'The Godfather': A legendary film forged in legendary turmoil

·6-min read

Watch a trailer for the 50th anniversary rerelease of The Godfather

Remember that iconic The Godfather poster of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone cradling his tabby? Now picture Laurence Oliver in that black tie, telling us, “Never hate your enemies, it affects your judgement.”

That scene in Louie's restaurant where Al Pacino pops McClusky and Sollozzo? Could’ve been Martin Sheen. And can you see Robert De Niro as Sonny? He tested for the role of the Corleones’ most volcanic brother but — in Francis Ford Coppola’s words — he was “electrifying, but nothing you could ever sell.”

All films go through a multitude of changes on their march to the movie theatre, but few are yanked in so many wildly different directions as The Godfather was. Initially, Paramount executives floated the idea of making it modern-day, so as to save dollars on all those 1940s sets and costumes.

From left to right, Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera, James Caan as Santino 'Sonny' Corleone and  Marlon Brando (1924 - 2004) as Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather', 1972. Bonasera asks Don Corleone to avenge the brutal rape of his daughter. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera, James Caan as Santino 'Sonny' Corleone and Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather', 1972 (Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Even Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t the studio’s first choice as director, with Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde) among those to be made an offer they found it all too easy to refuse.

Read more: The Godfather returning to cinemas for anniversary

The tumult behind the scenes of The Godfather was so great that, 50 years on, Paramount+ is about to unveil a new limited run drama, titled The Offer, about its making, with Fantastic Beasts’ Dan Fogler as Coppola and Matthew Goode as flamboyant studio bigwig Robert Evans.

Watch a teaser for The Offer

That it’s 10 episodes long (it premieres in the US on 28 April) only underlines how uncommonly eventful it was backstage of this classic of American cinema.

The phenomenon of The Godfather movie has, over half a century, rather overshadowed the fact that it was adapted from a bestseller. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was first published in 1969 and was an instant smash, shifting over two million copies in its first two years.

Paramount, in its wisdom, had optioned the book before publication for a bargain price of $12,500 (with an additional $80,000 if it actually went into production). When the novel hit big, the movie was greenlit faster than you can say ‘Moe Green’.

Author Mario Puzo attends the premiere party for
Author Mario Puzo attends the premiere party for "The Godfather" on March 14, 1972 (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

A sensation the book may have been, but mob pictures weren’t fashionable in 1970. Paramount’s last stab at the genre, 1968’s The Brotherhood, had cratered at the box office, and the studio found it difficult to find a director willing to sign on for an adaptation of what was considered by many to be a cheap, pulpy crime novel.

Francis Ford Coppola was a surprise choice, however. His CV before The Godfather included directing a wholesome Fred Astaire musical, Finian’s Rainbow, as well as counter-culture cult The Rain People. Upon signing on, however, Coppola (chosen largely due to his Italian heritage) soon realised that his ambitions for the film were markedly different to Paramount’s.

Read more: The Godfather house up for sale

“In the early weeks of production,” Coppola reflected in 1990, “I knew they were not happy with what I had done, the kind of classic style that I chose.”

(Original Caption) 4/24/1970-San Francisco, CA- Francis Ford Coppola works in his American Zoetrope movie studio.
Francis Ford Coppola works in his American Zoetrope movie studio, circa 1970 (Getty)

“It was simply a conflict,” said Coppola’s friend George Lucas, “of [Paramount] wanting to do a kind of low budget potboiler cash-in on the popularity of the book and Francis wanting to make something meaningful about Italian-Americans and family.”

Even Coppola’s casting choices were met with hostility from the studio suits. After approaching Laurence Olivier for the role of Vito Corleone (he declined), the 32-year-old director proposed Marlon Brando, a titanically revered actor but one with a formidable on-set reputation.

“I was told categorically by the president of Paramount,” Coppola recalled, “‘As the president of Paramount Pictures, I tell you here and now, Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture.’”

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 15: Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather, ' the movie based on the novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Initial theatrical release on March 15, 1972. Screen capture. Paramount Pictures. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather' (CBS via Getty Images)

The studio were eyeing Ernest Borgnine, but after Coppola set up a screen test in which Brando improvised the role of the ageing Mafia Don by sticking balls of Kleenex in his cheeks, Paramount capitulated, on the proviso that the actor agree to a scaled-down salary.

But casting the head of the Corleone clan wasn’t to be the end of Coppola’s clashes with the studio.

For Michael Corleone, the army hero son whose journey to the dark side is the film’s emotional heart, Paramount desired a star name, with Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Ryan O’Neal all floated as potential leads. Despite Coppola continually pushing for the relatively unknown Al Pacino, the studio remained resistant, even strong-arming the director into screen testing James Caan — who’d already been cast as Sonny — for the role of Michael.

James Caan, US actor, wearing a dinner suit with a white shirt, with wing-tip collars, and a black bow tie, and Al Pacino, US actor, in military uniform in a publicity still issued for the film, 'The Godfather', 1972. The mafia drama, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starred Caan as 'Santino 'Sonny' Corleone', and Pacino as 'Don Michael Corleone'. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
James Caan and Al Pacino in 'The Godfather' (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

With all these screen tests, Coppola kept sneaking in Pacino’s reel and, like Brando before, the studio eventually caved. Coppola, editor Walter Murch reflected, was skilled at performing what he termed “a Jedi mind trick” on Paramount, convincing them that “what they absolutely did not want was, in fact, the best idea.”

Even during filming, Paramount appeared to have little faith in their chosen director, with Robert Evans even sounding out On The Waterfront’s Elia Kazan as a possible replacement, should Coppola get the push. With some of the crew whispering against him, Coppola simply sacked them. Even Brando threatened to walk if Coppola was forced out.

Had it not been for the tenacity and vision of its director, The Godfather could have been a very different beast. It’s doubtful that we’d be celebrating its 50th birthday had the studio won out in their desire to set the movie in contemporary Kansas City and lens it entirely on their own backlot.

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 15: (From left) Al Pacino as Michael Corleone and Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather, ' the movie based on the novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. This scene takes place in the Don's garden, 1955. Initial theatrical release on March 15, 1972. Screen capture. Paramount Pictures. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone and Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather' (CBS via Getty Images)

Would Ernest Borgnine have walked away with the Best Actor Oscar in 1973 had he essayed the role of the Don? Would audiences have ever bought the blond, blue-eyed Robert Redford as a brooding, lethal mafioso? And would the film have felt so authentically Italian had Richard (Blackboard Jungle) Brooks been behind the camera? Would The Godfather have won the Best Picture Oscar without Coppola's unwavering dedication to his vision?

The Godfather would become 1972’s highest-grossing film, vindicating every creative decision Francis Ford Coppola ever made on that movie. With The Godfather Part II two years later, it was a different story. This time, he was the one in charge.

The Godfather returns to UK cinemas in February. Newly restored and remastered in DolbyVision, all three films in the landmark trilogy will be released together with HDR-10 on 4K Ultra HD Digital and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for the first time ever on 21 March, 2022.

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