Not only is it one of the greatest movies of all time, one of the most quoted film in history (“[he] sleeps with the fishes”), and an epic tribute to mafia romance and tragedy, The Godfather is also a dedication to the back alleys and glamorous landmarks of New York. Before filming began, the movie on its way to Hollywood for production to the obvious disappointment of director Francis Ford Coppola, who waged a determined battle to have the gangster epic filmed on-location in New York City. And to the great relief of the loyal fan base for the original novel, the famed director won. From Staten Island to the Bronx, The Godfather, in its trademark sophisticated gangster swagger, gave the city its due amount of respect that even Don Corleone would be proud of.
The opening wedding scene shot in the Corleone’s backyard, but remembered for the dark atmosphere and monumental conversation in the Godfather’s office (“you come to me, and you say: ‘Don Corleone, give me justice.’ But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t even think to call me Godfather.”) was shot on Staten Island in the gardens of Emerson Hill. One of the most talked about scenes in the Godfather—the infamous horse’s head in Woltz’s bed that completes the Don making “an offer he can’t refuse”—was filmed on Long Island in the Falaise mansion of the Guggenheim Estate at Sands Point Preserve. A 216–acre preserve, the estate was first owned by a railroad heir before being purchased by the Guggenheim family.
Moving from one island to another: Manhattan, and the popular St. Regis Hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue near Central Park is a sophisticated element of classic New York. Built in 1904 by the wealthy John Jacob Astor, who would later die on the doomed Titanic voyage, the five-star luxury hotel would endure countless improvements and glamorous additions to the already impressive frame. This hotel was the setting for the temporary residence of Michael Corleone and Kay Adams; it also provided Al Pacino a comfortable room while he filmed in NYC.
But if any New York location can be called the most influential to the movie, it would be Little Italy in Lower Manhattan, which becomes a character itself in perhaps the more impressive The Godfather Part II. It is the beginning of it all for Don Corleone with the Genco Olive Oil company. Coppola shot the headquarters for the Corleone family business in the center of Little Italy in the Meitz building on 128 Mott Street, a location that now looks a lot more like Chinatown. To all the Godfather enthusiasts, it is more recognizable for being the spot where the Don gets gunned down, sparking Michael Corleone to begin walking the path of the mob boss in taking revenge for the attack on his father’s life. The nearby Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral gets a deserved cameo; it’s where Michael Corleone becomes the official Godfather in the famous baptism scene at the film’s end.
It’s no mistake that Little Italy plays host to these pivotal moments, having been the communal hub for Italian immigrants in the early 1900s– not to mention the impressive history and influence of the Mafia and the real Five Families lurking throughout the streets of Little Italy, including the Morello crime family, Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello—who conducted business from Umberto’s Clam House (which moved from Mulberry to Broome St. before closing in 2011)—and the more recent John Gotti of the Gambino family who operated from the infamous Ravenite Social Club. Much of the Italian influence has left the area, except for the strip along Mulberry Street from Broome to Canal Street. For a taste of the way things once were, stop in for a dessert at Caffe Roma Pastry, followed by a drink next door at 100-year-old Mulberry Street Bar.
The impact of The Godfather on cinema history since its release has been monumental, but what’s obvious is the shining influence that New York—from the historic Five Points to the dangerous Five Families—had on The Godfather. — Nicole Ellul