This week, the gang at How Did This Get Made? covered Megaforce (1982), an over-the-top action film directed by famed stuntman, Hal Needham.
The first person I got in contact with was Megaforce’s producer, Al Ruddy. But unfortunately, he replied, “I’m participating in a German-produced documentary on the film currently and with my other projects, I simply have no spare time.”
I thanked him for the quick reply and then assumed we’d never cross paths again. But less than 24 hours after he had declined, I received a new email from him that said: “Just had a couple thoughts…call me.”
What were those thoughts? And what had changed in the course of a day? In a nutshell, Ruddy had done a little research and really liked the idea of this series—the idea of going behind-the-scenes to answer how did various movies get made. “But,” he explained, “for what you guys are doing, I think it shouldn’t just be about the losers.” The point he wanted to make (and which led him to agree to this interview) was that even the “winners” go through their fair share of chaos, struggle and backroom drama. And, well, if anyone would know that to be true, it’s Al Ruddy.
Because while it was Megaforce that led me to Ruddy, he’s best known for producing a different class of films. Several of which we talked about during our interview—beginning with a little film called The Godfather…
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: the transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity + grouping Mr. Ruddy’s anecdotes for each film together (as we often jumped back and forth)]
1. THE GODFATHER (1972)
AL RUDDY: Let’s start with THE GODFATHER…
But first, just a little bit of context:
- Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, was published in March 1969.
- Although the book came out in 1969, Paramount Pictures had actually optioned it two years prior to publication (in 1967).
- One year before that (1966), Paramount Pictures had been acquired by the conglomerate Gulf and Western [which is why Ruddy somewhat interchangeably uses “Paramount” and “Gulf and Western” during our conversation]
AL RUDDY: Yeah, well. Look: The Godfather stayed at Paramount. The book wallowed at Paramount for 3 years. Everyone in town turned it down. Fred Zinnemann. Warren Beatty. Jack Nicholson. Everyone. [conveying their typical response] “This is a gangster movie! Why the fuck are you giving me this gangster tome?” It went to every director in town. Nobody—I meant NO-BODY—wanted to touch it. However, the book still was on the bestseller list. And Jack Warner at Warner Bros. wanted to buy it from Gulf and Western.
AL RUDDY: There was pressure put on Charlie Bluhdorn, who owned Gulf and Western, to sell it to Jack Warner. Jack Warner would have given him $2-3-4 million for the book. Charlie was tempted; and [Paramount’s president of film and television] Stan Jaffe said, “This sounds good Charlie; it sounds good to the board. We haven’t made any money lately!” Sell the goddamn book!
AL RUDDY: [Producer] Bob Evans was very vocal about…he said, “Charlie, if you sell this goddamn book, you’re gonna sell the future of the company, I’m telling you. Don’t sell it!” So now a fight started between every factor; every group—between Stanley and Bob and Charlie: should we make it? Not make it? Finally, Charlie—exasperated—said, “Evans, you love this project? You can make it. For $6 million and not a penny more.” So you understand: $6 million at Paramount made us the cheapest movie of the year. They were doing Paint Your Wagon with Lee [Marvin] and Clint; and [Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies]…all those bombs they were doing…so Bob says, “Okay, now; who can we get to make this goddamn movie for $6 million?” And he said: well, let’s go to Al Ruddy to produce.
At the time, Ruddy had just finished producing Little Fauss and Big Halsey, starring Robert Redford and Michael J. Pollard.
AL RUDDY: I brought that movie in under budget and ahead of schedule. And what Paramount needed on The Godfather more than anything (so that Charlie would approve it) was somebody that they thought would be running this movie and not let it go over $6 million. Because they were serious. They were gonna get rid of the book. So they didn’t and they agreed to: okay, do it on the cheap.
AL RUDDY: So I had a meeting with them. And they said, “Would you be interested in doing this movie?” I thought they were kidding. So they said: you have to go meet Charlie Bluhdorn. Did I tell you this? Charlie wants to approve the producer. So I fly to New York. On the airplane I read the book. I had never read the book—because I never thought I’d get a shot at it!
