'The Godfather' 50th Anniversary: Al Pacino, Talia Shire and Robert Duvall recall tense first weeks on set

Al Pacino and Diane Keaton were certain they were about to be fired.

They had just filmed the opening wedding scene to The Godfather, Paramount’s all-chips-in adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 bestseller of the same name, and the young actors — both in their first prominent movie roles — were rattled.

“Diane and I afterwards went home and got really drunk because we thought we were so bad,” Pacino told us during a 2017 Role Recall interview (watch above). “We thought the movie was so bad, and that we were the worst things in it. And that we were going to lose [our jobs]. They were going to take the parts from us.”

Pacino and Keaton weren’t alone. In new interviews with Yahoo Entertainment celebrating the 50th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s Mafia classic, released on March 24, 1972, co-stars Talia Shire and Robert Duvall corroborated the feelings of angst and unease permeating the set.

“It’s absolutely true. We were on edge,” Shire, 75, says now in an interview promoting this week’s release of The Godfather Trilogy 4K UHD Blu-ray set. “And we had great affection for one another. So if one person felt that insecurity, we would all certainly feel it.”

THE GODFATHER, Talia Shire, Marlon Brando, 1972 (The Everett Collection)
Talia Shire and Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather.' (Photo: Paramount Pictures/courtesy of the Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)

“Beyond belief” is how Pacino characterized the production’s mood when asked if it was a high-pressure situation.

The intensity extended all the way to the top.

“They had a guy in the background who was a backup director in case they had to fire Francis,” Duvall, 91, recounts. “But [Coppola] stuck to his guns. And he worked under a tremendous amount of pressure those first few weeks. And I gained a lot of respect for Coppola for working under those conditions.”

Coppola battled from the get-go when it came to The Godfather. Paramount originally wanted Sergio Leone to direct, then Peter Bogdanovich. The studio offered it to other filmmakers, among them Richard Brooks, Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger. Coppola, whose directorial credits at the time included Finian’s Rainbow (1968) and The Rain People (1969), initially turned it down as well, calling Puzo’s novel “pretty cheap stuff” before coming around.

The filmmaker had to fight for a higher budget, to set the story in New York (and not Kansas City) and to keep it set in the 1940s and ’50s, the same vintage time era as the novel. As film’s scale grew, Paramount attempted to replace Coppola with Elia Kazan.

And then there were the casting feuds. Coppola and Puzo wanted Marlon Brando for the eponymous don, Vito Corleone; Paramount wanted Laurence Olivier or Ernest Borgnine. “He was a great star who was [also] known for being difficult,” Pacino says of Brando.

For Michael Corleone, the initially reluctant Marine veteran who ultimately succeeds his father in the family business, Paramount eyed Warren Beatty or Robert Redford, while producer Robert Evans wanted Ryan O’Neal; Burt Reynolds and Jack Nicholson were also in the mix. Coppola, though, preferred the relatively unknown Pacino, who came close to refusing the offer.

“Francis so wanted me in this part, and nobody else did,” the actor recalled. “I was not known for anything except for not being very good, and not wanting the picture. But Francis wanted me, and that’s why I was there.”

Though Shire wanted to play Michael’s troubled sister, Connie, the fact that she was Coppola’s real-life sister made her casting complicated, too.

“The hesitancy really was because Francis was not yet secure in his position as director,” Shire says. “And I felt deeply concerned about it. … I didn't know all the political issues surrounding his position as director. Having a sister [that he wanted to cast] could not have been simple for him. So it was somewhat traumatic in the front end, to witness the fact that his job was not secure. Certainly the first two weeks of shooting his job was trembling on the brink.”

THE GODFATHER, director Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando on set, 1972 (The Everett Collection)
Director Francis Ford Coppola with stars Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando on the set of 'The Godfather.' (Photo: Paramount Pictures/courtesy of the Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)

Duvall can’t quite recall who the “back-up” director was on set. “I think he was an editor,” he says. “You know, whoever it was, he wasn't halfway near what Coppola was. Not halfway near.”

The cast members each credit Brando, the method actor long established as one of the industry’s most elite performers for films like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954), for helping squelch the high drama behind the scenes.

“He was a force, and I think he gave us great creative calm,” Shire says.

Even during the wedding scene that otherwise spooked Pacino. “Marlon Brando was watching me doing the scene,” he recalled. “And there was one take when a leaf fell from a tree onto my shoulder. And I just took the leaf and I did something with it. And then we did a few [more] takes, I forget what I did with the leaf, and then Marlon came over to me at the end of it. And he just leaned in and said, ‘I liked what you did with the leaf.’ I was totally imitating him, see! So I guess that was very funny to me.”

The cast found other ways to alleviate the tension — like a running gag where they’d drop their pants and moon each other (mooning: huge in the ’70s, but probably wouldn’t fly today).

“Oh, Bobby Duvall, who’s a great actor, Jimmy [James Caan],” Shire laughs. “I wouldn’t know. I was just the female there. I wasn’t looking. But yeah, if I would grab a look, let me tell you, there were some moments there. They had those mooning moments. There were a lot of them … Diane Keaton and I tried, but they didn’t want to … never mind that.”

Says Duvall: “There was a quite a bit, from all those different angles, up high, down low. Coppola said, ‘Come on guys, we gotta be serious.’ But he knew by doing all that fooling around, mooning, whatever, it relaxed the set. It gave you a sense of relaxation, which is needed. … Coppola knew that fooling around gave it a good work atmosphere.”

The stress, tension, trauma, blood, sweat, tears, moons, all of it, of course, reaped huge dividends for Coppola and his cast.

The Godfather was an instant success upon its release in 1972, receiving glowing reviews and becoming the highest-grossing film of all time until Jaws came along three years later. The movie earned 10 Academy Award nominations, winning three (Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando and Best Adapted Screenplay for Coppola and Puzo). It spawned two sequels, including 1974’s Best Picture-winning The Godfather Part II, as well as The Offer, a series based on the making of the film debuting April 28 on Paramount+. Above all, five decades later, The Godfather is regarded as one of the greatest American cinematic masterpieces ever released.

“I’m from New York so it’s very hard for me to pronounce this word, but ‘awe,’” Shire says. “I felt that way from the beginning that this is a masterwork. But what I’m happy about is that its cherished by others.”

The Godfather Trilogy 4K UHD Blu-ray set is now available.