‘The Godfather’ at 45
A remarkable tale of art and entrepreneurship, and the staying power of this American film classic
“It’s a romance about a king with three sons,” was how director Francis Ford Coppola once described “The Godfather.” But the story of how this classic American movie got made is anything but romantic. It’s a story of commerce, art, and the will of one man to make a film only he could make.
“All of the credit for ‘The Godfather,’” actor Robert Duvall once said, “belongs to Coppola.” And Coppola’s story was, in the end, the story of almost every great entrepreneur who has a vision — the will to turn that vision into a product, and then get that product to market no matter what. And against all odds.
There were epic fights, struggles, resistance, even self doubt, on the road to success. But by the end of March 1972, “The Godfather” was on its way to becoming the biggest movie of all time, and reviving what many people thought was an all-but-dead movie industry.
How did it happen? It turns out Coppola’s vision started with another man’s need — author Mario Puzo’s need to pay his bills and provide for his family.
“Puzo grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in 1920, the son of Italian immigrant parents with all of the afflictions of New York slum poverty that would color his writing,” wrote Harlan Lebo, whose book “The Godfather Legacy” could itself be turned into a movie.
“As a child and in my adolescence, living in the heart of New York’s Neapolitan ghetto, I never heard an Italian singing,” Puzo once said. “None of the grown-ups I knew were charming or loving or understanding. Rather, they seemed coarse, vulgar or insulting. So later in my life when I was exposed to all of the clichés of lovable Italians, singing Italians, happy-go-lucky Italians, I wondered where the hell the movie makers and storywriters got their ideas from.”
Not a lot of kids growing up at that time in Hell’s Kitchen wanted to be an artist. But Puzo did from an early age. When he told his mother he wanted to be a writer, she was bemused. “She did not become angry,” Puzo said. “She quite simply assumed that I had gone off my nut.” Despite his mom’s misgivings, Puzo went on to pursue his dreams.
“His first two novels were well received, but didn’t make much money,” explained Harlan Lebo. “But there was a character in his second novel, Fortunate Pilgrim, a novel about the world of an Italian-American family living in New York, that was tempted by the lure of organized crime. Puzo’s publisher wondered if his book might have done better if there was more of that Mafia stuff.”
By this time in his life, Puzo wasn’t looking to produce the next “Great Gatsby.” He was looking to write a book that would pay the bills.
“I was 45 years old and tired of being an artist,” Puzo said. “Besides, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was time to grow up and sell out.”
“I was 45 years old and tired of being an artist,” Puzo said.
Six months after its release date, “The Godfather” had sold over 400,000 hardcover copies. It kept selling. Eventually, “The Godfather” would remain on the bestseller list for 67 weeks.
At the time of “The Godfather’s” publishing success, movie attendance had declined to a mere 18 million people a week, the lowest recorded figure since the advent of sound films. Some blamed television. Others blamed Hollywood itself for making formulaic or mediocre products.
Just as important, mob pictures hadn’t done very well at the box office for a long time. Indeed, the 1969 film by Paramount called “The Brotherhood” — which starred Kirk Douglas — was an outright failure.
“Sicilian mobster films don’t play.” So said movie producer Robert Evans in recalling the predominant sentiment in the early 1970s. Evans would know. He ran Paramount, the studio that would bring “The Godfather” to life.
The executives there had a pretty simple idea: Capitalize on “The Godfather’s” literary success and get all of those readers into movie theater seats. And do it on a shoestring budget.
Before Coppola could make his movie, he needed to get hired. And the man who hired him was a relatively low-level Hollywood producer named Al Ruddy, who had one hit TV show to his name — “Hogan’s Heroes” — and a few failed movies. Why did Paramount hire him to produce “The Godfather?” “They knew I could make it cheap,” Ruddy once quipped.
With a book in mind, a studio in charge, and a producer on board, the choice of director was next.
In the end, there was only one man for the job. Francis Ford Coppola was born in Detroit in 1939. His dad had served as musician and conductor on Broadway and in traveling musical companies and managed to make it all the way to New York City as the principal flutist in the NBC Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini. But this type of success was never enough for the father.