AL RUDDY: You know, it was a major work! So I read it on the plane. I get to Stanley’s office around 3 o’clock; we’re gonna get some food from the Russian Tea Room across the way—Charlie, me and Stanley. So I’m in Stanley’s office…and the door flies open. And in comes this crazy Austrian: Charlie Bluhdorn. [imitating him] “Hello, I’m Charlie Bluhdorn.” Oh, hey, how are you? I’m Al Ruddy. He said, “Ruddy, what are you gonna do with this movie?” I looked at this crazy fucking guy and I said to myself: if I start talking about the book, I’ll be toast. This guy was focused on giving me one minute of time and he was gone, right? So I looked at him and I said to him, “Charlie, I want to make an ice blue terrifying movie about people you love.” Charlie bangs on the desk—”That’s brilliant!” And he runs out of the office. I went to Stan and said, “What the fuck was that?” He says, “Hold on.” So he goes out the door to track Charlie down. Comes back about 10 minutes later; he says, “you got the job.” I said: what? “You got the job!” I said I got The Godfather just on that line? “Yeah, well he thinks you’re a genius.” Um, okay. Nice. Thank you!
AL RUDDY: I became the producer of The Godfather…I got $150,000 and Francis got $150,000 and if we were going over $6 million, we’d be taking it out of our own money.
AL RUDDY: The Godfather—which incidentally came in for about 5 cents under $6 million so we didn’t lose our salary!—they even realized at a certain point…Brando was on and Al Pacino and the gang wars…remember, the gang wars broke out in New York when we were shooting. Crazy Joey Gallo was shooting up half the mob in New York while The Godfather was around the corner (shooting half the [cast] in New York in the end). The whole thing…the whole thing was so insane. That when we look back at it there is no question that it was just the perfect storm. I was so…Francis Coppola was at the peak—the peak—of his talent. Mario Puzo wrote a great novel. A very commercial novel. And we only had the greatest American actor who ever lived, Marlon Brando, and guys running close second with Al Pacino and Bobby Duvall. And it was…god meant it to be, I swear to god.
BJH: Let me ask you a question. You mentioned that Mario’s book was not only a great novel, but it was also commercially successful. So why—why would the studios not say “yes, let’s make this!” What was the hesitation?
AL RUDDY: Well, because: how does a movie become viable at a studio? It’s never…[re-phrasing] the starting point, you would think, is a great piece of material. Well, remember: that piece of material is in literary form. It doesn’t mean anything to the studio. If you don’t walk in with at least—at least—one bankable element (and hopefully it should be a major director who you know will get you a star). There was also a political situation going on. When we started on The Godfather I had to go meet Joe Columbo.
The opening line of Joe Columbo’s obituary in The New York Times describes him as a “reputed Mafia leader” who was “gunned down and left almost totally paralyzed in 1971”; however, in that same opening sentence, it also describes Columbo as “a founder of the Italian?American Civil Rights League,” which is why Ruddy had gone to meet him prior to production on The Godfather.
AL RUDDY: There was a lot of people in the Italian community that were violently against the movie. Because they figured: here’s Hollywood, again, doing a movie that portrays Italian Americans as dah-dah-dah. [Meanwhile, at that time] Joe Columbo was thinking: the Jews have a thing, the Anti-Defamation League [which was then called “The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith”], the Irish have a thing; [everyone has a similar thing] except the Italians. So [Columbo thought]: I’m gonna do the Italian thing [which, of course, became the aforementioned “Italian-American Civil Rights League”].
In early 1971—mere months before The Godfather was set to begin filming—Ruddy met with Columbo’s son, Anthony, and reached—what The Atlanta Constitution described—as a “tentative accord” centered on the following three conditions:
- Ruddy would delete “Mafia,” “Costa Nostra” and all other Italian words from the script”
- Ruddy promised to allow the [Italian?American Civil Rights] League to review the script and change anything it felt was damaging to the Italian-American image.
- Ruddy agreed to turn over the proceeds of the film’s New York premiere to the League’s hospital fund.
Shortly thereafter—on February 25, 1971—Ruddy went to the Park Sheraton Hotel to speak with Columbo (Sr.) and 1,500 other members of the Italian?American Civil Rights League. Despite the aforementioned accord, he faced strong opposition. “I couldn’t care less if they gave us $2 million,” Columbo Sr. allegedly said. “No one can buy the right to defame Italian-Americans.”
Ruddy tried to assuage this resistance by explaining that the film would “depict individuals and would not defame or stereotype a group. It was really a movie about a corrupt society. A movie about America today. A movie about what happens to poor immigrants faced with prejudice and discrimination.”
Ruddy’s approach turned out to be persuasive. And in March 1971, principal photography on The Godfather began in New York City.
