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When the Mob Protested The Godfather

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Paramount Movies via YouTube

Francis Ford Coppola was just a few months into production on The Godfather when he began directing the fictional assassinations Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) orders against family rivals. On June 28, 1971, as a Corleone hitman aimed his prop gun under Coppola’s direction, a very similar scene was taking place just four blocks away. Joe Colombo, a professed real estate agent who led the Italian-American Civil Rights League in protesting stereotyped depictions of Italians in film, was approaching a podium to make a speech during a rally at Columbus Circle in New York. He was oblivious to the very real gun being aimed at his head.

For months, Colombo had waged war against the Paramount movie, asserting it propagated an exaggerated fiction about the existence of the mafia. Colombo had intimated there would be labor issues, production delays, and other, less defined obstacles that could threaten to curtail the studio’s multimillion investment in their adaption of Mario Puzo's 1969 novel. He could make such statements because, in addition to his real estate interests, Colombo was a major figure in organized crime.

Before Colombo could utter a word at the rally, a man disguised as a press photographer dropped his camera, raised a revolver, and shot Colombo three times in the head and neck. Colombo’s men immediately retaliated, shooting the assassin dead.

For Paramount, any sense of relief would be short-lived. In making sure nothing interrupted filming of The Godfather, producers had made a very public—and very costly—pact with the mob.

When prodded by reporters, the outspoken Colombo would deny there was any such thing as a mafia. “Mafia, what's a mafia?” he was once quoted as saying. “There is not a mafia. Am I head of a family? Yes. My wife and four sons and a daughter. That's my family.”

A cursory investigation of Colombo’s past would reveal otherwise. After commandeering the Profaci crime family in the mid-1960s, and capitalizing on the void left by incarcerated boss "Crazy" Joe Gallo, Colombo quickly rose through the ranks of New York’s notorious Five Families. He had been indicted for tax evasion and accused by the FBI of running a widespread gambling and extortion ring.

Most suspected criminals would keep a low profile. Instead, Colombo decided to go big. Co-creating the Italian-American Civil Rights League, Colombo decried sensational media stories regarding Italian-Americans in general. He found support in members of his ethnicity—nearly 45,000 members—who were tired of the stereotypes. An Alka-Seltzer commercial with the catchphrase “That’s-a-some-a-spicy meatball” was an early target, and the League had success getting it removed from the airwaves. He also lobbied to have the word “mafia” taken out of scripts for television’s The FBI.

In rallying law-abiding Italians and depicting himself as the aggrieved party, Colombo was successful in helping to stifle reference to the terms "mafia" or "la cosa nostra" in popular culture. As soon as Paramount announced plans to produce The Godfather, he had acquired his biggest target to date.

The film version of the Puzo novel had been brought to the studio by producer Robert Evans, who had acquired Puzo’s treatment in 1968. Puzo, heavily in debt due to a gambling habit, was eager to have the book and film rights erase his ledger. He openly admitted his research into organized crime was limited to asking questions of dealers and players during card games in casinos.

The Godfather sold 750,000 copies in hardcover and would go on to sell millions more in paperback. Because of the book’s success, the adaptation was heavily publicized before a single frame had been shot. When Colombo got wind of it, he made it known that the production would not be welcome in New York locations if it insisted on embracing stereotypes—a clever misdirection that helped take some attention off his own criminal doings.

Although Colombo never took credit for it, the film’s producer, Al Ruddy, began experiencing a series of unsettling events that seemed connected to the League’s public protests. His car windows were shot out; threatening phone calls came into his office. Strange cars followed him on the road. At Gulf & Western, Paramount’s parent corporation, phoned-in bomb threats evacuated the building twice.

Ruddy grew concerned, not only for his own welfare but for that of the picture. If Colombo wanted to disrupt the production by ordering Teamsters to sit idle or to arrange for scenery—or even actors—to come up missing, it would be disastrous.

Ruddy decided to capitulate. In early 1971, he arranged for a meeting with Joe Colombo and his son, Anthony, to discuss the picture. Ruddy handed them the 155-page script and insisted the film wouldn’t embrace the stereotypes the League was opposing.

Colombo was there to deal. He told Ruddy that if the filmmakers struck any mention of “mafia” or “la cosa nostra” from the script and donated proceeds from the movie’s premiere to the League, he wouldn’t obstruct the filming. Sensing he didn’t have much choice, Ruddy agreed: A public pronouncement was made in March 1971 that indicated The Godfather had the blessing of the League.

