Marlon Brando in the 1972 film "The Godfather." The film was… (Paramount Pictures )
"Yeah, I left it noisy. That way it scares any pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders away."
"The Godfather"was still playing in New York theaters five months after its release and audiences were still greeting that line with nervous laughter when, on Friday, Aug. 11, 1972, a hit man from Las Vegas walked into the Neopolitan Noodle, an Italian restaurant on Manhattan's East 79th Street, at the height of the dinner hour rush.
Mistaking four businessmen at the crowded bar for his actual targets, Colombo family acting boss "Little Allie" Persico and three mob lieutenants, the hit man opened fire with two long-barreled pistols, killing two of the businessmen — kosher beef wholesalers from Westchester County and Long Island — and wounding their companions.
The men were old friends meeting to celebrate a daughter's wedding engagement. They arrived at the Noodle as the Persico party was being seated for dinner. While the four wiseguys were out of harm's way at a table in the dining room, the hit man shot the four innocents who had taken their places at the bar. The businessmen were casualties of a Colombo family civil war that had ignited four months earlier in spectacular fashion when "Crazy Joe" Gallo was gunned down at Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy.
The explosion of violence at the Neopolitan Noodle 40 years ago this week — one of the few times in the mob's long, bloody history when truly innocent bystanders were killed in a hit gone wrong — left in its wake an outraged citizenry and a city full of moviegoers who didn't find the reality of warring Mafia families as entertaining as it was on screen.
"The Godfather" celebrated the mob at the height of its wealth and murderous power. Gay Talese's nonfiction book about the Bonanno family, "Honor Thy Father," noted that the Mafia, with annual earnings that exceeded those of nine Top 10 Fortune 500 companies combined, was the biggest business in America at the time.
But if the movie made mobsters look like pious family men with fedoras and .45s, the Neopolitan Noodle killings exposed the vicious reality. The day after the mayhem, New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin condemned "The Godfather," which until then had been almost universally praised, as "hard-core pornography." And an angry New York Mayor John Lindsay demanded that "the romanticization of the mob must be stopped and the gangsters run out of town."
It took 20 years to accomplish the latter — mob godfather John Gotti's conviction and life sentence in 1992 more or less marked the end of the era when the New York Mafia reigned as an all-powerful and seemingly invincible force in New York's economic, political and cultural life.
As for Lindsay's hope that the public's romantic fascination with an enormous and highly organized outlaw gang of thieves would diminish, the mob's grip on the public imagination is arguably stronger today than it was 40 years ago when "The Godfather" was released.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the film's opening, Paramount Pictures held special screenings of the original, with prints restored by the film's director, Francis Ford Coppola, in theaters across the country in March. And the movie, along with"The Godfather: Part II" and "The Godfather: Part III," was the centerpiece of AMC's widely promoted "Mob Week," a recent festival featuring 19 of Hollywood's best-known mob-themed gangster films, each introduced by cable star Anthony Bourdain.
The shooting at the Neopolitan Noodle, by contrast, is hardly embedded in the public mind. The 40th anniversary on Saturday of the dimly remembered killings will pass with little fanfare or commemoration. And the names of the real-life innocent bystanders felled by a mob gunman — Sheldon Epstein, 40, of New Rochelle and Max Tekelch, 48, of Woodmere — will probably remain as they have been all these years, largely forgotten.
Steve Dougherty is a journalist who lives in New York and Los Angeles. He is the coauthor, with ex-mobster Sal Polisi, of Polisi's memoir, "The Sinatra Club: My Life Inside the New York Mafia."