‘The Offer’ Tells How ‘The Godfather’ Was Made, but It’s Also a Tribute to ’70s Filmmaking

The new Paramount Plus series, “The Offer,” is supposed to be about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s (Dan Fogler) adaptation of Mario Puzo’s (Patrick Gallo) best-selling novel “The Godfather,” as seen through the lens of Albert S. Ruddy (Miles Teller). But it is really a love story about filmmaking in the early 1970s. The limited miniseries’ introduction to Paramount’s legendary, visionary, movie head, Robert Evans, underplayed to perfection by Matthew Goode, finds him arguing with corporate suits. They want the main character of “Love Story,” the tearjerker to end all tearjerkers, to live at the end. He goes beautifully ballistic in defense of brilliance. That’s his wife, Ali MacGraw, up there on screen, dying as hard as she can. He’ll be damned if he’s going to let her live so movie audiences can feel good about a movie. The film, of course, became a classic. Evans’ films usually did.

Ruddy has a similar character-establishing moment. He’s just finished watching “Planet of the Apes,” and lingers long after the audience exits the auditorium. He tells the woman he’s falling in love with about his first love, movies. The 1968 science fiction masterpiece he spent the last two hours gaping at didn’t fill him with wonder because of its insanely magnificent ending. He is awestruck by the shared communal experience of the people in the theater reacting to that ending. Their individual joy, amplified by the sheer mass of the experience. Television doesn’t give you that. He knows, he created “Hogan’s Heroes” on the fly while pitching another show to the networks. Ruddy will later leave that woman he falls so deeply in love with. She distracts him from his first love.

Set in the early 1970s, “The Offer” turns the mob connection to the film into a gangster series subplot. Giovanni Ribisi is subtly surprising as Joe Colombo, the new boss of the crime family which now bears his name. In a fairly short space of time, Ribisi finds the arc in Colombo’s learning curve and near mastery of the criminal life. He comes off a little uneasy at the beginning, in traditional deference to the men who made him boss. Then he pisses them off, a little bit at a time, with the very venture which keeps his and their pockets lined in cash. The movie, and the anti-defamation league he starts in order to wet his beak in.

Colombo’s rounded portrayal comes at the cost of “Crazy Joe” Gallo (Joseph Russo), which the series presents as a one-dimensional thug obsessed with a personal vendetta. Joe “The Blond” Gallo was a legend who started a revolution in the underworld, and he wasn’t killed over a motion picture. The order to whack the film wasn’t given by the Chairman of the Board, either. Frank Sinatra (Frank John Hughes) had issues with the novel, but at one point told Coppola he’s play Don Vito Corleone. Old and new rivalries between Ol’ Blue Eyes and Marlon Brando (Justin Chambers) are wonderfully played out with Golden Age of Hollywood nostalgic joy. 

The Mafia story of the series is more of a fantasy-fulfillment vision. Paramount’s corporate headquarters did receive bomb threats during the actual filming of “The Godfather.” Evans got cryptic warnings at his New York hotel. There were strongarm costs to shooting a gangster movie in New York’s Italian neighborhoods. Ruddy let the league review the script. He agreed to convince Puzo to drop the word “mafia,” which was only mentioned in the script once, from the screenplay entirely. Ruddy also promised to turn over proceeds from the film’s New York premiere to the Italian-American Civil Rights League’s hospital. These things happened, and the real-life mob connection to “The Godfather” is so legendary it has become mythical. But it is only a subplot.

This is because “The Offer” is not about gangsters. It is about upstarts, rebels with a cause, a camera and an editing bay. It is about the struggles of the motion picture industry, making money in the business called show. Ruddy’s creative team battles with producers with the same resolve as the Corleones against “the Turk” Sollozzo. Evans loves gangster pictures but doesn’t want to make “just another Mafia movie.” Coppola wants to make a gangster art movie. Paramount’s physical production head Jack Ballard questions every decision Coppola made. Charles Bluhdorn (Burn Gorman), who owned the studio, thinks Coppola is the wrong director, Brando is the wrong Don, Al Pacino (Anthony Ippolito) is a “midget,” and shooting in Sicily is out of the question. 

The battles are fun to watch. Even Evans thinks Pacino, only known for a play and the film “Panic in Needle Park,” is too short and dark to carry Michael. The character is written as blond in the book, which isn’t mentioned in the series, but casting a WASPY white-bread with broad shoulders and star-system charisma is obviously something worth fighting against. 

In Hollywood’s most golden age, when a production got in trouble, you could count on Mickey Rooney to find a tent or a barn and proclaim: “Let’s do the show right here.” In “The Offer,” Ruddy’s job gets greenlit with the phrase “We’ve been all over town, no one wants to make this movie so I need you to produce it. Now get going.”

Juno Temple plays Bettye McCartt as another true believer, but one who has grown cynical but not jaded. She is as enthusiastic about an improbable future as she is dedicated to finding a way to make it happen. Bettye takes over Ruddy’s office in a whirlwind introductory scene, and then takes on the biggest of the big boys, Gulf+Western’s most executive chief, Bluhdorn, in a dangerously delicious dance of barely appropriate negotiations. Colin Hanks’ Barry Lapidus has the largest character arc of the series. He goes from an arch-villain to a superhero in a pre-Marvel movie world. 

Anyone who’s ever seen “The Godfather” will know that Lou Ferrigno’s background henchman will come to the front as Lenny Montana, who played Don Corleone’s most loyal fiend. His sloppy rehearsal scene is impeccably comic. The 10-episode limited series is created and written by Michael Tolkin, who satirized filmmaking in “The Player.” The first block of the series is directed by Dexter Fletcher, who helmed “Rocketman.” The music throughout “The Offer,” whether played in the clubs or coming across car or transistor radios, is expertly apropos. 

Some of the incidents and anecdotes veer away from truth in lingering U-turns. In real life, the Italian-American Civil Rights League activists wanted to include the film in mobilizing the movement. True gangsters applauded after they watched Brando get gunned down in an exterior shot filmed on location in Little Italy. The series makes it more perilous than it was. Other often-told anecdotes, such as a scene where an actor moons Brando right before he’s about to shoot, are spectacularly specific, but frustratingly quick.  

Paramount is thrilled to claim “The Godfather” as its pinnacle achievement, the studio’s logo is a mountain top, after all. They did, however, try everything they could to put a hit on the film. “The Offer” would be a brave move for the studio, airing its dirty laundry like this, if it weren’t done so lovingly.

The Offer” begins streaming April 28 with new episodes Thursdays on Paramount+.