Pat Schoenig had read “The Godfather” before she stepped on the movie set that day but the image she had formed of Michael Corleone from the book didn’t square with what was before her. “I saw Al Pacino and I said to myself, ‘he’s not Michael’,” says Schoenig, who taught at Verona High School for 40 years. “Now I shoot myself for not talking to him.”
Fifty years ago, “The Godfather” opened in New York City and, for many people with Verona ties, it’s a time to reflect on how they came to have small parts in what turned out to be a very big movie.
Edward Alvaro had just turned 15 when he got a call from a friend’s father about being an extra. Jerry Leopaldi, who lived up the street, was a casting agent and he told Alvaro that “The Godfather” needed needed more Italian-looking teenagers to “round out the crowd” at the wedding scene, which was filming the following day. There was just one hitch: Alvaro’s hair.
“It was the ‘70s and my hair was very long, as was the style of the day,” says Alvaro, who graduated VHS with the class of 1974. “Since the scene was set in 1945, I needed a haircut. Mr. Leopaldi asked if his wife could cut my hair. I ran up to his house and sat in his kitchen as she snipped away at my long locks. I definitely could pass for a kid from 1945 when she was done.”
On the Staten Island set the next day, Alvaro got glimpses of Talia Shire, the actress who played the bride Connie Corleone, as well as James Caan (Sonny Corleone), and watched him film the scene where Sonny confronts the FBI agents taking the license plate numbers of wedding guests. “We were given freedom to roam around and just act like we were at a wedding,” he says. “They had some oaken wine kegs set up. They had juice in them, but someone said one of them had real wine in it. It could have been because there was an old Italian guy hovering around the kegs, and he looked like maybe he had had one too many.”
After a long day of shooting, Alvaro lined up to receive his payment: $20.53, or about $143 in today’s dollars. Schoenig, a wedding extra discovered by Leopaldi while cheering at a Montclair State game, got $300 for her work, but she was on set for three days and got paid extra for dancing. She also led the sighing when the movie’s wedding singer, Johnny Fontane, began crooning.
Leopaldi was a World War II veteran who, after a career in union leadership, opened an acting school and entertainment casting business in Montclair. He was contracted by the film’s main casting agent, Louis DiGiamo, to find extras for the crowd scenes at Connie Corleone’s wedding and Vito Corleone’s funeral. “My father was a people person,” says his daughter Marla Leopaldi Maier (VHS ’67). She was cast as a bridesmaid, but not, she is quick to note, the bridesmaid that Sonny snuck away with during the party. “I was engaged at the time,” Leopaldi Maier says. Her brother Gerald (VHS ’73) was at the wedding as a WWII veteran and her father was milling around as a guest—and keeping an eye on everyone he had gotten into the film.
Like Alvaro, Leopaldi Maier remembers the wedding shoot as a free-roaming event. “We were eating the back of the giant wedding cake,” she says. “There was so much time to kill.” At one point, she recalls, the slow pace got the better of Marlon Brando (Vito Corleone) and Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), who decided to moon each other in front of the cast. She later passed Brando sitting all by himself at a table and heard him mutter, “I think I’ve been kissed by every old lady on the set.”
Jerry Leopaldi, who passed away in 2002, was also involved in casting “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection, neither of which had a Verona connection. His family donated his archives to the New Jersey Historical Society. He ran charities for Vietnam veterans, as well as refugees and orphans in South Vietnam, and a program to help young people remain free of drugs and alcohol.
Opportunities in “The Godfather” dominated the conversation in Verona in the spring of 1971, as teenagers and even some of the town’s businesspeople got bit parts. Greg Mascera (VHS ’76) was a mourner at Vito Corleone’s funeral; he’s now an attorney in private practice in Verona. Richard Citrano, then a leading real estate agent, became a moving man carrying out a sofa when the Corleones departed for Las Vegas. Citrano would later be chided for his involvement by the owner of the hardware store in town because Henry Chase, born DeCesare, thought the film showed Italian-Americans in a negative light. (David Chase, the son of that store owner, would go on to write “The Sopranos.”)
But not everyone wanted in. Unlike Alvaro, some of the teenage boys who were approached refused to cut their hair. Marla Leopaldi Maier remembers that one of her friends declined because she would have had to take time off work or use vacation days. “Fifty years later, I still tease her, ‘you could have been in that movie’,” she says.
Fate kept others out of the spotlight. Judy Appicie (VHS ’66) was supposed to be in the funeral scene, but the bus to the set was cancelled at the last minute. “Would have been fun,” she wrote on Facebook, “but I didn’t know anyone in the cast except for Marlon Brando and wasn’t really a fan of his, so I wasn’t terribly disappointed it didn’t work out … until the movie came out!!!”
Once the movie came out on March 24, 1972, some Veronans had trouble seeing it because of its “R” rating; Alvaro had to get his parents to take him to the theater. “The scene in which I actually appear on screen is when a wedding photographer is taking pictures of people seated at a table,” Alvaro says. “I can be seen wearing my yellow shirt entering the scene from the left and appearing for a couple of seconds.”
“I knew what scene to look for and I saw myself,” Alvaro adds. “That was pretty strange. Now with DVDs and video streaming I can watch it over and over, and I have. It is my favorite movie and probably would be even if I wasn’t an extra in it. And it is a great conversation starter.”