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James Caan Got "Aggressive" Filming "The Godfather," Co-Star Claimed

Actor Gianni Russo says the star actually fought him during one scene.

Following the death of James Caan on July 6, fans are looking back on his major movie roles and, of course, that includes 1972's The Godfather. In the classic, Caan plays Sonny Corleone, the oldest son of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), and he has several memorable scenes, including one in which he beats up his brother-in-law, Carlo played by Gianni Russo.

Now, depending on who you ask, you'll get a different story about the pivotal scene. According to Russo, Caan actually fought him during filming, causing some injuries. Caan, on the other hand, has denied this, but did admit to improvising one part of the fight scene. Read on to see what both actors have had to say about the dustup.

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Russo claims Caan really fought him during filming.

James Caan and Gianni Russo filming "The Godfather"
Bettmann / Getty Images

In an interview with People and Entertainment Weekly Network in 2017, Russo claimed the fight between him and Caan in The Godfather was more real than many might assume.

"We choreographed that scene for about a day and a half," Russo said. "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… And then when I crawl out, he literally lifted me up with his kick. Now, we had it all timed, none of that was supposed to happen."

Russo added, "I thought maybe he got carried away. With this being my first film, I didn't want to complain … He chipped my elbow with the garbage pail cover and he broke two ribs. Jimmy and I are not friends at all, believe me. The guy's nuts."

Russo thinks Caan resented him for a particular reason.

Gianni Russo in "The Godfather"
Paramount Pictures

In the same interview, Russo said, "Sonny and I had a problem all through the movie, on and off the set." He said that he thinks it upset Caan that he had more of a connection to the Harlem neighborhood where they filmed the scene. "I knew the neighborhood and everybody in the neighborhood knew me, and I think that pissed Jimmy off also," he said.

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He also claimed Caan played a dangerous prank on him.

Gianni Russo with his book at East Hampton Library's 15th Annual Authors Night Benefit in 2019
Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

In his 2019 book, Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob, Russo tells a story of Caan supposedly playing a prank on him by getting him to insult a real gangster. In an excerpt published by Men's Journal, Russo says that Caan told him to go say hello to the gangster and his daughter—only he wasn't with his daughter, he was with a woman he was seeing.

"Your daughter is beautiful, Junior. You must be very proud," Russo says he told him.

This led to Russo nearly getting beat up, according to his story. "That son of a [expletive] Caan had set me up, knowing that woman wasn't Junior's daughter," he writes. "I was fuming. If this was Caan's idea of a joke, I wasn't laughing, and if I was going to get my [expletive] kicked, I was going to do likewise to Caan—after I got out of the hospital."

Caan denied fighting Russo for real.

James Caan in 'The Godfather"
Paramount Pictures

In a March 2022 story on the 50th anniversary of The Godfather by The Hollywood Reporter, Caan addressed Russo's claim that he actually beat him up.

"He had a fight with someone else. Not me," Caan said. "I did the fight scene with stuntman Paul Baxley. He came in, and we made up the whole fight. And everything you saw in there is something that Paul and I created the day before."

But, he admitted to one aspect being unscripted.

James Caan at the Hallmark Summer 2016 TCA Press Tour Event
Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock

In a March 2022 interview with the New York Post, Caan did say that there was one part of the fight scene that was improvised.

"The stick I threw at [Carlo] when he's running away, that wasn't in the script," Caan said. "I took one of those industrial brooms and cut the end off and put it under my seat [in the car as Sonny drives up to confront Carlo]. They said, 'It's not in the script' and I said, 'What the [expletive]'s the difference, just put it down there.' I swear to God I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I knew that's what a lot of guys did in my neighborhood. We called them 'attitude adjusters.'"

He continued, "I just grabbed it and fired [the stick] at him and [director] Francis [Ford Coppola] said, 'That's great, Jimmy, you looked like you were going to miss him.' So he's lying behind the cars on the other side and luckily, on the upswing, I caught him on the top of the coconut."

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There's also a famous mistake in the fight scene.

James Caan and Gianni Russo's fight scene in "The Godfather"
Paramount Pictures

Caan and Russo clearly had their different opinions on what went down during the scene, but there's one aspect that everyone can agree was fake. At one point, Caan throws a punch at Russo that misses his face by such a wide margin, it can't go unnoticed by the viewer. Of course, Caan wasn't actually supposed to hit his co-star, but it doesn't look at all real.

"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," Russo told People and Entertainment Weekly Network. "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."

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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