'Godfather,' 'Million Dollar Baby' Producer Was 94

Al Ruddy, who co-created the famed CBS sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, then captured Academy Awards for producing the best picture winners The Godfather and Million Dollar Baby, has died. He was 94.

Ruddy, also credited as one of the creators of the long-running CBS police drama Walker, Texas Ranger, died Saturday following a brief illness at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, his family announced through a publicist.

On the heels of The Godfather (1972), Ruddy produced another box-office hit with the original The Longest Yard (1974), the prison-set football movie that starred Burt Reynolds. The pair then reteamed for the action road films The Cannonball Run (1981) and its 1984 sequel, both directed by stuntman-turned-helmer Hal Needham.

The personable Ruddy, who had “a penchant for four-letter words,” his family said, also produced such films as Bad Girls (1994), the first Western with all female leads (Madeleine Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore); the baseball comedy The Scout (1994), starring Albert Brooks and Brendan Fraser; and Matilda (1978), a comedy that featured Elliott Gould and a boxing kangaroo that Ruddy wrote as well.

In the early 1960s, Kelly’s Heroes director Brian Hutton introduced Ruddy to Bernard Fein, who had played Pvt. Gomez opposite Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko on television.

The two came up with a sitcom pilot about prisoners who outsmart their warden and are able to leave their jail at will, but the writers found no takers. However, when they heard that NBC was working on a comedy set in an Italian prisoner-of-war outpost, they changed their show’s setting to a German POW camp, and CBS and Bing Crosby Productions signed on.

The series, starring Bob Crane, debuted in September 1965 and aired for six seasons. Ruddy was offered a chance to produce or write for Hogan’s Heroes but turned that down, wanting to work in films.

“When the show became a smash, I got calls from every studio in town, asking for ideas for other shows that I had,” he said in the 2005 book The Godfather Legacy.

The gravel-voiced Ruddy met Robert Evans at Paramount, and the studio chief gave him an office on the lot. He enticed Robert Redford and Michael J. Pollard to star in Big Fauss and Little Halsy (1970), then produced the teen dramedy Making It (1971). Neither was a big hit, but Ruddy brought both films in under budget.

Evans and studio president Stanley Jaffe then gave him the job as lead producer on The Godfather (1972), a prized project based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel.

It was Ruddy and director Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to reach out to Marlon Brando to star as Don Vito Corleone, and the producer famously negotiated with the Italian-American Civil Rights League that led to the agreement that the words “mafia” and “cosa nostra” would not be uttered in The Godfather.

Al Ruddy (left) with Marlon Brando on the set of 1972’s ‘The Godfather.’

Courtesy Everett Collection

Al Pacino, who played Michael Corleone in the film for the first of his nine career Oscar nominations, said in a statement that Ruddy “was absolutely beautiful to me the whole time on The Godfather; even when they didn’t want me, he wanted me. He gave me the gift of encouragement when I needed it most, and I’ll never forget it.”

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on March 27, 1973, Ruddy bounded up on the stage to accept the Academy Award for best picture. “The American dream and what we all want, for me at least, is represented by this [holding up the Oscar],” he said. “It’s there for everybody if we want to work, dream and try to get it.”

Clint Eastwood presented Ruddy with the statuette, and things came full circle when Ruddy offered Eastwood the opportunity to direct and star as the trainer in the boxing classic Million Dollar Baby (2004).

Paul Haggis had written the screenplay based on a pair of short stories from the collection Rope Burns by F.X. Toole. Anjelica Huston brought Toole’s work to Ruddy, who optioned it, but investors and talent didn’t see it as a movie — it seemed far too depressing.

“Who wants to do a movie about a girl boxer who dies with two old guys?” was the typical response Ruddy heard.

Well, Eastwood did; he came on as a producer, scored the film and then won the Oscar for directing. Meanwhile, Hilary Swank was named best actress and Morgan Freeman best supporting actor.

On the Paramount+ series The Offer, about the making of The Godfather, he was portrayed by Miles Teller. “It was an honor and a privilege to portray Al,” Teller said. “Al lived a life most could only dream of and all would envy.”

From left: Producer Tom Rosenberg, actor-director-producer Clint Eastwood and producer Al Ruddy posed with their Oscars for 2004’s ‘Million Dollar Baby’ in the press room at the 77th Academy Awards.

AMPAS/Courtesy Everett Collection

Albert Stotland Ruddy was born in Montreal on March 28, 1930. His mother, Ruth, was a luxury fur designer. He moved with his mom and siblings, Selma and Gerald, to New York when he was 7, graduated from Brooklyn Tech in 1948 and won a scholarship to City College of New York, where he studied chemical engineering. He then transferred to USC in Los Angeles and earned a degree in architecture.

While he was at USC, he accompanied his then-girlfriend, who was employed on one of Roger Corman‘s first movies, to Palm Springs and wound up as art director — he designed a monster for $50 — on The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955).

Working for a construction firm in Hackensack, New Jersey, the 6-foot-4 Ruddy met Jack L. Warner, who offered him a job in Los Angeles. He later joined Universal Television but exited when Marlon Brando Sr. hired him to produce Wild Seed (1965) for his son’s Pennebaker Productions.

After his incredible run with The Godfather and The Longest Yard, Ruddy encountered trouble with his next film at Paramount, the animated/live-action comedy Coonskin (1975). A satire about race relations that was written and directed by Ralph Bakshi, the Harlem-set film was the subject of protests and labeled as racist, and Paramount chose not to distribute it.

Ruddy’s other producing efforts included Death Hunt (1981); the campy Megaforce (1982), also directed by Needham; Lassiter (1984), starring Tom Selleck; the Rodney Dangerfield soccer movie Ladybugs (1992); Heaven’s Prisoners (1996); Mean Machine (2001), another prison-set yarn; Camille (2008); Sabotage (2014); and Eastwood’s Cry Macho (2021).

He also wrote and produced Cloud Nine (2006), starring his old friend Reynolds.

Ruddy partnered with producer Leslie Greif in The Ruddy-Greif Co., and they created the 1990s Chuck Norris hit Walker, Texas Ranger with Haggis and Christopher Canaan. Ruddy also developed the 1976 ABC miniseries How the West Was Won and the 1998-2000 CBS series Martial Law, starring Sammo Kam-Bo Hung.

His survivors include onetime journalist Wanda McDaniel, his wife since 1981, who for years was in charge of image management in Hollywood for Giorgio Armani; his children, John and Alexandra, his producing partner and principal at Albert S. Ruddy Productions; and his son-in-law, screenwriter Abdullah Saeed.

“To his contemporaries in the business, Ruddy is best remembered for his easy-going nature, his undeniable comedic sense and his undying interest in people and the stories we tell,” his family said. “Among his last words [were], ‘The game is over, but we won the game.’”

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.

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