March 24, 1997 12:00 PM

THE GODFATHER IS ABOUT MORE THAN THE Mafia,” Mario Puzo, author of the 1969 best-selling book, once said. “It’s about the very nature of power.” Puzo saw tragedy in power, because it is so often abused; Francis Ford Coppola, then only 32, saw potential in The Godfather and, in 1972, transformed the bloody saga of Don Vito Corleone’s criminal clan into a triumphant epic that earned the Best Picture Oscar. The Godfather, which celebrates its 25th anniversary March 21 with a national rerelease, made stars of Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Robert Duvall while reviving the foundering career of Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar. As for Coppola, 57, the five-time Oscar winner went on to direct 15 films, including 1979’s Apocalypse Now and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. The filmmaker, whose next project, John Grisham’s thriller The Rainmaker, is due out this fall, also began to branch out. He founded the Niebaum-Coppola winery in California’s Napa Valley, opened a hotel in Belize and, this January, launched a literary magazine, Zoetrope Short Stories. But what of The Godfather’s other children? The pages ahead revisit some of the players of the greatest gangland story ever told.

Abe Vigoda: He’s Alive and Kicking

LAST SUMMER, ABE Vigoda was puttering around Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan when a shopper came up to him. “You look like Abe Vigoda,” the man said. “But you’re not. He’s dead.” Contrary to rumors that began with an erroneous PEOPLE report in the early ’80s, not only is the 76-year-old actor very much alive, he doesn’t even live in the past. Vigoda says his life’s “crowning achievement” was his role as Tessio, the treacherous member of the Corleone family who asks Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), “Tom, will you get me off the hook for old time’s sake?” Still, he doesn’t even own a video of The Godfather. This way he’s not tempted to copy himself: “When I do another Mafia role it’s fresh, not Tessio.”

Vigoda had a solid career as a stage actor when he got a call from his agent saying Francis Ford Coppola wanted to see him. After a 30-minute chat (not even a reading), Vigoda was cast. He so warmed to the task that while filming the opening wedding scene, “I became an Italian,” says the Jewish actor, who was raised by a dressmaker father and a homemaker mother in a cold-water four-story walk-up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Abe Vigoda was in the body, the skin of Tessio. I never felt that in all my years in the theater.”

He quickly learned that movies and the theater were worlds apart. For instance, says Vigoda, Brando never memorized his lines. “What Marlon requires is that someone write the words for him on cue cards off-camera,” he explains, confirming the belief that Brando had lines written all over the set, including on the bodies of the very actors in the scene. “He has a gift for looking at cue cards and still being real,” Vigoda says.

The actor, who lives alone in New York City since his wife, Beatrice, died in 1992, did 20 other films (many of them Mob movies) but made his mark as Det. Phil Fish on Barney Miller in the mid-’70s. He won three Emmy nominations for the show and had his own spinoff, Fish, in 1977. It was when he missed a wrap party in 1982 for Barney Miller that he was reported dead. “I lost a lot of work,” he says. He knew things were bad when a producer once called his agent asking for an “Abe Vigoda type.”

Talia Shire: A Single Mom Looks Back on Her Rocky Marriage to the Mob

FOR A TALE OF FAMILY LOYALTIES, being the director’s kid sister would seem a sure in. “But he was trying to make some interesting casting decisions which weren’t considered commercial by the studios,” Talia Shire, 51, says of her brother Francis Ford Coppola. “The last thing you need is, ‘Can I give my sister a job?’ ”

Only at Mario Puzo’s request did Shire, whose only professional acting experience was in a few Roger Corman productions such as 1970’s Gas-s-s-s, get a chance to audition for the part of Connie, the Don’s daughter. She landed the role and turned in one of the film’s most powerful performances as the battered wife of Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), a small-time hood. For the scene in which a pregnant Connie goes on a rampage as Carlo savagely beats her with a belt, Shire was nervous. She had lost a shoe and had to step on the broken crockery she had smashed during her struggle with Carlo. “I remember being really scared,” Shire recalls. “There was broken crockery all over the floor, but I didn’t want them to have to set it up again. So I kept going. I kept thinking, ‘Feet, don’t fail me now.’ ”