“I lived in the household of a jealous man, and it changed me,” Coppola said in “The Godfather Legacy.” “I said I’m never going to sit around waiting for my break to come. I said I’m going to make it, and I did.”
The Coppola children grew up with a healthy appreciation of Italian culture. “We were taught that Italians had a great culture: like Fermi, Verdi, and so on,” Coppola once said.
“What explicitly wasn’t taught was acquired,” Harlan Lebo added. “Coppola absorbed the Italian heritage of his parents and grandparents: the food, the clothes, the language, and the music — all the colors and textures of heritage that would one day figure so prominently in the film.”
Then came the critical event in Coppola’s life: He was struck with polio at age nine. He was confined to his room for nearly a year and found refuge in the world of make-believe, watching TV endlessly and playing with gadgets and toys.
“I was lost in a fairy world,” Coppola said. “The popular kids are playing outside, not lost in introspection. But the lonely ugly duckling is inside, sick and sad and thinking.”
When Coppola was 17, he saw “October: Ten Days That Shook the World,” Eisenstein’s account of the Russian Revolution. “On Monday I was in the theater,” Coppola said, “and on Tuesday I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
Coppola immersed himself in the medium, enrolling in a theater arts program at Hofstra University in New York. He watched every classic film screening he could. “I became a powerful and dynamic student,” Coppola said.
He moved to Los Angeles and studied at UCLA, where he fell in with Roger Corman, known then as king of the cheapie movies.
Lots of film greats cut their teeth with Corman, including Robert DeNiro, Peter Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, and Martin Scorsese. Coppola’s big break came when he won the screenwriting assignment for the movie “Patton.” “The gig was perfectly timed,” wrote Harlan Lebo. “Bad investments left him starved for cash, and the $50K he got to write the screenplay would, for a time, keep him afloat.”
Coppola’s big break came when he won the screenwriting assignment for the movie “Patton.”
Coppola originally turned down “The Godfather.” He gave it a second look when his finances turned south once again. It turns out Paramount was interested in Coppola, but not for good reasons. “I was hired because I was young. And a lot of important directors turned it down. Elia Kazan turned it down, Costa-Gavras turned it down, a whole bunch of important directors,” Coppola explained. “So the philosophy was, ‘Let’s get someone young, who could presumably be pushed around.’ And I was someone they could get for a good cheap price.”
Coppola had only skimmed Puzo’s novel the first time he read it, but a reexamination unveiled some real potential. “I got into what the book is really about — the story of a family, this father and his sons, and questions of power and succession — and I thought it was a terrific story,” Coppola said. “If you could cut out all the other stuff, I decided it could be not only a successful movie but also a good movie. I wanted to concentrate on the central theme, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Tried he did. Indeed, to make the movie he wanted to make, Coppola would win a never-ending series of creative fights that would have exhausted most people — and not by screaming or throwing the usual artist tantrums, but by selling his ideas to executives and producers.
How good a salesman was he? “He makes Billy Graham look like Don Knotts,” said one Paramount executive.
Ruddy and the executives at Paramount liked Coppola because he was cheap, but they also liked that Coppola was Italian.
“He knew these guys, knew the way these men in 'The Godfather' ate their food, kissed each other, talked. He knew the grit,” said the executive.
Of the many fights Coppola would pick and win, the first two were big ones. The studio bosses wanted to shoot the film on Hollywood sets, or cities that looked like New York but were cheaper. The suits at the studio also wanted to save money by making "The Godfather" a modern Mafia movie. Coppola refused to compromise, knowing full well the location and the time period were central characters in the movie.
He ended up winning both of those important artistic fights — fights that would drive up the production costs considerably.
“The logistics of transforming sections of New York City into a midcentury look were difficult. Many buildings, of course, remained from that era, but every location had to be sanitized of all evidence of 1971 — advertisements, modern fixtures, television antennas — and replaced with the visual elements that suggested the 1940s and fifties,” wrote Harlan Lebo. But Lebo wasn’t finished.
