‘The Godfather’: Why Richard Castellano Didn’t Reprise His Clemenza Role in ‘II’

With Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Robert Duvall leading the cast of The Godfather (1972), you don’t always hear about the supporting players. But you can’t sleep on the performance of Richard Castellano, the fourth-billed actor who portrayed Clemenza, the capo who uttered the classic line, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

Castellano, who added the cannoli line during the Godfather shoot, had received an Academy Award nomination a few years earlier for his work in Lovers and Other Strangers (1970). And he went toe-to-toe with Pacino and the other leads on the Godfather shoot (see: the pasta sauce scene).

Yet when it came time to shoot The Godfather: Part II, Castellano didn’t return to play Clemenza. The actor and director Francis Ford Coppola had their differences during the shoot of the first installment. Later, Coppola said Castellano wanted approval of his lines in the script. But Castellano said it didn’t happen that way.

Richard Castellano didn’t like where Clemenza’s character went in ‘The Godfather: Part II’

Richard S. Castellano as Clemenza in ‘The Godfather’ | CBS via Getty Images

In the early ’80s, film critic Lou Lumenick caught up with Castellano, who looked back on what happened with The Godfather: Part II. (Lumenick published excerpts of the interview in the New York Post in 2012.)

In brief, Castellano said Coppola had the Clemenza character testifying against the Corleone family in the sequel. The actor couldn’t see it. “He can’t tell me that Clemenza, after years of loyalty to [Vito Corleone], would go in and testify against organized crime,” Castellano said. 

And there was more to it. “The demands on me were impossible,” Castellano recalled (via the Post). “[Coppola] had me losing weight to play Clemenza as a young man. I went down to 194 pounds. When I received the script five minutes later, it had me rolling in at 300 pounds.’’

With Clemenza out of the picture, Frank Pentangeli (Richard Gazzo) moves to testify against the Corleone family before committing suicide. And Coppola used a different actor (Bruno Kirby) to play Clemenza as a young man.

Castellano and Francis Ford Coppola clashed during the ‘Godfather’ shoot

Clemenza (Richard Castellano) kisses the hand of new Godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in the last scene of ‘The Godfather.’ | Paramount Pictures

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When speaking with Lumenick in the ’80s, Castellano remembered how Coppola made him do dozens of takes walking up four flights of stairs for his final scene in The Godfather. Castellano believed it was Coppola’s revenge for something he did earlier in the shoot.

Ardell Sheridan, Castellano’s wife who played Mrs. Clemenza in The Godfather, wrote about that day on the set in her 2002 book Divine Intervention and a Dash of Magic. “Richard knew he would have died that day if he’d been required to do one more take [walking up the stairs],” Sheridan wrote.

She included an account Castellano told her prior to his 1988 death. “According to Richard, as he sat on the steps [after walking up the stairs], Francis came over to him and said, ‘Tough, isn’t it?'” Sheridan wrote. “Richard said he looked straight at Francis and said, ‘Not tough enough.'”

In a DVD commentary for The Godfather, Coppola gave a different account. He said that Castellano wanted approval of the lines Clemenza would say in the sequel. Coppola wouldn’t agree to that, and Castellano’s Clemenza died then and there.