Shire went on to star in The Godfather, Part II (for which she received an Oscar nomination) and as Adrian in 1976’s Rocky (a second nomination) and all four of its sequels. These days Shire is focused on directing (her debut was the erotic thriller One Night Stand in 1995) and motherhood. She lives in Bel Air with two teenage sons (her second husband, producer Jack Schwartzman, died of pancreatic cancer in 1994), carpools and takes her boys to an occasional movie. “When my kids went to see Rocky, they had a new respect for me,” she says. “Maybe they’ll listen to me when I say, ‘Make your bed.’ ”

Simonetta Stefanelli: The Eyes Have It

THE ROLE OF APOLLONIA, THE Sicilian beauty Michael Corleone takes as his bride, can be summed up in a heartbeat. “I met him, I married him, I died,” says Rome native Simonetta Stefanelli, who was only 16 at the time of the filming. True, but before she was blown to bits by a car bomb, Stefanelli, now 42, had made an impression. Though she and Pacino could not speak each other’s language, she says, their roles created a bond between them. “He would want to speak with me, I could tell,” says Stefanelli. But, she adds, “sometimes it is not important to speak. When you have a good feeling, the eyes speak.”

Stefanelli’s role—especially her love scene with Pacino (whom she never saw again after the film wrapped)—left a lasting impression on others as well. “Some maniacs wanted to marry me,” she says of letters she received after the movie (which briefly shows her topless) opened. And filmmakers flooded her with salacious offers. “They wanted nothing more than to expose my body,” she says. “I refused so much work.” Instead, Stefanelli settled for a string of Mafia roles in films never released in the U.S. “The Mafia has the same fascination as the monarchy. But I am not mafioso,” she says, laughing. “I could never do that. I like to speak too much. I am not discreet. I would die immediately.”

Stefanelli, who split with her husband, Italian TV star Michele Placido, two years ago, is now living a full life in London with her 30-year-old restaurateur boyfriend and her sons Michelangelo, 7, and Brenno, 5. When her marriage broke up, she chopped off her long black tresses and became a blonde. Not only does she look different from the country girl she played in The Godfather, she feels transformed. “I was very timid—I did not have much experience in life then,” she says. But today, “I no longer fear life; age has given me confidence.”

Gianni Russo: Hit Man

FOR GIANNI RUSSO, WHO PLAYED CARLO Rizzi, Vito Corleone’s wife-beating, duplicitous son-in-law, The Godfather was both a dream role and a curse. In one of the film’s most brutal scenes, Carlo kicks out the windshield of a car as he is strangled to death from behind by a Corleone soldier. “After that scene,” says Russo, 53, “I never did a movie where I wasn’t a gangster.”

In fact, of the 30 film and TV roles he landed after his movie debut in The Godfather, 29 were as mobsters. If another hit-man script lands on his desk, it will be an offer he can—and will—refuse. “I really don’t want to do that kind of work anymore,” says Russo, a twice-divorced native New Yorker who shares a Tudor-style L.A. home with his pet pig Orky. “I could play Cybill Shepherd’s boyfriend, Murphy Brown’s lover, someone’s father, an old lady, I don’t care.”

Any of which would certainly be less painful than his Godfather gig. During the scene where James Caan gives him a vicious beating, Russo chipped an elbow and cracked two ribs. “Jimmy and I weren’t getting along,” says Russo, who adds that he was snubbed by other principals because of his inexperience. “I think he really wanted to beat the crap out of me.”

Russo, who last appeared in Striptease, recently sold Fox a script he wrote for a TV movie he describes as “a mix of Baywatch, Melrose Place and Dynasty.” But acting remains his passion. Russo interrupts his interview to take a call. “That was Jon Voight’s assistant,” he says afterward. “They want to know if I’ll do a Chicago gangster. You believe that?”

