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Themes From the New Godfather

May 11, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CBS hopes "The Last Don" is a miniseries audiences can't refuse.

The glossy, six-hour melodrama, premiering Sunday, is based on Mario Puzo's 1996 best-seller, which, like the author's legendary "The Godfather," explores the world of a powerful, tight-knit, violent Mafia family.

Executive producer Larry Sanitsky acknowledges that it is inevitable that viewers and critics will compare "The Last Don" to the Oscar-winning film version of "The Godfather," which was just re-released to mark its 25th anniversary.

"I know that's part of the expectation and the sale for the network," he says, "but it's a different set of characters, a different time period, a different book and a different medium."

"The Godfather," he says, "was a fairly expensive feature in its day and this is a six-hour miniseries. Its scope and emphasis is really different. I hope, ultimately, it will be judged as a miniseries and not compared to one of the most highly acclaimed movies in the history of moviedom."

"The Godfather" was anchored by Marlon Brando's memorable, Academy Award-winning performance as Don Vito Corleone. "The Last Don" stars the soft-spoken but physically imposing Danny Aiello as Don Domenico Clericuzio, a ruthless man who fervently believes that his family's future belongs in legitimate business--a daunting, perilous transformation.

Aiello describes Don Clericuzio as a man of "great intelligence, great sensitivity, compassion, viciousness and cunning. This man seemed to me to be more international [in scope] as opposed to Corleone being more local, even in the way they dress. This is a worldly individual. He's an extremely complex character."

So is the plot. After one of the Don's sons is killed by the rival Santadio crime family, he allows his daughter Rose Marie to marry the youngest Santadio son because she is pregnant with his child. But on their wedding night, the Don assigns his nephew Pippi (Joe Mantegna) and his three remaining sons to kill his new son-in-law and the head of the Santadio clan.

Rose Marie (Kirstie Alley), who recognizes her husband's killers, descends into madness and poisons her son Dante's (Rory Cochrane) mind against the Don and Pippi's son, Cross (Jason Gedrick).

The trigger-tempered Dante turns out to be more vicious than any of the family members. He's a ruthless killer with a penchant for wearing knit hats who nearly brings down the Clericuzios.

The more level-headed Cross also pursues the "family business" by running its Las Vegas casino-resort and carrying out a few executions on the side. Cross falls in love with the statuesque actress Athena Aquitane (Daryl Hannah).

"The Last Don" also stars Penelope Ann Miller, Robert Wuhl, Burt Young and k.d. lang as a feminist movie director. Joyce Eliason penned the adaptation, which was directed by Graeme Clifford ("Frances"). It was shot in Toronto, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Reno.

Sanitsky acknowledges that "we almost went with Marlon Brando" for the role of Clericuzio. "It was very tempting to bring [Brando] back. But I think the comparisons to Don Corleone and Don Clericuzio would have been so overwhelming. Danny makes the character his own and hopefully, at the end of the six hours, you won't think about Marlon in that part."

Aiello, whose film credits include "Do the Right Thing," "Moonstruck," "City Hall" and "2 Days in the Valley," was happy to get the opportunity to portray this godfather. He goes so far as to compare Clericuzio to Shakespeare's King Lear--not just because of the tragedies that befall the Don, but also considering the flowery dialogue he speaks. "I mean Puzo, in this particular book ... his writing is more sophisticated than in any of his previous novels," Aiello says.

"I think the language is more Shakespearean-like here than anywhere else. I thought I would have difficulty with it, but the words were just flowing off my tongue like I had been doing it for years."

Aiello says he deliberately understated his performance. "I didn't want to chew the furniture," he says. "I think I yell only three times. When my daughter throws a plate I said, 'Enough!' After my grandchild killed a kitten, I lose myself there. And the other time, I yell at my son, 'I love America!' I worked on an even keel and I permitted his actions to be the violence as opposed to his voice raising to a tremendous level. I never had such fun playing a character. I loved it."

The actor doesn't believe "The Last Don" glorifies the world of organized crime. "Hollywood has glorified a lot of [stuff]," he admits, "but in this case I don't think so. I think my character could be likable. There are some scenes where they'll look at him and forget who he is for the moment, like when he's sitting with his grandson and saying heritage is important. That's a beautiful scene."

Though Aiello finds organized crime "fascinating," it's a world he personally knows little about. "You would think I would know more being that I live in New York City," he says, laughing. "I grew up in a mixed neighborhood, predominately Jewish, so hanging out with wise guys was something that I didn't do. I hope that it doesn't make a lot of people unhappy, because I feel that they think that all Italians have something to do with the Mafia."

"The Last Don" airs Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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