When executives at Gulf & Western learned Ruddy had essentially made a handshake deal with the mob, they were furious. Stock prices plummeted; Ruddy was called to the carpet and fired from the film, only to be rehired at Coppola's insistence.

If Colombo felt like a winner, it wouldn’t last long. His strategy of an aggressive defense may have won him small victories in the general public’s knowledge of the mafia, but it would cause a fatal reaction among those in organized crime who didn’t like Colombo’s profile.

By NBC - RMY Auctions, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Months into shooting, Coppola had turned his attention from quieter scenes featuring family patriarch Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) to the bloodshed resulting from his assassination. On June 28 and 29, 1971, the director shot grisly scenes of mob hits featuring machine guns and squibs.

Four blocks away from the film’s location, Colombo had assembled a rally for an Italian-American Unity Day. As he moved to the podium, a photographer with a press pass named Jerome Johnson cut through the crowd and toward the stage. Before Colombo realized what was happening, Johnson had raised a gun and fired three shots, hitting Colombo in the head. More guns were drawn, and Johnson was shot dead on the spot.

Colombo was rushed to the hospital, but his injuries were severe. He spent the next seven years in a coma before passing away in 1978.

Although the murder was never officially solved, it was believed that a returning and vengeful Gallo, tired of Colombo’s grandstanding, ordered his rival’s demise. In what was thought to be a retaliatory attack, he was killed just one year later while eating at a restaurant for his birthday.

The murders were a surprise to Coppola, who had been concerned the violence depicted in the film might be outdated in what appeared to be a newer, more pacifistic organized crime landscape. When it opened in March 1972, The Godfather seemed more timely and prescient than ever.

Ruddy was unable to keep his promise to devote the premiere’s profits to the League, as Paramount refused to honor the deal. But he did host a private screening for the hundreds of limo-riding private citizens who expressed an interest in seeing the film in the New York area. They loved it and congratulated Ruddy on the accomplishment. Months prior, Ruddy had been forced to keep a .45 automatic gun in his desk drawer. It had been an uneasy, necessary alliance.

“Without the mafia’s help, it would’ve been impossible to make the picture,” Ruddy said.

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The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

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Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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The Unbelievable Life of the 'John 3:16' Sports Guy
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TheTribeofJudahTeach via YouTube

Sometimes, the man in the rainbow-colored wig would be able to purchase tickets at the stadium gate. Other times, scalpers near the entrance would provide access. Occasionally, television announcers would leave him complimentary admission at the will call window.

If it was a football game, he would try to find a seat behind the goalposts. For NBA and MLB games, behind the backboard or home plate was ideal. A portable, battery-operated television would tell him where the broadcast crew was pointing its cameras. If his preferred seat was being occupied by a child, he’d approach the parents and ask if he could just hold the kid. If they recognized him, they would often oblige.

Once he was settled in, Rollen Stewart would hoist a sign or sport a T-shirt emblazoned with a slightly cryptic message: “John 3:16.” Spiritual devotees recognized it as a Bible verse; others would look it up out of curiosity.

That’s exactly what Stewart wanted. The outlandish wig that earned him the nickname "Rainbow Man," the on-camera visibility, and the homemade message were all intended to spread the Gospel.

Throughout the 1980s, Stewart traveled 60,000 miles a year as a full-time spectator, living out of his car, getting stoned, and using television’s obsession with athletics as a vessel for promoting his faith. In doing so, he made the Bible passage a fixture of professional sporting events.

It was a noble effort—but one Stewart would end up undermining with some increasingly eccentric behavior. The signs gave way to stink bombs, and his cheerfully peculiar persona gradually morphed into a mania that, in 1992, led to an eight-hour standoff with a Los Angeles SWAT team.

By the time he was handed three consecutive life sentences in 1993, Rainbow Man had understandably lost much of his luster. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Sally Lipscomb described him as another “David Koresh waiting to happen.”

Stewart was born in Spokane, Washington in 1945. In interviews, he described his parents as alcoholics. His father passed away when he was 10; his mother died in a fire in 1968. When he was 23, his sister was strangled to death by her boyfriend.

A family inheritance kept him afloat until he found regular work as a drag racer and motorcycle shop owner. Later, Stewart operated a ranch that led to a marijuana farming business. When that ceased to be either profitable or interesting, Stewart decided to head for Hollywood to become an actor.

