroe, became a best-selling author, (despite being illiterate), and selling out his one-man show throughout North America,  we're only barely scratching the surface of the  dreams this New York raconteur has manifested.

My intention going in was to extract wisdom and reflections from his sensational life—on and off the screen– that we can walk away from with a new lens to filter the way we see the world—and the limitations and impossibilities that perhaps aren't so impossible.  So, with a glass of wine, Sinatra playing in the background, sit back and enjoy the stories from Gianni Russo's Dolce Vita.

Italian American actor Gianni Russo

GIOVANNA: Before we begin, you promise you won’t be offended by anything I say and that you will say whatever comes to mind?

GIANNI RUSSO: Okay. I like this.

In your book The 6th Family,  you write, " "This is a work of fiction . . . except for the parts that are true."  How much of the stories you tell are true and how much are not?

G.R: Well, let me say this to you: with the people I hang out with, if I ever lied, they would cut my tongue out. I’m from Sicily, no less.

From night clubs, to books to crooning to acting to branding, everything you try your hand at succeeds. How is that possible?

G.R: When you’re 80 years old, you have a lot of practice (laughing). My life is so outrageous to most people, but I learned a new word; they say I’m ambidextrous. I can do many things. But I’ve had the best teachers. Sinatra taught me to sing and Brando how to act.

What did Frank Sinatra, who was also your son’s Godfather,  teach you about singing?

G.R: It’s all about the delivery and the lower diaphragm.  He said go in  front of the mirror and don’t sing a lyric. Talk to yourself and make yourself believe what you’re saying. Then he submerged me into a pool and told me to use my lower diaphragm to breathe.

You see, Sinatra learned how to breathe from Tommy Dorsey, who taught him how to hold his breath, and it was by doing this that I learned to sustain notes for so long just like him.

What did you learn from Marlon Brando?

G.R: A lot. But not immediately. Before The Godfather, I never acted before. But I did know the mob. During an early rehearsal. Brando asked me who I studied with and  I said, ‘Study what? What are you talking about?’ I later overheard Brando telling Director Francis Ford Coppola "to re-think Russo’s casting"—the guy was trying to get me fired! I took him (Brando) by the arm and said, “Listen to me, Mr. Brando, with all due respect, you screw this up for me,  I will rip your heart out. You will bleed out here today. If this guy  (Coppola) fires me because of you.

Brando stepped back and said, "That was brilliant!" He thought I was acting. But I meant it. After that, he mentored me. He helped me conceptualize the final scene where Michael tells Carlo that he’s going to be exiled from the Corleone family.

Brando told me to forget that my character was going to get whacked, “You can’t telegraph it.” When given the plane ticket, Brando told me to stare into it. Analyze it. Make like it’s security. He taught me how to be in the moment.

Marlon Brando in "The Godfather"
Gianni Russo with Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather"

You exude a zest for life. What shaped your perspective?

G.R:   My life was so challenged early on. While other kids were riding bikes, I was in a mental institution called Bellevue in August 1949 for 5 years straight, quarantined for polio. It gives you a lot of thought about what the value of life means just by getting up and walking. I didn’t have that privilege, so I got very serious about surviving when most people didn’t have to.

What do you make of your incredibly difficult early start in life?

G.R: I am the only person who has gone through what I’ve gone through, the pain, the isolation. And I am so happy that God did this to me. Early on, I was very confused. I was an altar boy; I did nothing wrong. What can I do at 6 years old? He has a voyage for me. I am on this journey, and my journey is not over.

How has your deep connection to your Italian heritage, rooted in Sicily and Naples, influenced your latest business endeavour of licensing The Godfather brand from Paramount Pictures to introduce Corleone Fine Italian Foods, a specialty food line?

G.R:  In today’s fast-paced world, the tradition of gathering for “Sunday Dinners” as a family is fading. My first people, for the first ten years of my life were my grandmother and grandfather. My Italian-American upbringing in New York exposed me to exceptional meat sauce, motivating me to introduce a sauce that surpasses anything found on supermarket shelves.

Recognizing that many people lack the time to dedicate 36 hours to preparing a Bolognese sauce,  with the key ingredient San Marzano tomatoes, renowned as the finest in the world. I strive to preserve this tradition by hosting  dinner parties in my dining room that seats 16 people without moving a chair,  the next time you are in New York, you’ve got an invitation. Everybody comes here and why they came was to hear the stories and not even the food.

photo of American actor Gianni Russo in New York

What is your secret to realizing dreams?

G.R: Every day, even this morning, I listen to Sinatra while I have my breakfast. It’s how I start my day. I don’t change patterns that have been successful. I am very superstitious that way (laughing). The pattern is, if you have a dream – and I tell my grandchildren this – don’t dream about things that you are not capable of achieving. Understand who you are first, then pick your goal and stick to it. Don’t wander, and you’ll achieve it. I’ve achieved so many crazy things because I never changed that. I didn’t go to any kind of school. It’s very simple.

What does La Dolce Vita mean to you?

G.R: "La Dolce Vita” defines my way of life. I have had and still have an amazing life. After My Polio years, I hit the streets of NYC and never looked Back. God has blessed me every day, and continues to. But I look around me and unfortunately, I do not see the majority of the people “living the good life.” In My 80 years of life I have never scene so much anger and hatred towards one another. Fortunately, my life is still “dolce.”



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