‘Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli’: Finding the Funny in ‘The Godfather’

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 mob epic might be a serious, sprawling look at organized crime, but it’s also not without its fair share of lulz
‘Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli’: Finding the Funny in ‘The Godfather’

“Don’t forget the cannoli!” Peter Clemenza’s wife reminds him as he’s leaving the Corleone Family compound. Clemenza, a mafia capo, is heading out to New Jersey with Paulie Gatto and Rocco Lampone, supposedly to run a few mundane errands. In reality, though, Gatto had been determined to be a traitor, and the time has come for Clemenza and Lampone to take him out.

When the trio of mobsters reach a desolate stretch of Jersey, Clemenza asks Gatto to pull over so he can take a leak. Then Lampone, who is sitting in the back seat, takes out his gun and shoots Gatto three times. As they’re leaving the car behind, Clemenza famously instructs Lampone to “leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

The line, which actor Richard Castellano improvised, is not only one of the most quote-worthy moments from The Godfather, it’s also the funniest line in the film — a bit of levity among the macabre of a mob hit. That said, the movie isn’t otherwise humorless either. There are definitely at least a few more genuine laughs to be found throughout its epic 175-minute run time — from geriatric crooners losing their teeth, to James Caan’s gleefully ridiculous exclamations, to a stray cat that inadvertently became indelible. 

All of which author Mark Seal chronicles in new book, Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather, and takes us through below. 

‘C’è la Luna Mezzo Mare’

The opening of The Godfather, of course, cuts between the dark, quiet office of Vito Corleone, where friends and associates pay tribute to the don and ask him for favors, and the bright outdoor wedding of his daughter Connie. “The whole wedding scene is such a happy occasion, and it’s funny too,” Seal says. “Particularly the old man who gets up and sings that song — he brings down the house.”

The old man is never given a name in the script other than “The Old Man,” but his performance of the suggestive Italian song “C’è la Luna Mezzo Mare” — or, “The Moon in the Middle of the Sea” — is memorable for the sexual gestures he makes as he sings it. Not to mention, in a moment that seems unplanned, the old man’s teeth come loose mid-song, adding another layer of farce to the proceedings. 

Don Corleone’s Cat

Admittedly, the cat is more iconic than humorous — the image of it sitting atop Marlon Brando’s lap is arguably the most memorable one from the trilogy. Still, it’s not not funny. Particularly because the cat never appeared in the script for The Godfather — it was a stray that director Francis Ford Coppola had found in the studio. 

“Parts of The Godfather were filmed at Filmways Studios,” Seal explains. “It was an old studio in Harlem, and there was a cat there for rodent control. It was just a vagabond cat that wandered onto the set, and that’s the cat you see Marlon Brando holding in the opening scene. It was purring so loudly into Brando’s microphone that they couldn’t understand Brando when they got the first rushes.”

Luca Brasi Thanks Don Corleone

It’s also pretty much impossible to forget the wedding-day exchange between Corleone and his hulking soldier Luca Brasi, who wants to thank the don for inviting him to the nuptials. The scene is marked by the staccato delivery of actor Lenny Montana, a former pro wrestler and real-life mafia bodyguard. Despite his menacing appearance, Brasi feels nervous and almost child-like in front of the don.  

Seal, however, says there’s a good reason for that: “They had been looking for an actor to fill the role of Luca Brasi for some time and were having no luck. Then, while they were filming a scene in Brooklyn, Lenny Montana was visiting his mother when he noticed police barriers had been erected around the neighborhood. He was told they were shooting a scene from The Godfather, and he went over to the barricades and stood head-and-shoulders above the crowd. Producer Al Ruddy saw him and said, ‘Oh my god, who is this?’ Ruddy brought Montana over to see Coppola, and Coppola immediately said, ‘That’s Luca Brasi!’” 

“During the scene in the don’s office, Montana was having trouble remembering his lines, so Coppola gave him some time to rehearse,” Seal continues. “Then Coppola filmed Montana while he was rehearsing his lines — that’s what you see in the movie. It’s very natural and funny and works very well.”

Sonny Corleone’s ‘Bada Bing!’

Meanwhile, Seal explains that James Caan’s animated performance as Sonny Corleone was based on a famous comedian. “James Caan told me that he was kind of lost as Sonny,” Seal tells me. “He didn’t have anything to grab onto. Then, one night when he was staring into the mirror while shaving, he began thinking of Don Rickles and his ability to say anything and do anything. The next morning, Sonny’s personality was down cold.”

Among Caan’s many memorable lines is when he shouts “Bada bing!” as he describes killing a guy to Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. “I asked Caan about ‘bada bing,’” says Seal. “He told me it was an ad-lib that just came out of his mouth. He didn’t know from where.” Interestingly enough, the expression might be owed to another famous comedian, Pat Cooper, as the turn-of-phrase, which would later pop up again (very, very nakedly) in The Sopranos, first appeared in Cooper’s comedy routine “An Italian Wedding” in the 1950s.

Brando’s Practical Jokes

Who says method acting is all intensity and no fun? “Brando was known for practical jokes,” Seal says. “He was known to drop water balloons from his apartment on 52nd Street. And on the set of The Godfather, when the don is in his cot, Brando had 300 pounds of weights hidden in the cot, so the men carrying it up the stairs could barely lift it. There was also a mooning contest throughout filming that Brando won when he mooned the entire wedding scene. He was named ‘Mighty Moon Champion’ by the end of the shoot.”

‘Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli’

Last but certainly not least, there’s “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” which Seal cites as his favorite line from The Godfather. “‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’ is a great ad-lib that represents two things,” says Seal. “‘Leave the gun’ represents the gangsters and the whole criminal underworld of The Godfather. But ‘take the cannoli’ represents the family, which is the heart and soul of the movie. That one little line is the essence of everything. And, of course, it’s very funny.”

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