Having Paid the Piper, at 71, Carmine Coppola Calls His Own Tunes—As Well as Son Francis'

New York’s Little Italy, 1918: Robert De Niro is about to commit another of the crimes that will transform his character, Vito Corleone, into a Don. But he needs a gun. As the illicit deal unfolds in a dingy machine shop, there is a sudden rustling. All eyes dart toward a little boy working in the back. The shopowner relaxes: “That’s my older son, Carmine…. Get your flute. Play something for my friends.” Hesitantly, the boy puts flute to lips…

A throwaway scene, really, a minute of celluloid shot by Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather, Part II which wound up on the cutting room floor. But when the director re-edited his Mafia chronicles into a nine-hour televersion in 1977, one trim prominently restored was the above homage to his father, Carmine, a machinist’s son who became a first-desk flutist as well as maestro to an operatic family of achievers (August, 47, author and scholar; Francis, 42, cinemagician; and Talia Shire, 36, actress). On such accomplishments many men would rest.

But for this 71-year-old patriarch, there seems to be no autumn. Since becoming eligible for Social Security, Carmine Coppola has won an Oscar for co-scoring (with Nino Rota) Godfather II. In addition, he composed the music for Apocalypse Now and The Black Stallion. And most recently he’s become an integral ingredient in the most odds-against movie success of 1981, the revival of French director Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon. Since its January opening before 6,000 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the film has blazed an arc of triumph across the country.

When Francis Coppola decided to road-show Gance’s long-neglected silent masterpiece, Carmine scored the four-hour film in just five months. So far a symphony orchestra of some 60 players has performed his composition, live, at each of Napoleon’s screenings. Under whose baton? That of Carmine, who must stand facing the screen, watching intently for the 150-odd visual cues that allow him to synchronize score to action. Says Francis, with understandable pride, “The cheers and the standing ovations are half for Gance and half for my father. Sometimes I worry that he’s working too hard—imagine conducting that demanding score while staying in sync, and doing it four to six times a week! I don’t think I could, but he thrives on it.”

Carmine is noticeably more nonchalant about his work load. Of his quick scoring he says, “Themes come to me in dreams, in the supermarket, anyplace. I jot down a couple of notes to remind me, and develop it later. For this film, I decided to be romantic. I didn’t copy Beethoven—how can you?—but I used similar harmonies,” as well as patriotic French chestnuts like La Marseillaise. “I wanted the public to go out singing tunes. I also used a lot of brass—after all, this is a military movie—and lots of drums. I understand Napoleon was tone-deaf, but he had drums everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had them outside his bedroom on his wedding night.”

More of a problem has been recruiting and preparing an orchestra in each city. Plus, there have been headaches no rehearsal could forestall; in Columbus, Ohio, one violinist kept peeking over his shoulder at Gance’s hypnotic images. Scolded Carmine during intermission, “I’m the only one who’s supposed to watch. If you want to see the film, buy a ticket and go sit in the audience.”

Though Napoleon is just the latest in a string of personal successes, cynics have pointed out that in each case Carmine’s employer has been son Francis. “This thing about nepotism used to annoy me,” Carmine concedes. “But [Roberto] Rossellini’s brother wrote scores for his films—not because he was his brother, but because he was a pro. When Francie and I get together to do work, the father-son relationship dissolves. And he’s a tough taskmaster.” Perhaps Carmine’s most characteristic allusion to the Coppolas’ complicated personal-professional ties came in April 1975 when he accepted his Oscar: “I want to thank my son Francis, because without him I wouldn’t be here,” said Carmine. “But then if I wasn’t here, he wouldn’t be, either.”

In 1904 Carmine’s father, August Coppola, arrived in New York from southern Italy and eventually established a machine shop. More than his craft, he loved music; as a young man he had attended the opera Lucia di Lammermoor 17 times, just to hear the flute obbligato in the famed mad scene. Carmine, second of seven brothers, was given a wooden flute at age 8. Soon he was a member of a 400-boy marching band, and then a student at Stuyvesant High before winning a scholarship to Juilliard. Carmine remembers his parents arguing over music and his mother shouting in frustration, “You make $15 a week and you spend $5 on a single record!”

Upon graduating from Juilliard, Coppola married Brooklyn-born Italia Pennino whose father was a Neapolitan songwriter. After a stint with a radio station in Connecticut, followed by several years with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra as first flute, Carmine joined the Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Francis was born in the Motor City.