AL RUDDY: It’s very simple: movies get made for illogical reasons of either a moment in time; and remember, every studio has 3-4 branches that are equally important; remember distribution is where the money is made most of the time because they steer—they screw every producer and actor in the business. Well, if a studio doesn’t have their summer movie—and I mean: they don’t have it—and they’re just running…they have to have it. Because you have to fill that supply. They’re looking all over the town for anything that looks like a summer movie. So if they just happen to have one that’s halfway decent, then: hey! Come on in here!
AL RUDDY: [getting back to the Mario Puzo book] I insist on meeting Mario Puzo, right? I’m the first guy in the movie. Nobody wants to hire Mario Puzo because, “He’s a novelist! He wrote a 600 page book! He’s going to write a 600 page screenplay!”
AL RUDDY: “We don’t want the fucking novelist.” I said, “Well I want to meet him anyhow.” I go to New York; I call Mario and I meet him at the Walldorf. I said, “Mario, look; I got a problem with the guys on the west Coast. [laughing] They don’t want to hire the guy who wrote the novel! He’s got a copy of the book under his arm. He takes the book and he throws it on the floor. Slams it! He says, “I promise: if you hire me, I’ll never look at the book again.” I was dumbfounded. I said, “You know what? You just talked yourself into the job.” I shook his hand and then I brought him out to California. That’s how he got on the project.
AL RUDDY: They didn’t want Mario Puzo. But I just was…I was so taken with this guy and his passion. You meet a guy like that and you know: this guy is not going to let you down. He’s really collaborative, he’s not an egomaniac. The guy is so fucking happy with what happened to him; and happy to be making a movie, to be on the lot. He was a fucking joy! I loved the guy.
But…there was one hitch.
AL RUDDY: I had to promise his wife that if she let him come to California, I would watch his diet. Because Mario had diabetes. I said, “I’m gonna eat with him every night, Mrs. Puzo. I promise you. Every day.” So for the first month and a half, I’m picking up Mario in the morning; we’re both having a poached egg and a buttered muffin. And I’m losing weight and Mario isn’t. So I go into this pizza joint one night—Frankie’s—and Frankie’s telling me what a nice guy Mario Puzo is. I said, “how do you know Mario?” He said, “I bring him a pizza every night!”
BJH: [cracking up]
AL RUDDY: [Frankie says] “I bring him a big pizza to the Beverly Hills Hotel.” He’s getting fucking heavy and my pants are falling down! So I said, “Mario, this can’t go on.” So he went to Duke University, the “Fat Farm” and then he came back and started to work again. But it all goes to show you [that with every movie] everything’s hanging on fucking threads. It’s gotta be your absolute devotion and as Churchill said, “You have to know how to fail with happiness on your face. Just keep going. And never, never stop. Keep going.” So the lesson becomes: how did you get that made? Because you have fucking gall, you have balls, you have luck, timing; everything; all the other elements can be on your side for once.
AL RUDDY: I’ll tell you one last story about The Godfather. On the second night, we were shooting up in Bellevue [the historic hospital in Manhattan]. And in New York, in those days, if you started a crew after 4 or 5 o’clock it was time and a half. If you went into what they called “golden time” it was triple time. In other words, if you had a guy who was making $2,000 a week on your crew, so you’re paying $3,000 a week to start because it’s a night shoot; then you start getting into overtime (time-and-a-half) and now he’s up to $4,500 an hour; and if it’s over 8 hours, you give triple; [laughing] so the guy’s walking out with $6,000 an hour. You’re broke!
AL RUDDY: So we’re shooting at Bellevue and its raining…and the crazies are throwing pillows out the fucking window. And the head of the hospital tells me, “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.” I said, “Are you insane?”
AL RUDDY: You know how long it took me to lay cable? And you’re gonna tell me I have to come back tomorrow? He said, “Well, you have to go.” I said, “I’m gonna sit in this fucking office and if you reach for that fucking phone, I’m gonna stop you.” He says, “You’re kidding me.” I said, “Just try. I’m serious. Don’t force me to beat the shit out of you.” He said, “I’m gonna have you arrested.” I said, “You can do anything you want after we’re through shooting!”
BJH: [cracking up]
AL RUDDY: He thought I was crazy. I was so…I could see my career ending right there. And the guy sat there for an hour and 20 minutes; until Fred [associate producer Gray Fredrickson] told me: okay, we just wrapped up. I said, “Thank you for everything.” He said, “Don’t think I’m through with you yet, you fuck.” [laughs]
BJH: That’s awesome.
