- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2016

It was an offer he could not refuse.

Gianni Russo, best known as the ill-fated Carlo Rizzi in the original “Godfather” film, has been tapped by Paramount — the studio behind the mafioso trilogy — to be the brand spokesman for the new Don Corleone Organic Italian Vodka.

The Corleone brand is a four-times-distilled vodka made from the water of the Italian Alps by Distillerie Francoli in Ghemme, Italy.

“I’m a true vodka drinker, so to have the opportunity to get involved in the brand” was a true honor, Mr. Russo, also a vintner, told The Washington Times during a swing through the District to promote Don Corleone.

It’s the latest in vodkas made in the Old Country, following fellow Italian-American actor Chazz Palminteri’s BiVi.

“I’m 73 years old; I’ve been drinking a lot of vodka,” Mr. Russo said, flashing the same toothsome grin that made his Carlo Rizzi such a charmingly dangerous presence in the 1972 best picture winner.

“The Godfather” was Mr. Russo’s first film. He was only 29 at the time he was cast as Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) brother-in-law, a role he won on the basis of a screen test alone. In fact, the film opens with the wedding of Carlo to Connie Corleone (Talia Shire). In keeping with the traditions of gangsterism, on the day of his daughter’s nuptials, family patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) grants favors to all who seek his counsel.

The Don Corleone vodka bottle in fact features the iconic image of Brando in his tux on the day of his daughter’s wedding.

The film takes a dark turn for Carlo after he savagely beats wife Connie, which sends Don Corleone’s son Sonny (James Caan) into a rage. Sonny hammers Carlo mercilessly — although in the scene, Mr. Caan infamously misses Mr. Russo’s face with a punch by a mile and a half, an error chuckled at by millions of cineastes — which leads directly to Sonny’s notorious machine gun death at the tollbooth but minutes later.

Later in the film, Michael, now the family boss, has Carlo assassinated for his part in the conspiracy that resulted in Sonny’s murder.

Even 44 years after the film came out, Mr. Russo says that “so many people” still give him grief over “his” treatment of Connie.

“Oh yeah, so many people,” the actor said with a shake of the head.

Frequently typecast as gangsters, Mr. Russo’s subsequent acting career has included “Any Given Sunday,” “The Freshman” with fellow “Godfather” alum Brando, “Striptease” and “Seabiscuit.”

Mr. Russo and Mr. Caan also returned, albeit in a flashback, at the end of “The Godfather Part II,” in a scene when a young Michael informs his family he has signed up to fight in World War II. The scene is followed by the film’s final image of an ignoble Michael, now the head of the Corleone crime family but having lost his soul, seated alone on the windswept lawn of his Lake Tahoe estate, perhaps mulling over his sinful deeds — the most notorious of which was ordering the murder of his own brother, Fredo (John Cazale).

Mr. Russo is hoping that a film about his own life, starring Robert De Niro — who won an Oscar for portraying a young Vito Corleone in “The Godfather Part II” in 1974 — may yet materialize.

Meantime, he will continue to proudly promote Don Corleone vodka, which has a fine taste, smooth finish and absolutely no after-burn.

“Not that I’m prejudiced, because I am, but this vodka is the best vodka I ever drank,” Mr. Russo said.

For more information, or to find a store that carries Don Corleone, visit DonCorleoneBrand.com.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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