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The Godfather Speaks

Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the iconic Godfather series, reveals secrets about the making of the epic saga.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

(continued from page 5)

You can see these, they're really funny—of Pacino playing the guy. Jimmy Caan. Diane Keaton was a kind of quirky actress. But I thought the part of Kay in the book was so strange that we needed a real Wasp, but also an actress with the personality and someone a little quirky who could play Kay.

They all come up to San Francisco. We're all living in my house. My wife, Eleanor, is putting their clothes on. And we're shooting all these tests. We sent them down to Los Angeles. That's when the Paramount guys really started thinking about firing me because I have spent maybe $500 for meals and other stuff. But I gave them all these screen tests and they said, "Listen, Francis, we're taking over. You have to really cast this movie. Don't give us this Al Pacino and all these people like Bobby Duvall, we don't want them."

They made me go into a very intensive screen test mode. We had to test every young actor for every part and shoot it on film, and so we tested everybody. We tested Martin Sheen as Michael. Dean Stockwell as Michael. Ryan O'Neal as Michael. There were hundreds of tests, and we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on them. But then, we went back to my $500 worth of tests, and they finally look at these tests and they are totally dismayed.

Bluhdorn, in that German or Yiddish accent he had, says, "I look at all these actors and they're all terrible. Let me ask you: Is it logical that every actor we test is terrible? No. The director is terrible. There are 15 actors and there's one director. If the director's terrible, get rid of the director."

They didn't want my suggestions and they didn't even want me. They're offering the film to another director. I keep saying, "No. I feel that the movie has to be cast this way." Ultimately, they said, "What about The Godfather?" I said, "Well, lookit, there's no old Italian guy." They said, "What about Carlo Ponti?"

Evans had a great idea. "Let's get Carlo Ponti to play The Godfather. He's a real Italian guy. He's not an actor, but he's been around show biz." I said, "But gee, Carlo Ponti's a real Italian. He speaks English with an Italian accent. New York Mafia guys are not Italian. They're New Yorkers. They speak like New York people." I knew all my relatives—my Uncle Mikey, my Uncle Danny, probably "Trigger" Mike Coppola—they didn't speak like this: "I'mah gonna tell you something." They spoke like they speak in "The Sopranos."

I said, "I don't want a real Italian for the part of The Godfather." I wanted either an Italian-American or an actor who's so great that he can portray an Italian-American. So, they said, "Who do you suggest?" I said, "Lookit, I don't know, but who are the two greatest actors in the world? Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando." Well, Laurence Olivier is English. He looked just like Vito Genovese. His face is great. I said, "I could see Olivier playing the guy, and putting it on." [And] Brando is my hero of heroes. I'd do anything to just meet him. But, he's 47, he's a young, good-looking guy." So, we first inquired about Olivier and they said, "Olivier is not taking any jobs. He's very sick. He's gonna die soon and he's not interested." So, I said, "Why don't we reach out for Brando?"

francis ford coppola and wife Eleanor.
Coppola with his wife, Eleanor, at Niebaum-Coppola winery, which was purchased with profits from The Godfather.
I go to another meeting and the Paramount guys are saying, "Forget these other actors, because you're not going to have your actors. We like Ryan O'Neal. But, who do you have in mind for the part of Vito Corleone?" I said, "Well, I think the best bet would be Marlon Brando." "What! Are you crazy? Marlon Brando was just in a movie called Burn. If he wasn't in the movie, it would have done better. If you hire Marlon Brando, not only are you not getting any value, but you're gonna keep wanting him to stay away from the set."

One of the Paramount Pictures execs in those days was a guy named Frank Yablans. He was already working on Charlie to take over and be the big shot. He was on the East Coast and he had Charlie all ready to go with his plan; he was the head of distribution. He said "Charlie, this Brando idea is ridiculous. First of all, he's not Italian and he doesn't look Italian. Second of all, if he comes on the production, you're gonna end up just having cost overruns because he's such a pain in the neck. You get no value at all, because people will stay away. From the last picture, they stayed away from him. He's washed up, he's finished."

They called me into a meeting. I'm sitting at a table like this with all the big shots. The president of the company then was a guy named Stanley Jaffe. So, Stanley Jaffe looks at me. You know how they are sometimes. They gang up. This was the exact line: he says, "As the president of Paramount Pictures, I want to inform you that Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture and I instruct you not to pursue the idea anymore." So, I'm sitting like this. I fall on the floor like this [he falls on the floor] and I say, "I give up."

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