In the early ’40s Carmine was summoned back East to audition for Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. “I played and played and he just watched,” Coppola recalls. “I asked if there was anything he wanted me to play. He asked for the C-major scale. I went up and down, up and down. Finally Toscanini said that playing a scale is not so easy—you have to think about attack, breathing, everything. Then he conducted me playing the scale.” Carmine won the job. Since he was in New York, he also began helping out at a new family machine shop. One day a World War II-related rush job delayed him for rehearsal. Carmine countered Toscanini’s ire by pleading a flat tire. When it happened again, the conductor screamed, “What is it this time?” Replied Coppola, “The other tire.” Toscanini’s volcanic temper began to erupt. Then the maestro laughed: “That means you can be late only two more times!”

In 1951 Carmine finally decided “I had had my fill of it—I was just playing, and I wanted to express myself through conducting.” He resigned to direct opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (on a thin budget that allowed only for a piano rehearsal—”You can tell some of today’s snot-nosed conductors about that,” he growls). Then he was hired by the road companies of such Broadway hits as Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, 110 in the Shade and Kismet.

Despite Coppola’s progress, his kids have mixed memories of that period. August: “Although he focused on his career, he was always engaged with the family—Sundays were like picnics which went on from 2 to 11 p.m., with relatives, friends and orchestra members practicing in the basement.” Francis: “Our lives centered on what we all felt was the tragedy of his career. He was a very frustrated man because he felt that his own music never really emerged.” Talia: “I had no relationship with him in the ‘Hi, Dad’ sense. Now that I’m an adult, I think I understand. A lot of people today don’t want to know that their father has to sweat bullets to make a living. He was 20 hours a day alone with music—I think he wanted to be a composer all along. But the brooding wasn’t just frustration; essentially, the artist is always alone with his own soul.”

In 1967 Coppola was conducting the touring company of Half a Sixpence when he was called by Francis, already hailed as a Hollywood wunderkind and, at 28, about to direct Fred Astaire and Petula Clark in the movie version of Finian’s Rainbow. “He told me there would be work for me,” remembers Carmine. There was, and he and Italia moved to the coast. But Rainbow flopped. Francis, undaunted, founded his American Zoetrope company. Carmine managed to keep going by conducting with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and teaching music in high schools. Of that bleak time he says, cryptically, “There’s a period in everyone’s life when you’re not doing what you want to do.” Then, in 1971, came the project that confirmed Francis as a director, launched Talia as an actress and offered Carmine his main chance as a composer: The Godfather.

“Fame,” reflects Carmine, not without a trace of slyness, “might mean something in the fee I can now get.” But he and Italia still live in their modest four-bedroom San Fernando Valley home, in which informality comes naturally. The Oscar that sits on the living room coffee table is liable to be flanked by fresh flowers plunked into an empty coffee tin. Not that the elder Coppolas are home much. In June Carmine flew to Milan to conduct the Radio Italiana Orchestra in the Napoleon score, both to serve as the film’s sound track when it goes into general release and as a Columbia Masterworks album due out later this year. This week Carmine will be in Chautauqua, N.Y. to conduct a concert of music from his movie scores. Then he flies to Rome, where Napoleon will be shown al fresco next to the Colosseum on a giant triptych screen, in front of the Arch of Constantine. The epic will play at least 10 more American cities by next spring, plus Manila and possibly Tokyo and Hong Kong. As if all this weren’t enough, Carmine has been approached by PBS and several regional troupes interested in staging the world premiere of his opera Escorial, based on a Flemish play.

Has finally attaining his lifelong goals assuaged this driven musician? “If you’re an artist,” he says, “you wouldn’t be doing what you do unless you thought you could. The big surprise comes when somebody else notices.” What of the once remote father who has nevertheless raised intensely family-oriented children? “Children and grandchildren—I now have eight—are a man’s immortality,” he says. “A perfect family is one with harmony. Others may be more successful, but you should enjoy what you have—what the hell will it really matter in 50 or 100 years? I was brought up in a strict household. I guess that stayed with me—I was a strict father.”

It appears Carmine would like to perpetuate his image as the stern paterfamilias. But his wife won’t let him. Italia recalls a night in 1949 when Carmine was still with Toscanini. Young Francis fell ill. The doctors diagnosed polio. “Carmine came home right after they took Francie to the hospital,” she says. “He threw himself on Francie’s bed and cried, ‘God, please make my son well. I don’t want my own symphony orchestra anymore, I just want him to recover.’ ” Now, 32 years later, through a combination of medicine, genes, talent, perseverance—and, yes, filial loyalty—Carmine Coppola has both.

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