AL RUDDY: But you know what? The mayor wanted us to shoot. New York wanted the movie. We couldn’t afford it, but we were thinking of shooting in St. Louis. But it’s all so crazy, Blake, what happened. [You can] take ANY. FUCKING. MOVIE. AL. RUDDY. EVER. DID. And the crisis is there. The crisis is there.
AL RUDDY: [Originally] you asked me about the movie I did, Megaforce.
AL RUDDY: I bumped into these guys that had a company that was developing something called “Introvision,” which was a very early high-tech system for movies.
Introvision was a front-projection process that—on set and in real-time—gave filmmakers a way to view a finished composite of live action and plate photography through the camera’s viewfinder.
AL RUDDY: Megaforce was really the first, reasonably-budgeted movie that used Introvision. [For example] we had a whole underground sequence, but [in reality] there was nothing there! It was all desert. But we did it all with effects. And then we opened up the movie with the huge attack scene that Needham did. With the red, white and blue…And I must say: I honestly believe that Barry Bostwick was so campy that we knew it would be kind of a campy movie. And I’ll tell you something, all kidding aside: when we ran that the first time and you see Barry on that fucking motorcycle—and the wings come on the motorcycle—the audience went ballistic! They were screaming and clapping and every other thing. They went fucking crazy!
AL RUDDY: [Years later, circa 2002] I was at a party and this guy comes up to me, shakes my hand. He says, “I want you to know, you made on of the most important movies [laughing] of the 20th century.” I said, “Really?” He says, “Yeah: Megaforce.” I looked at this guy and said: this motherfucker’s on drugs or he’s drinking, then I heard he was Trey Parker and he said, “We want to do it. We want to do an animated version of your movie.” Well, the license hadn’t expired yet (with the distribution company) so I couldn’t make a deal with the guy, and so they went ahead and they did their own version of Megaforce…
BJH: Wait…you mean, Team America: World Police?
AL RUDDY: Exactly. Yeah, that’s it exactly.
AL RUDDY: [In the early 90s] I watched my daughter play soccer. My daughter was 7. I said: what a great background for a movie—little girls with big boots on! So I develop this script called Ladybugs. But I’m having trouble getting it made. So I give it to Rodney Dangerfield’s manager. And Rodney had just done Back to School and was very successful. And they offered Rodney $7 million to do the sequel, but Rodney did not like the director.
AL RUDDY: So the agent said, “Why don’t you meet with Rodney? Will you pay Rodney $7 million?” I said, “Sure, if he wants to do it.” So I meet with Rodney, we shake hands, $7 million, blah, blah, blah. Then I get back to my office, we run the numbers, I’m $2 million short.
AL RUDDY: I called Rodney up and said, “Rodney, I have to come see you.” He said, “Al, I’m not getting in a private room with you by myself. I’ll get my lawyer here.” I said, “You don’t understand, Rodney, I’m in the elevator of your hotel right now.” So I go in [to his hotel room] and he’s running around in his fucking bathrobe.
AL RUDDY: I said, “Rodney, let me get to the end of the conversation at the beginning because there’s no way to say what I’m gonna say…I don’t have $7 million to pay you. If you want to do the movie, I only have $5 million.” He said, “You’re gonna take away two-large just like that?” I said, “I’m not taking away, Rodney; that’s what I got. If you wanna do the movie for five [million], I got five. Not seven.” Rodney said, “Okay, man. Fuck it. You fucked me out of $2 million, but I want to do the movie.”
AL RUDDY: So all the way through the movie, he keeps reminding me how I fucked him out of this $2 million, right? Then at the end of the movie, I’m waiting [to meet him]. Because he’s a champ with the zingers. So I’m walking him to his limousine (and he’s the cheapest guy who ever lived; he goes to the manager’s office; he’s got all his per diem envelopes, he hasn’t spent a penny). So now I’m walking to his limo and he opens the door to his limo, leans over and says to me, “I want you to know something: I woulda done it for three-large! HA HA HA.”
It should be noted that Ruddy does a pretty wonderful imitation of Rodney Dangerfield laughing in his face.
AL RUDDY: So I’d paid him $2 million more than he’d have done it for. He closes [the door] on me and laughs all the way down the road. He was just waiting to tell me! You think you fucked me? I liked it so much I would have done it for $2 million less anyhow!
STAY TUNED for Part 2 next week…
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