First broadcast over three nights in 1997, The Last Don tells the story of a powerful and respected Mafia family. They control politicians across the country and they own casinos in Vegas and their power even extends all the way to Hollywood. Despite having many enemies, the family has thrived due to the leadership of a wise but ruthless Don. This Don remembers the old ways and imparts lessons about honor to the members of his own family. Never let anyone know what you’re thinking. Never side against the family. If someone like you were to make enemies, they would become the Don’s enemies and then they would fear you …. you know, stuff like that.
However, times are changing and America is changing with it. The underworld is no longer run by men of honor. On top that, the Don is aging and in ill-health. Who will succeed him? One possible successor is respected by all but he’s stayed out of the dirtier aspects of the family’s business and, in fact, he seems to have no desire to be a feared man. Another possible successor is ruthless and has a terrible temper. He sometimes speaks out of turn, because the Don has a sentimental weakness for his children. This possible successor’s anger is feared but perhaps fear is the future of the organized crime in America. The old ways are changing but one thing remains the same. The Don believes in America and he believes in family and….
Okay, is it just me or does this all sound just a little bit familiar?
If it does, that’s probably because The Last Don is based on a novel by The Godfather‘s Mario Puzo. Though the family may be called The Clerichuzios and the action may have been moved fro the 40s and the 50s to the 60s, 70s, and 80, the story is still the same basic one that was told in The Godfather. Don Clerichuzio (Danny Aiello) is an honorable man whose time is coming to an end. His grandnephew, Cross (Jason Gedrick), is the possible successor who isn’t crazy. His grandson, Dante (Rory Cochrane), is the possible successor who is violent and doesn’t know how to negotiate. Don Clerichuzio’s dream is for the family to become completely legitimate but good luck with that when the film business and the political world are just as corrupt as the Mafia. I supposed one could argue that The Last Don is narrated by Don Clerichuzio while The Godfather has no narration at all but, seriously, once you have to add a voice-over to explain what’s going on, you have pretty much already last the war.
And yes, I did mention the film business. When Francis Ford Coppola first read The Godfather, he famously hated the Hollywood sections of the book and, with the exception of Tom Hagen’s visit to Jack Woltz (and Woltz’s subsequent discovery of a horse’s head in his bed the next morning), Coppola refused to include them in the movie. The second half of The Last Don, however, goes full Hollywood and, more or less, proves Coppola’s point. Cross’s sister, Claudia (Michelle Burke, who also co-starred with Cochrane in Dazed and Confused), gets a job as an agent and one of her clients is the world’s most famous actress, the ludicrously named Athena Aquataine (Daryl Hannah). When Athena has trouble with her crazy ex-husband (Chris Meloni, bringing a spark of genuine danger to the production), Cross helps her out, falls in love, and gets involved in the production of her next film. This brings him into conflict with a studio exec named Bobby Bantz (Robert Wuhl). Unfortunately, all of the Hollywood stuff is pretty dull. One gets the feeling that Puzo was perhaps settling some old scores with the character of Bobby but Robert Wuhl is one of those goofy actors who belongs nowhere near a Mafia drama. And don’t even get me started on country singer k.d. lang, who is bizarrely cast as a film director.
(Add to that, how can anyone take a character named Athena Aquataine seriously? I never miss an Athena Aquataine movie!))
The Hollywood stuff distracts from the Mafia stuff, which is unfortunate because the Mafia stuff is at least occasionally interesting and it’s certainly better-acted than the Hollywood scenes. Joe Mantegna plays Pippi, who is Cross’s father and who, years earlier, killed Dante’s father. (Mantegna’s always good but it’s a struggle to take any character named Pippi seriously.) Kirstie Alley plays Rose Marie, who is Dante’s mentally unstable mother and the Don’s only daughter. Aiello, Mantegna, and Alley all give good performances, as do Burt Young and Seymour Cassel in the roles of family associates. As for the “younger generation” of Clerichuzios, Gedrick is a bit dull but then again, Cross isn’t a very interesting character. The slightly-built Cochrane is miscast as Dante but ultimately, that miscasting kind of works in that it reminds us that, due to his father being the scion of a rival family, Dante is destined to always be viewed as being an outsider.
As I said earlier, The Last Don was originally broadcast over three nights. I watched the whole thing — all five hours of it — in one sitting and, yes, it was a bit of an endurance test. It’s not just that it’s long but also that it keeps getting bogged down in all of the Hollywood stuff. You don’t watch a film like this because you want to spend five hours watching Robert Wuhl mug for the camera. You watch a film like this for the Mafia action and, for a film called The Last Don, there really wasn’t enough Mafia action. It has its moments but it never feels as authentic as The Godfather, Casino, Goodfellas, The Irishman, The Sopranos or any of the other classic films and shows about the Mafia.. The Last Don needed to be extremely Italian but instead, it was only slightly Italian. Robert Evans famously said that Coppola was selected to direct The Godfather because Coppola would make audiences “smell the pasta.” There’s very little pasta in The Last Don.