One specific change was a budget buster. When a New York City maintenance crew removed a modern concrete streetlight, it cost $250; to install an original shepherd’s crook light of the earlier era cost another $250. At the end of the shoot, the old light would be removed and replaced with the one that was originally there — at a cost of $500 more. To make the switch of each streetlight cost a minimum of $1,000. Multiplied by dozens of streetlights and weeks of location shooting, this meant tens of thousands of dollars in unavoidable costs — “just for the damn streetlights,” as one producer put it.
Coppola also faced two tough fights on the casting front. One was the casting for Vito Corleone. “The part called for a unique combination of skills,” wrote Lebo. “Someone who could convey a quiet authority with an undercurrent of power and violence, who could portray a loving father with a command of a president and the humility of a peasant, and who could also project an unforgettable presence on the screen. Every actor in Hollywood wanted to play the Don. Puzo and Coppola wanted only one: Marlon Brando."
There was one problem. Brando didn’t want the part. Not at first. And the studio bosses wanted nothing to do with Brando. The actor had earned a reputation for being trouble on film sets, and his latest movies were box office bombs.
“To mention the name Brando in those days did not exactly elicit enthusiasm with anyone,” a former studio executive explained. “He had just finished the movie 'Burn,' and he was popularly known as burned-out Brando.”
Coppola tested dozens of other veteran actors, but his heart wasn’t in it because none had the chops to pull off the complex nature of the part. “The Don is in the movie no more than 30 percent of the time,” explained Al Ruddy. “But we had to have an actor with the power and mystique to permeate those scenes in which he didn’t appear. Brando has that blunt power.”
Coppola knew Brando could deliver, as did Ruddy. Ultimately, Brando came around. It turns out Brando and Coppola had remarkably similar views of Don Corleone’s character. “I saw him as a man of substance, tradition, dignity, refinement, a man of unerring instinct who just happened to live in a violent world, and who had to protect himself and his family in this environment,” Brando said. “I saw him as a decent person regardless of what he had to do, as a man who believed in family values and was shaped by events just like the rest of us.”
The studio asked Brando to do a screen test for free, and Coppola went to Los Angeles to shoot it with a hand-held camera. Brando came into the room with long blond hair, wearing a kimono, “like a gorgeous blonde Adonis,” Coppola said. He was soon amazed at how the actor became Vito, including creating the gravelly voice by stuffing cotton into his mouth and rolling his hair into a bun and putting black shoe polish on his hair. “I could not believe the transformation I had seen,” he said, adding he took the footage to New York to show the Paramount executives to further convince them Brando was their man. They were sold.
The other big casting fight was over the part of Michael Corleone. The studio executives wanted a big name. Coppola wanted someone America had never heard of, but would soon consider one of their great actors: Al Pacino.
A high school dropout who’d always wanted to act, Pacino struggled for years in the acting world on the fringes. But by the late 1960s, he began to catch some breaks in the theater, finally winning a Tony Award for his performance as a psychotic killer in "Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?”
Coppola saw Pacino in that role, and from that day forward could think of no one else to play the role of the Don’s good son turned bad. “When I read 'The Godfather,'” Coppola remembered, “whenever I would see the character of Michael, I saw Al’s face.”
Coppola loved Pacino’s deep, brooding persona. He knew the young actor was capable of stillness and sensitivity, but also capable of spurts of unexpected violence. But to the studio executives, Pacino had little to offer. They thought he was too short — and get this — too Italian! And, of course, Pacino was a nobody.
But to the studio executives, Pacino had little to offer. They thought he was too short — and get this — too Italian!
“He wasn’t a star, which was not pleasing to the executives at the time,” said a casting director. “He didn’t look like a star looked at the time in the business.”
At the beginning of filming, Pacino was worried he might get fired. But by the time the crew shot the murder scene in Louis' Restaurant, even Pacino was convinced he would keep the job. “They kept me after that scene,” Pacino recalled. Pacino’s work on the set proved Coppola right. It was another great win.
