Albert S. Ruddy, movie producer whose first Oscar was for 'The Godfather,' dies at 94
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Albert S. Ruddy, movie producer whose first Oscar was for 'The Godfather,' dies at 94
Albert S. Ruddy at his office in Los Angeles, Oct. 29, 2015. Ruddy, who found early success in television as a creator of “Hogan’s Heroes,” the situation comedy about Allied prisoners outwitting their bumbling Nazi captors in a POW camp, and then became a movie producer who won Oscars for “The Godfather” and “Million Dollar Baby,” died on Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Los Angeles. He was 94. (Kendrick Brinson/The New York Times)

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Albert S. Ruddy, who found early success in television as a creator of “Hogan’s Heroes,” a situation comedy about Allied prisoners outwitting their bumbling Nazi captors in a POW camp, and then became a movie producer who won Oscars for “The Godfather” and “Million Dollar Baby,” died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 94.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his wife, Wanda McDaniel, and his daughter, Alexandra Ruddy.

Ruddy was a gravelly-voiced former systems programmer and shoe salesman who, by the time Paramount Pictures was preparing to film “The Godfather,” had become known for the unlikely success of “Hogan’s Heroes” and for producing a couple of movies that had come in under budget.

“Ruddy is a tall, thin, nervously enthusiastic man who sees himself as a shrewd manipulator,” Nicholas Pileggi wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1971 about the making of “The Godfather,” an adaptation of a Mario Puzo novel about the Corleone crime family. “Ruddy had always been able to talk his way through obstacles.”

Among the many hurdles he faced as producer of “The Godfather” was the animosity toward the prospective film shown by Italian Americans, civic-minded ethnic groups such as the Sons of Italy and members of Congress, who thought the movie would perpetuate gangster stereotypes. Paramount feared economic boycotts.

The person who concerned Ruddy most was Joseph Colombo Sr., a reputed Mafia crime boss who had founded the Italian American Civil Rights League. He had persuaded the FBI to stop using the terms Mafia and Cosa Nostra in its news releases.

Ruddy hoped that dealing with the league would be a guarantee against any trouble during production, as it turned out to be. He agreed to scrub offending Italian words from the script, to let the league review the script for anything else that might damage Italian Americans’ image, and to donate the proceeds from the movie’s New York premiere to the league.

Ruddy appeared at a news conference at the league’s office in Manhattan to announce the deal but didn’t anticipate the backlash from its coverage in the news media.

“The next morning, there’s a shot of me on the front page of The New York Times with organized crime figures at a press conference,” he said in a Vanity Fair article in 2009 by Mark Seal, who expanded it into a 2021 book, “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of ‘The Godfather.’”

The presence of Ruddy at the news conference so enraged Charles Bluhdorn, the combustible chair of Gulf & Western, Paramount’s parent, that he fired him. But when Bluhdorn told Francis Ford Coppola, the director, and Robert Evans, the studio’s vice president of production, to find another producer, Coppola intervened.

“Al Ruddy’s the only guy who can keep this movie going!” he told Bluhdorn.

“The Godfather” won three Oscars, including Ruddy’s for best picture; for best actor, for Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Don Vito Corleone; and for best adapted screenplay, by Coppola and Puzo. The film has been widely praised as one of the best movies ever made.

It spawned “The Godfather Part II” (1974), which also won the Oscar for best picture, and “The Godfather Part III” (1990), which was widely skewered. Ruddy had nothing to do with the sequels. Fred Roos (who died May 18) was a producer of both, as he was of other films by Coppola, his daughter, Sofia, and his wife, Eleanor (who died last month).

Ruddy was born Albert Stotland on March 28, 1930, in Montreal. His father, Hyman, manufactured uniforms. His mother, Ruth (Rudnikoff) Stotland, was a clothing and luxury fur designer. After his parents divorced when Albert was 6, his mother took him, his sister, Selma, and his brother, Gerald, to New York City and changed their family surname to Ruddy.

After studying at the City College of New York, Albert attended the University of Southern California and graduated with an architecture degree in 1956. He was briefly the architect for a construction company in New Jersey but chose to go back to the West Coast. There he was a programmer for the Rand Corp., a shoe salesperson and the producer of a play, “The Connection” (1959), about drug addiction, and the movie “Wild Seed” (1965), about a teenage runaway searching for her biological father.

That year, he and actor-writer Bernard Fein wrote the pilot episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.” The setting, a prisoner of war camp run by stupid Nazis, seemed tasteless to American viewers 20 years post-World War II. When he sat down to pitch it to William S. Paley, chair of CBS, Paley offered his verdict: “I find the idea of Nazis as comic characters to be reprehensible.”

But as Ruddy acted out his script, Paley began to laugh. Two weeks later, he agreed to buy the series, which ran for six seasons, through 1971.

Ruddy went on to produce the movie “Little Fauss and Big Halsy” (1970), about two dirt-bike racers played by Robert Redford and Michael Jay Pollard, and “Thunderguys,” a TV movie, both for Paramount. They helped lead to his being hired for “The Godfather.”

He produced many other films, including “Farewell to the King,” with Nick Nolte; “The Cannonball Run,” with Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett, and its sequel; and “The Scout,” with Albert Brooks, as well as TV series, among them “Walker, Texas Ranger,” which he created.

But McDaniel, his wife, said he had been proudest of conceiving “The Longest Yard,” a 1974 film about a nasty prison warden (Eddie Albert) who coerces an incarcerated ex-pro quarterback (Reynolds) to put together a football team to play against a squad of sadistic guards.

“He knew that ‘The Godfather’ was really Francis’ movie,” Alexandra Ruddy, his daughter, said of Coppola in a phone interview. “And he felt this was really Al’s movie.”

Tracy Keenan Wynn, who wrote the screenplay based on Ruddy’s two-page story, said by phone, “I worked with Al the whole time, telling him which of his characters I was going to use and which I wanted to add.”

Decades later, Ruddy gave the evocative boxing short stories written by F.X. Toole to Clint Eastwood, who directed “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), about the moving relationship between a boxer (Hilary Swank) and her trainer (Eastwood). It won four Oscars, including best picture, which Ruddy shared with Eastwood and Tom Rosenberg.

In addition to his wife, an executive vice president at Giorgio Armani, and his daughter, an actress, producer and writer and a partner at Albert S. Ruddy Productions, Ruddy is survived by a son, John. His marriages to Kaye Farrington, an actress, and Francoise Wizenberg Glaser ended in divorce.

In 2022, Ruddy’s memories of making the “The Godfather” formed the story of “The Offer,” a 10-part series streamed by Paramount+. Ruddy was played by Miles Teller.

One scene in the series takes place in Chasen’s, a West Hollywood celebrity restaurant, where Ruddy and Puzo had dinner one night. Puzo was introduced to Frank Sinatra, who hated Puzo’s novel, especially the character of singer Johnny Fontane.

Fontane was believed to have been modeled on Sinatra, who did not want to see the film made. Seal described Sinatra screaming at Puzo, calling him a pimp and telling him: “Choke!” The series shows Sinatra (played by Frank John Hughes) grabbing Puzo (Patrick Gallo) by his jacket collar.

As Ruddy drove Puzo home, Seal wrote, the novelist said he was heartbroken by Sinatra’s treatment. Growing up, he said, his mother had two pictures in her kitchen: one of the pope, and one of Sinatra.

“Mario, there’s nothing I can do about that,” Ruddy said. “Frank has it in for all of us.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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