As Roger J. Stone Jr. goes on trial in Washington, accused of obstructing investigations into a possible conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, one piece of evidence has nothing to do with Russia, Hillary Clinton’s emails, WikiLeaks or the Trump administration.
It’s Mr. Stone’s mentions of a character from “The Godfather Part II” who gives false testimony during a Senate hearing on organized crime.
“Do a Frank Pentangeli,” Mr. Stone texted to an associate set to testify about him before a Congressional committee in 2017.
The message, according to prosecutors, was an attempt by Mr. Stone, a Republican political operative and longtime adviser to President Trump, to advise his associate to mimic Pentangeli’s obtuseness.
“I don’t know nothing about that,” Pentangeli demurs when questioned in the 1974 film about a character’s mob ties.
Witnesses have been pulling Pentangelis for years, and the surfacing of the term in the Stone case is just one of the many times where elements of the “Godfather” films, and the book on which they were based, have become pervasive in the real world.
Earlier this year, when a conservative detractor of the CNN host Chris Cuomo, whose brother, Andrew Cuomo, is governor of New York, sought to demean him, he referred to him as “Fredo,” the bungling sibling in the Corleone clan.
When someone makes you “an offer you can’t refuse,” or threatens to have you “sleep with the fishes,” they are repeating phrases largely made popular by the “Godfather” films.
Edward McDonald, a lawyer who as a federal prosecutor secured convictions against leaders of four of New York’s five Mafia families, said prosecutors are not immune from the pull of the language when chatting with colleagues. After offering a defendant a plea deal, he said, “You might say, ‘I made him an offer he can’t refuse: immunity instead of 10 years in prison.’”
(Mr. McDonald played himself in the mob movie “Goodfellas,” and one of his lines in that film to a mob associate’s wife (Lorraine Bracco) — “Don’t give me the babe-in-the-woods routine, Karen” — became memorable in its own right.)
Even mob guys have mirrored behavior from the “Godfather” films on occasion, as in 1977 when prosecutors said a man acting on behalf of the Colombo crime family was trying to secretly stash bribe money in a Long Island restaurant. He chose the same place where Michael Corleone finds the gun hidden for him in “The Godfather”— a toilet.
“Just like in the movies,” an undercover agent exclaimed on a wiretap after pulling the cash from the commode.
Though lines from other films have become part of the American lexicon — “I’ll be back” (Schwarzenegger, “The Terminator,” 1984) — few have had the enduring impact of the Godfather series, said Kenneth Dancyger, a professor of film and television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He attributed that to the unique combination of skilled scriptwriting, acting and directing as well as to the film’s insights into an American brand of power and corruption.
“At the heart of it,” Professor Dancyger said, “is family and honor and trying to protect the family from a corrupt world, which is what Don Corleone is trying to do.”
The scripts for the first two Godfather films were a collaboration by its director, Francis Ford Coppola, and Mario Puzo, the author of the book by the same name.
Mr. Puzo’s research materials included mob trial transcripts and hearings such as those into the Mafia boss Joseph Valachi in the 1960s, but he had no direct contact with wiseguys.
“He never met an honest-to-God gangster,” said Puzo’s oldest son, Tony Puzo, 72.
“He’d be very amused at all this Godfather stuff now,” he said. “He didn’t understand why people loved the Godfather references, why they held it as gospel that a quote from ‘The Godfather’ had any relevance except for being a witty term. He didn’t believe in the righteousness of mobsters. He was just writing a story.”
This weekend, on the 45th anniversary of its release, “The Godfather Part II,” will be screened in theaters across the country and Frankie Pentangeli’s predicament will be presented to a new generation of moviegoers.
In the film, Frankie has every intention of testifying against the Corleone family and has signed a sworn statement containing the incriminating information. But he reverses himself after the Corleones ferry his brother from Italy to sit prominently in the Senate hearing room, staring daggers at him.
A similar scenario unfolded in 2010 when investigators said a murder defendant tried to pack a Bronx courtroom with a horde of locals to stare down a government witness from the neighborhood who was taking the stand against him. In a wiretapped call, the defendant said the ploy came from “The Godfather” — “my favorite movie of all time.”
In the Stone case, prosecutors had sought to screen the Pentangeli scene in the federal courtroom to clarify to the jury what they argue Mr. Stone intended to communicate in his reference.
But the judge, Amy Berman Jackson, denied their request. So the jury will probably be shown the film’s script instead.
Mr. Stone, 67, a self-described political dirty-trickster with a tattoo on his back of his idol Richard M. Nixon, has called his Pentangeli text mere banter with his associate, Randy Credico, a comedian and political activist who in 2017 was set to testify about what he knew of efforts to contact WikiLeaks on the Trump campaign’s behalf. His testimony could have contradicted what Mr. Stone had told Congress.
In the end, Mr. Credico did not testify, and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Mr. Stone has said he was simply urging Mr. Credico, a chronic impersonator and fellow “Godfather” buff, to regale the committee with his impression of Pentangeli. Mr. Stone is charged with trying to tamper with Mr. Credico’s testimony and with deceiving the House Intelligence Committee in a criminal case that is one of the last prosecutions to grow out of the inquiry by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Michael V. Gazzo earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his raspy-voiced depiction of Pentangeli. The award went to his co-star Robert De Niro, who played the young Vito Corleone.
Bruce Rogow, an attorney for Mr. Stone, had opposed the effort to screen the Pentangeli scene, calling it “dangerous territory” for prosecutors to mention the Mafia or mob films in court because of their potential to prejudice a jury.
“Once the door is opened with a movie clip, which no doubt will accompany an explanation of why it is being played,” Mr. Rogow wrote in a brief last August, “the trial detours to a Mafia trial and Stone’s connection to it, with all of its history and folklore.”
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