Coppola's 'Godfather' Follow-Up Was Pure Madness Behind The Scenes: 'The Cotton Club'
This week sees the release of The Offer, the new Paramount+ series about the making of The Godfather that is seemingly banking on A) people's love for the Francis Ford Coppola classic and B) the possibility that viewers will simply give up and watch their show after unsuccessfully searching for The Office.
But as fraught as that iconic production may have been, most of the creatives behind The Godfather were later involved in a movie with a somehow even more screwed-up backstory; seriously, why didn't they make a streaming series about 1984's The Cotton Club?
Legendary producer/sentient leather cocaine factory, Robert Evans, later claimed that the "treacheries involved" in the making of The Cotton Club were "so bizarre that The Godfather and Scarface combined pale by comparison." The cinematic story of the legendary Harlem jazz club, where legendary Black entertainers like Duke Ellington performed for exclusively white audiences, began with Evans; the beleaguered producer saw the project as a way to "resurrect his career" after being convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1980 (although Evans maintained that the massive coke purchase was actually for his own personal use, not distribution). He envisioned the movie as a kind of musical version of The Godfather – he even hired Mario Puzo, who famously penned the classic mob epic (and also quickly sold it in order to pay off his gambling debts).
Things got off to an inauspicious start. For one thing, as part of Evans' plea deal following the cocaine bust, he was forced to delay the production in order to make a TV anti-drug PSA – which he sure did. Titled Get High on Yourself, the "very special program" featured guest stars like Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali, Paul Newman, and a bunch of nameless children singing the world's most irritating song.
Evans initially obtained $12 million in funding for the film from billionaire Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi – who, during negotiations, reportedly had an employee proposition Evans for sex on a private plane while secretly recording the entire encounter. The deal eventually fell through, though. Why? Somehow it had nothing to do with mile-high club-based scams. According to Khashoggi, he just didn't like Puzo's script. According to Evans, though, as recounted in his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, Khashoggi's brother demanded that Evans put up his house as "collateral against overages," which soured the arrangement, prompting Evans to respond, in the most racist fashion possible: "I don't like being Arabed down."
So, instead, Evans secured funding from the Doumani brothers, Las Vegas businessmen with alleged ties to organized crime. He also had a big-name movie star lined up – after all, who better to play a jazz musician working in a club full of legendary Black jazz musicians than, um … Richard Gere?
Evans enlisted his former collaborator Francis Ford Coppola to help overhaul the script, and before too long, Coppola was convinced to helm the picture as well, taking over from Evans, who had initially hoped to make The Cotton Club his directorial debut. While the pair had clashed during the making of The Godfather, here … yeah, they clashed again. Big time. According to Evans, Coppola turned on him out of the blue and even had him barred from the set of the film once they began shooting (with no finished script, by the way).
Coppola fired several major department heads and reportedly stormed off of the production at one point and hopped a plane to London after weeks of not being paid. Whether or not anyone minded that much, it's hard to say, seeing as there was, according to one crew member, "so much coke on set, you wouldn't believe it." The screenplay was constantly being rewritten on the fly. Three people had heart attacks. And we haven't even gotten to the literal murder that happened.
It's a long, convoluted story, but basically, when Evans was looking for money to help pay for the cash-devouring project, a limo driver hooked him up with a woman named Elaine Jacobs, who claimed to be a wealthy widow. Evans allegedly began a sexual relationship with Jacobs and eventually learned that she was actually a major coke dealer – because apparently, there's no part of this story that doesn't involve cocaine. She connected him with a theatrical producer named Roy Radin, who she claimed could help raise finances for the movie. But around the time that Jacobs started worrying that Radin might be squeezing her out of a cut of the film, he mysteriously disappeared.
Radin's "bullet-riddled body" was eventually "found by a beekeeper in a desolate canyon 65 miles north of Los Angeles." No one was arrested for the murder until 1988, and it only came about because two bodyguards told Larry Flynt's brother-in-law (don't ask) during a poker game that they'd killed Radin. He also secretly recorded the pair, who claimed that the hit was paid for by Jacobs and Evans …
The police had previously questioned Evans and apparently ruled him out as a suspect – after being gifted "autographed copies of the Chinatown screenplay," mind you. Evans also reportedly "told some investors Radin was murdered before the producer's body was found," which seems … odd. Evans pleaded the fifth during the ensuing murder trial in which a jury found Jacobs (AKA Karen Greenberger) and three others guilty of murder and kidnapping. The case even inspired an episode of Law & Order, which we don't have to tell you is the universe's seal of approval for horrifying real-life crimes.
If all this wasn't stressful enough, at one point, Evans' investors hired "notorious" mobster Joey Cusumano to "intimidate Evans into giving up his share of the partnership." But Cusumano, oddly, ended up becoming the production's line producer. Coppola even started inviting him to watch dailies. Meanwhile Coppola and Evans' relationship somehow got even worse; Coppola reportedly considered challenging Evans to a duel and sent him a dramatic telegram warning: "You have double-crossed me for the last time."
Eventually, the battle over creative control of The Cotton Club spilled over into the legal system, resulting in multiple, confusing lawsuits.
And in the end, when The Cotton Club finally came out … it didn’t do so great. Yeah, this movie which, may we remind you, a man may have been friggin’ killed over, opened to “mixed reviews” and came in fourth at the box office, behind movies like Beverly Hills Cop and David Lynch’s Dune – and we’re pretty sure no one ever got whacked over Dune. While Coppola was granted final cut, Evans was aghast at how much the director chopped out of the picture – and Evans' complaints were somewhat vindicated in recent years when Coppola restored much of the missing footage after stumbling upon his longer cut of the movie on an old Betamax tape.
So instead of multiple fictionalized versions of the Godfather production, can’t someone do something with all of this?
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Top Image: Orion Pictures