Gianni Russo says he fought with Caan on the set of the classic film

Sonny Corleone (James Caan) gave a memorable bruising to his brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, in the 1972 classic The Godfather, but according to the actor on the receiving end of the iconic beatdown, his character wasn’t the only thing that took a hit during the production of the Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece.

Actor Gianni Russo — who portrayed the ill-fated, abusive husband of the only Corleone daughter — says his relationship with Caan had frayed as filming commenced, though their tension came to a head while shooting the violent altercation (sparked by Rizzi’s mistreatment of Corleone’s sister) on the streets of Harlem in New York City.

“Sonny and I had a problem all through the movie, on and off the set,” Russo tells the People and Entertainment Weekly Network, claiming that his familiarity with the neighborhood (and its residents) likely “pissed [Caan] off” before the cameras rolled. “We choreographed that scene for about a day and a half… Jimmy got a little aggressive, I would say, and he improvised a few things like that little billy club he threw at me when I came off the stoop. He hit me right in the head with that, and then he throws me over the railing and he’s biting my hands… when I crawl out, he literally lifted me up with his kick… none of that was supposed to happen.”

He also indicates Caan’s antics left him with a chipped elbow and two broken ribs. Still, he says he intended to leave the drama on the big screen.

“With this being my first film, I didn’t want to complain,” Russo explains. “Jimmy and I are not friends at all, believe me. The guy’s nuts.”

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For all the beatings Caan did land on Russo, however, there is one that sticks out as an obviously staged move.

“That one miss when he throws that punch at me and I react… everybody knows [the punch is actually] about six inches away from me,” he recalls. “I asked Francis Ford Coppola at the 25th anniversary, ‘Why didn’t you fix that?’ Because we had cameras on the roof, cameras all over. We had every angle they needed to fix it, but they couldn’t touch it. Once you win an Oscar, you can’t touch that negative.”

Watch Russo dish more about the untold stories behind The Godfather — including how Marlon Brando helped him get through a particularly difficult day of shooting — above.

The Godfather
  • Movie
  • 175 minutes