One of the tougher fights for Coppola was with himself and his own self-doubts. As with many entrepreneurs, there was the fear things would head south. And the endless fighting and struggling didn’t help matters. It also didn’t help that Coppola often felt like he was on the verge of being fired by Paramount.
When asked a few years ago whether he’d seen "The Godfather" recently, Coppola told the reporter he hadn’t. “For me,” Coppola replied, “the memory of 'The Godfather' brings great unhappiness. That movie took 60 days, and it was miserable, not to mention the months after of jockeying over the cut. So my reaction is usually of panic and nausea, but that has nothing to do with how it is for the audience.”
“The memory of 'The Godfather' brings great unhappiness."
Another key fight of Coppola’s, and the most important, was over the script. He worked closely with Puzo, the co-writer on the screenplay, to drill down on the novel's central themes and plots.
“What remained after many cuts was a plot line that focused almost exclusively on the world of Vito Corleone and the emergence of his youngest son Michael as a central figure,” explained Harlan Lebo. “Jettisoning most of the other major plot lines from the book, the film would center on the incidents that pulled the Don’s youngest son into the family business in spite of his best efforts to avoid it, his maturing into the role as an underworld leader, and the eventual transfer of power from father to son.”
Coppola would fight for so many more things in the script, including minuscule details that gave the movie a depth and authenticity that made audiences feel as if they were a part of the family, and not some disinterested outsiders.
“The rich detail of Connie’s wedding reception, the cinematic orchestration of family meals, and the delicate nuance of old world courtship between Michael and his Sicilian bride-to-be Apollonia, complete with formal family introductions and chaperones. When Michael goes for a walk with Apollonia, she intentionally trips to give him a reason to touch her as chaperones look on and giggle,” explained Harlan Lebo.
There were many rewrites, some small, some big. Coppola didn’t hesitate to make his work better. One small example: After Paulie is killed, Clemenza is instructed, in the original script, to tell the hit man, “Leave the gun.” In the rewrite, a line was added. Clemenza tells Rocco, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
“With Paulie’s body slumped over the steering wheel, his eyes staring lifelessly, it is a chilling moment,” wrote Lebo. The addition of the cannoli line, a small detail, made it so.
"The Godfather," as written by Coppola, would also help viewers appreciate the distinction between Italians portrayed as murderers, and murderers who happened to be Italian. “That contrast was the whole point to Francis’ approach to the script,” said his artistic director. “He wanted the audience to see that these guys were in many ways like us — that’s the paradox of it. These people had their kids and their wives, and that all had a place in their lives. You can’t relate to a guy blowing someone’s brains out, but you can relate to a guy making spaghetti. And then you see that same guy sit in the back of a car and kill somebody. I think that was one of the great strengths of the way Francis made the film."
In what was the best and most important scene in the movie — the father-son scene between Brando and Pacino near the film’s end — Coppola didn’t hesitate to bring in an outside writer to improve the original script. His name was Robert Towne.
“Working from the original father-son conversations,” Harlan Lebo wrote, “Towne needed to create new material that combined an explanation of events to come in Michael’s life — a subtle transfer of power, expressions of love, respect, life philosophy, and parental regret — all shrouded in the context of gangland scheming and murder plots.”
“Through most of the film,” Towne explained, “it is the power of silence that carries force. The power of Don Corleone’s character is conveyed through pregnant silence. But in the situation I was asked to write, he actually talks.”
Towne took as many notes as he could, and then proceeded to write through the night, finally finishing the dramatic — and beautiful — scene at 4 a.m.
“I wrote a scene about the succession of power,” Towne noted. “And through that, it was obvious the two men had a great deal of affection for each other. Through Brando’s anxiety about what would happen to his son, and his anxiety about giving up power — his ambivalent feelings about, in effect, forcing his son to assume his role, and having to give up his role — that was the key to that scene.”
The scene is set in Don Corleone’s home garden. Michael is sitting on a lounge chair, leaning toward his father. The Don is in his chair, and is leaning back, eating some fruit and sipping a glass of red wine.