Crooner Al Martino: No Stranger to the Mob

I WAS ALSO CONTROLLED [BY THE Mafia],” says Philadelphia-born Al Martino, who won’t offer details but who felt he was a natural to play Johnny Fontane, the singer who was Don Corleone’s godson. “I thought I could play it easily because I’d lived it.” The problem was, Fontane was widely believed to be patterned after Frank Sinatra.

In the book and film, Fontane, like Sinatra, badly wanted to star in a war movie (Sinatra, who has long denied Mob ties, pressed hard for his role in 1953’s From Here to Eternity). Indeed, says Martino, Sinatra was so angered by the parallels that Ol’ Blue Eyes and a team of lawyers tried to have the Fontane role cut from the movie. He failed, though the part was reduced. In the end, “I sent Frank a message telling him I was doing the role and that I thought he should step out,” says Martino, 69, with a touch of his signature bravado. “He has no love for me, and I feel the same for him.”

While Martino has made screen appearances over the years (including a brief turn in The Godfather, Part III), he remains primarily a singer. He tours about 35 weeks a year, still doing his 1966 hit “Spanish Eyes.” Yet Johnny Fontane defined his legacy. “Not a week has gone by without someone mentioning The Godfather,” says Martino, who lives in Beverly Hills with Judi, his wife of 28 years. “At the time, I didn’t know how lucky I really was.”

Anthony Gounaris: The Kid Actor Gets Down to Business

ANTHONY GOUNARIS HASN’T FORGOTTEN the terror Brando instilled in him when he was a 4-year-old playing Don Corleone’s grandson during the Godfather’s death scene. Making merry in the last few moments before he was felled by a heart attack, Brando stuck an orange peel in his mouth and pretended to be a monster. But the celebrated actor was ad-libbing, and his little costar wasn’t prepared. “He scared the hell out of me,” says Gounaris, 28, who burst into tears on-camera. “That crying was real. I think he bought me lunch after that to calm me down.”

That was probably one reason Gounaris, a Greek-American whose olive skin gave him an edge over 50 other kids trying out for the part, never caught the bug and returned to acting. After earning a business degree at St. John’s University in 1989, he began running his father’s restaurant in Queens. “The movie hasn’t changed anything,” says Gounaris, who is single. “I just have a feeling of pride and ‘wow, I did something different.’ ”

Not too different from his brother Jim, though, who played Pacino’s son in The Godfather, Part II, shot mostly in ’74. Jim enjoyed the experience, but he too had little interest in acting. “There are a lot of starving actors out there,” says Jim, 33, who comanages the restaurant, “and I have a big appetite.”

Alex Rocco: Seeing Green

WHEN ALEX ROCCO ARRIVED IN NEW York City to film his scenes as Moe Green, a Bugsy Siegel-inspired Las Vegas casino owner, he felt like an outsider. “The big players,” as Rocco calls Brando, Pacino, Caan and Duvall, had worked on the film for months already and, he says, “were constantly playing practical jokes on each other.” For the scene in which Don Corleone is carried upstairs on a stretcher after returning from the hospital, Brando hid several hundred pounds of weights under the sheets. “When the cast members went to pick him up, they couldn’t,” recalls Rocco, 61, at his home near Santa Barbara, where he lives with his wife of 31 years, Sandy. “Brando was a prankster.”

So were Caan, Pacino and Duvall. “If a guy passed you, whoever could drop his pants and show his bare behind first, won,” he says. “I didn’t understand it.”

What the Somerville, Mass., native does understand is the importance of his turn as Moe Green, who takes a bullet in the eye in a memorable scene. “It was only a two-day shoot, but it made my career,” says Rocco, who earned only $50 a day for The Godfather but who has since appeared in some 60 films and television shows, including the CBS sitcom The Famous Teddy Z, for which he won a 1990 Emmy for his performance as a talent agent. “I still get interviews for parts just because producers want to meet Moe Green. They want to hear Godfather stories. Everyone does.”

PETER CASTRO

KEN BAKER, KAREN BRAILSFORD and JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles, CYNTHIA WANG and JENNIFER FREY in New York City and BRYAN ALEXANDER in London

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