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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 7)

CA: How did you get Brando to do it basically for nothing?
Coppola: Because he was washed up. His last picture was such a disaster that nobody wanted him. He didn't work for free, but he got like $300,000, which he resented greatly. Because he had no percentage.

The studio even lied to me what my fee was. When they offered me my deal, they offered me two deals: One was $125,000 and 10 percent of the profits, or $175,000 and 6 percent of the profits. So, I had no money. I mean, I had kids. So, I had to take the $175,000. So, I said, "OK, I'll do it for $175,000 and 7 percent of the picture, because seven is my lucky number. I was born April 7, I have to have 7 percent." And they said to me, Yablans said, "Sure, OK, 7 percent," but they never gave it to me. They gave me 6 percent. So I had 6 percent of the picture and $175,000.

CA: How long did it take from the day you agreed to do the movie until it was completed and in the can?
Coppola: Close to two years.

CA: So, $175,000 for two years.
Coppola: Yeah. Plus 6 percent. I wanted the 10 percent. I always would take less money up front, but I couldn't afford to. I didn't even know I was in debt. At any rate, that was the deal.

The next thing was, of course, all these other parts: Al Pacino, Bobby Duvall, Jimmy Caan. I kept fighting for my cast. I finally realized why they didn't want Pacino, why they wanted Ryan O'Neal. Bob Evans wanted a Michael who looked like him. Someone who was handsome and tall. And I wanted a Michael who was more like me, who was more ethnic. At any rate, we went back and forth, and it got to be really hot and heavy. It reached the point where they were really gonna get rid of me.

CA: It sounds like a hopeless situation for you at this time.
Coppola: At one point, I started to say, "Well, I'm gonna get fired anyway." For instance, my sister wanted to play the sister in The Godfather and I thought she was too pretty for the role. I mean, this is the Mafia. She only gets married because she's the guy's daughter. Anybody would want to marry you if you're the big boss's daughter. But Evans liked Talia [Shire]. Evans saw something in Tallie. So, when I heard that Evans liked Tallie, I said, "Let Tallie have the part, because I'm gonna get fired anyway."

Then, there was something where they all said, "What if Jimmy Caan plays Michael?" Pacino had done tests, but whatever I did they hated. Pacino takes another job. He signs for a picture called The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. So, I lose Pacino. I go to London, because Brando is working on a picture over in London and I had to talk to him about the part. I had a nice little meeting with Brando. When I came back, I call my secretary from the airport, and I just get a message: "Don't quit. Let them fire you." So, I immediately knew what that meant. If I quit, I wouldn't get the $175,000, but if they fired me, I would get it.

It was my lawyers. They were afraid that I was gonna get so angry about them insisting that Jimmy Caan plays Michael, that it was better that I was going to go to the meeting where they were gonna fire me. I started thinking, so I'll get the $175,000 and I'll be done with this mess and I'll just go and make my own personal film. And I was totally sure that I was gonna get fired. But, I go to the meeting, and they said, "Everything's changed."

They had seen a little piece of a new movie that Pacino had done, but it hadn't come out yet. It was called The Panic in Needle Park, and they had gotten ahold of some of the scenes—and Pacino was very good in that picture—and they could see that he had something. They said, "Everything's changed. Pacino can play Michael if you'll have Jimmy Caan move over and play Sonny." I said, "Boy, I like Jimmy Caan, but Pacino's taken another job. How you gonna get him?" They had gone with their gangster connections and had a guy call up to get Pacino out of the part he had taken.

A little side story that's quite amusing is there was another actor I liked quite a bit in the screen test. His name was Bobby De Niro. But no one had ever heard of him. I thought he was incredible. I had given Bobby De Niro a part in The Godfather, of the character Paulie Gatto. So, De Niro calls me up and De Niro's not a big shot. He says, "I'm very worried, Francis." I said, "What is it?" He says, "Pacino was out of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight and there's a chance I'm gonna get the starring part, but I don't wanna give up my part in The Godfather even though it's a smaller part, and then not get that." I said to him, "Look, don't worry. I will keep the part for you. You go out, if you get the part, great, I'll cast someone else. If you don't get it, I'll hold it for you." So, we did that.


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