Vito starts the conversation by reviewing some family business matters, letting Michael know he believes one of the competing mob bosses will be moving against him. The talk then switches to more personal matters as the Don pauses for a sip of wine.
Here is that Robert Towne scene, in its totality.
I like to drink wine more than I used to. Anyway, I’m drinking more.
It’s good for you, pop.
(the Don pauses and looks at his glass)
I don’t know … your wife and children — you happy with them?
That’s good. I hope you don’t mind how I keep going over the Barzini business.
No, not at all.
It’s an old habit. I spend my life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless, but not men.
(the Don pauses)
How’s your boy?
You know, he looks more like you every day.
He’s smarter than I am. Three years old, and he can read the funny papers.
(grins, and the drifts away for a moment, looks up and remembers something)
Uh, I want to arrange to have a telephone man check all the calls that go in and out of here.
I already did it, pop.
You know, it could be anyone.
Pop, I took care of that.
Oh, that’s right, I forgot.
(the Don frowns, and rubs his chin. Michael leans in and pats his father’s knee)
What’s the matter? What’s bothering you? I’ll handle it. I told you I can handle it. I’ll handle it.
(the Don pauses, thinks for a moment, stands and walks slowly to the other side of Michael’s chair, looking away from his son)
I knew that Santino was going to have to go through all of this. And Fredo ... well
(the Don sits at the end of Michael’s lounge chair)
Fredo was ... well … I never … I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life — I don’t apologize — to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by those … big shots. I don’t apologize — that’s my life — but I thought that … that when it was your time, that … that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone … something.
Another pezzonovante. (big shot in Italian)
(the Don turns to his son)
Well … There wasn’t enough time, Michael … wasn’t enough time.
We’ll get there, pop. We’ll get there.
(the Don holds Michael’s head in his hand, kisses him, and pats his cheek)
Hm. Now listen. Whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting — he’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.
(the Don stands and sighs, and Michael leans back in the chaise, deep in thought)
“The scene, as typed for the script, would fit on little more than three sheets of paper, single spaced, it could be condensed to a single page,” wrote Harlan Lebo. “On screen, it would run only three minutes and 45 seconds, including an exquisite master shot of Brando’s speech about his dreams for Michael that ran nearly two minutes without a cut.”
In spite of — or perhaps because of its brevity — Robert Towne had created a scene that pulled the entire movie together. The scene remains one of the most memorable in movie history. Coppola’s decision to keep the scene simple, and to frame the shots tightly, only added to its power. Add to that Brando and Pacino’s pitch-perfect timing, and the scene “provided precisely the emotional interlude so essential at this pivotal moment in the film,” wrote Lebo.
Towne would be remembered for his uncredited contributions in "The Godfather," but only because of Coppola’s innate generosity.
“I’d like to thank Bob Towne, who wrote the very beautiful scene between Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in the garden,” Coppola said at the Oscar ceremony after receiving the award for best screenplay — an award he had won for "Patton" two years earlier. “That was Bob Towne’s scene.”
That was Francis Ford Coppola’s style and class on display. He knew how lucky he was to have Towne on his team.
"The Godfather" received 10 Oscar nominations. In addition to Coppola and Puzo's Best Screenplay Award, "The Godfather" won Best Picture, and Marlon Brando won Best Actor.
“The thing that I like most about the film’s success is that everyone that busted their hump on this movie came out with something special — and good careers,” Al Ruddy said. “Everyone on that movie needed it. Pacino had done only one movie. Brando was unemployable. Jimmy Caan was doing nothing. Francis was doing nothing, too. I had just done a motorcycle racing movie — who the heck are we? All of these people came together in one magic moment, and it was the turn in everyone’s career. It was just such a fantastic thing.”
Ruddy wasn’t finished. “After all the trouble in production, the irony of it is that the movie we made is the movie we wanted to make.”
It also happened to be a movie Americans wanted made — a movie Americans still love to watch over and over again.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of "Our American Stories." He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.