It was slow going. He netted a Budweiser commercial but was otherwise low on job prospects. Though he was able to pay the bills with what remained of his inheritance and proceeds from the sale of his ranch, Stewart decided that the best way to increase his profile was by drawing attention to himself at sporting events. Donning a rainbow wig and a fur loincloth while performing a dance routine, he made his broadcast television debut during the 1977 NBA Finals. He was dubbed Rainbow Man, or “Rock ‘N Rollen,” a crowd mascot of sorts who could be counted on to deliver a vibrant camera shot when directors felt like juicing their coverage of spectators.

After attending the 1979 Super Bowl in Miami (although some accounts place it during the 1980 game) Stewart went back to his hotel room and turned on the television. It was then, he said, that the epiphany struck. Stumbling on a program called Today in Bible Prophecy, Stewart realized his television exposure could be used in the service of spreading the gospel. So off came the fur loincloth and on went a T-shirt reading “Jesus Saves” in front and “Redeem” in the back. The "John 3:16" sign was the finishing touch. In the King James version of the Bible, it reads:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Stewart liked that it was succinct, making it a perfect visual cue for delivering his sermon to the masses. Living out of his car to save on expenses, he shuttled himself from state to state, and sometimes even out of the country, popping up like the sporting world’s version of Waldo. He was spotted at the Kentucky Derby and the Olympics, and was at the Royal Wedding, where he was seen dancing just underneath the balcony where Princess Diana and Prince Charles stood.

Stewart averaged two events a week. Prime seating was crucial, so he relied on his portable television to show him where the cameras would be pointed. Donations from evangelical groups helped support his ticket and travel costs. As a presumably harmless presence, he could sometimes talk his way into a family block of seats by offering to squeeze in next to a baby.

But not everyone was charmed by Rainbow Man. Directors of sports broadcasts sometimes felt his fanatical presence ruined dramatic moments in games and cursed at him from production trucks. Arena security personnel would often ask him to leave, or block his entry from the start. But Stewart persevered, achieving his earlier goal of becoming a minor celebrity while enticing viewers with his cryptic sign.

At a point in the late 1980s, Stewart began to tire of his own persona. He slipped into a funk after he totaled his car, which limited his ability to travel; his fourth wife filed for divorce in 1990. (They met in 1984 at a Virginia church; she later claimed he tried to choke her at New York's Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series for not standing in the right spot with her "John 3:16" sign, an allegation he denied.)

Stewart’s faith took a turn for the paranoid. He feared the end times were near, and started being a disruptive presence at events. He set off a remote-controlled air horn during the 1990 Masters golf tournament, just as Jack Nicklaus was about to swing. The following year, an arrest warrant was issued by the Santa Ana, California police after Stewart triggered electronic stink bombs at events in New Jersey and Connecticut and at an Orange County church. Authorities feared he had a firearm and was growing increasingly unhinged. They told the media he should be considered dangerous.

They were correct.

On September 22, 1991, Rollen Stewart was hammering nails into the front door of a room at the Hyatt Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. A terrified maid had locked herself in the bathroom. Stewart was armed with a .45 revolver and several stink bombs, which he would periodically lob toward the law enforcement officers gathering outside his room.

By Stewart’s own account, his desire to warn the world of a pending apocalypse had gotten out of hand. Barricading himself in the hotel, he demanded that the SWAT unit deliver a news crew so he could address the audience directly; SWAT was more concerned with making sure Stewart didn’t begin taking errant shots at planes that were landing at the airport less than 2000 feet away.

The standoff went on for over eight hours, at which point a squad smashed the door in and tackled Stewart. Faced with 11 charges, Stewart had the proverbial book thrown at him. With the Los Angeles deputy district attorney arguing he was a “very sick and very dangerous man,” he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms and shuttled to Mule Creek State Prison on August 3, 1993, where he has remained ever since. As of 2008, three parole hearings have resulted in three denials.

While Stewart’s personal legacy may have come to an unfortunate climax, his message has not. “John 3:16” has been a regular sight at sporting events for over three decades now, and has even been adopted by several athletes. Tim Tebow famously wore strips under his eyes with the verse written out during a 2009 Florida Gators collegiate game; In-N-Out Burger has printed it on the bottom of drinking cups; Forever 21 shoppers have likely noticed it on their shopping bags. Men like Canada-based Bill King have carried on Stewart’s mission, traveling to games and raising the sign in the hopes that the enduring popularity of sports on television will remain a viable way of inviting people to join their faith.

For Stewart, who saw some of the biggest sporting moments of the 1980s, attendance was a necessary evil. Speaking with the Los Angeles Times in 2008 from prison, he admitted that his old life involved a little bit of pretending.

“I despised sports,” he said.

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