Gianni Russo, who played Carlo Rizzi in "The Godfather," at the launch of Don Corleone Organic Vodka in New York City.
Gianni Russo, who played Carlo Rizzi in "The Godfather," at the launch of Don Corleone Organic Vodka in New York City. (Handout)

Get Gianni Russo on the phone, even for 20 minutes, and the actor/singer best known for his role as Carlo Rizzi in "The Godfather" will fill the conversation with anecdote after anecdote. At 73, the New York City native remembers it all — tales from the set, what he hears from obsessed fans and plenty in between.

"My kids say, 'Dad, how did you have such a great life?'" Russo said on the phone recently from his Upper East Side home. "I had a great life, but it took me 73 years to acquire all of these stories. It sounds like I have a lot, but I really don't. It's just that I'm old!"


Russo is also involved in the wine and spirits industries, which is why he'll be in Baltimore early next month.

His new Don Corleone Organic Italian Vodka will be introduced to the Baltimore-Washington region then, and the Rat Pack-inspired cabaret crooner will also perform June 2 at Germano's Piattini.

The actor is no stranger to the world of alcohol. In 2009, he introduced Gianni Russo Wines to the national market. Years later, he has followed wines with vodka, developing the Don Corleone recipe himself, he said. Distillerie Francoli in Ghemme, Italy, produces the vodka, while Heritage Wine Cellars in Illinois distributes it.

"We only launched in February, and we've sold almost 1,500 cases already," Russo said. (Bottles, which Russo will sign, will be sold at Germano's for $35, and the kitchen will utilize the vodka in dishes and cocktails, as well, according to the venue's co-owner, Cyd Wolf.)

Before he arrives, Russo — who has appeared in more than 40 movies, including "Any Given Sunday" and "Rush Hour 2" — discussed his vodka, life on "The Godfather" set and more. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Vodka has a reputation for being tasteless, and not being the most complex spirit. What were you looking to achieve with yours?

Taste-wise, I wanted the purity of it, and we have it. The good news about it is it's a vodka, so you can chill it and just drink it that way. You don't need ice. You don't need a mixer. We wanted to bring a freshness to it. To bring in the [Italian] heritage, we source our water from the Italian Alps. 

Which industry has proven more difficult — alcohol or acting?

That's interesting that you say that because I really don't find anything difficult. You know why? If you do your homework and set yourself up for the disappointments, you won't have any. My whole philosophy is being prepared. As an actor, I was prepared. As a singer, I'm prepared. I did my due diligence and homework, even creating the vodka. My wines, my proseccos and all of that, I didn't trip over them. We created them and perfected it.

If you have an idea, just make sure you do your homework. You don't approach and make an investment of this size without having everything you can possibly have in your favor. The ultimate goal in any profession is the audience. You have to have a product the audience wants, may it be acting, may it be singing or may it be vodka.

The box design of Don Corleone Organic Vodka.
The box design of Don Corleone Organic Vodka. (Handout)

What do you hear most from fans of "The Godfather"?

Every walk of life has embraced this film as a learning lesson. Through the years now, I've seen people come up to me and tell me, "I can't wait for my grandson to be 13 so I can let him see it." It became a holiday cult thing. I see and hear how many people, during Thanksgiving, they get together and even the little ones can't wait to become of age to sit and watch it and discuss it. I think that's a tremendous, tremendous accolade for any film or any book to have that kind of reputation, that we crossed over socially everywhere.

What was the drink of choice on the set?

Basically, wines. When we had the first cold reading, they had the whole cast around a big table, and we're talking about every walk of life — James Caan is Jewish, Marlon Brando is Polish. [Director Francis Ford Coppola] asked the Italians to over-exaggerate, and it was brilliant on his part because we had all of the food and all of the wine on the table, and he asked all of the Italians to exaggerate their hand gestures and eat as they would be eating with their family. "We want everybody to become Italian in the next 30 days." The drink was an overwhelming amount of wine. Lots of reds and the ladies like the whites, so as to not stain their lips and all of that. It was to help create the characters. We drank a lot of wine for those seven days shooting my wedding. [laughs] Fortunately, I didn't have a lot of lines because I would have been slurring them.


For those who have never seen you sing, what should they expect at Germano's?

I like doing those intimate settings. It's not just singing; there's stories. This show I'm writing — and I have Brent Hardesty, the great pianist from [Baltimore] — I'm going to take you chronologically through my life, through music and songs and my experiences, which makes it more interesting, I think. I dislike when performers say, "And now, I'm going to sing." I try to tie it in with story and music, and I think it takes you through a beautiful evening.