A Story of Fear and Dysfunction Not Just The Godfather, but the Making of The Godfather

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What was the
formula that made The
Godfather
one of the most successful films of all time?
Surely it would take an unusually harmonious combination of talents
working in concert, a rare balance of commercial entertainment and
artistic challenge, a run of luck those involved couldn’t miss.

But all wasn’t
plain sailing on Francis Ford Coppola’s film in 1972. It was
nominated for 11 Oscars, winning three, and on its $6 million budget
grossed $101 million for Paramount within 18 weeks of release. As
the film gets a welcome cinematic re-release in a beautiful restoration,
it is timely to dive into the swirling mists of legend and recall
how far it was from a sure thing.

“It was
the most miserable film I can think of to make,” declares its
producer, Al Ruddy. “Nobody enjoyed one day of it.” Coppola
agrees: “It was just non-stop anxiety and wondering when I
was going to get fired.” The novel by Mario Puzo could easily
not have been written: eight publishers passed on the outline for
a would-be best-seller pitched by a middle-ranking, mid-forties
writer with a bad gambling habit and big debts. Only bumping into
a friend had led to his actually writing The
Godfather
. Its 67 weeks topping the New York Times
best-seller list surprised everyone.

Paramount bought
an option when Puzo had only written 100 pages, for a mere $12,500,
rising to $50,000 if the novel was filmed. But maybe – if we’re
to credit Paramount’s head of production Robert Evans –
Paramount very nearly didn’t acquire it. There was a bidding
war: they were “one day away from Burt Lancaster buying The
Godfather, and Burt wanted to play the Don”.

Coppola was
no one’s first choice. A pack of others were considered: Arthur
Penn, Peter Yates, Costa-Gavras, Otto Preminger, Richard Brooks,
Elia Kazan, Fred Zinnemann, Franklin J Schaffner, Richard Lester…
All said no. Finally, Evans decided Mafia movies hadn’t worked
because, “they were usually written by Jews, directed by Jews
and acted by Jews” – and the only Italian-American director
with any track record was the up-and-coming Coppola. He almost said
no, too, thinking Puzo’s opus “a popular, sensational
novel, pretty cheap stuff”.

But Coppola
relented, partly because his company American Zoetrope was broke.
Once aboard, he saw in this blockbuster the profound story of “a
king, almost Greek – a king with three sons”. Puzo liked
him. Henceforth, though, everything was a fight. The studio wanted
to keep costs down by setting the film in present-day Kansas City;
Coppola refused, demanding and getting a $5 million budget. He demanded
an 80 day shooting schedule; Paramount gave him only 53.

Then there
was the question of who would play Don Vito Corleone? Paramount
had sounded out Anthony Quinn; but also on their list were Laurence
Olivier – who was ill – George C Scott, Jean Gabin, Vittorio
De Sica, John Huston, Paul Scofield, Victor Mature… Coppola
wanted Marlon Brando, whose name was then dirt with the studios
due to unreliability and a string of flops. Paramount president
Stan Jaffe declared, “Marlon Brando will never appear in this
picture”, even forbidding further discussion. But Coppola pleaded
to the bosses that Brando was the greatest living screen actor,
and finally, extravagantly, collapsed on the carpet before their
eyes. They thought he’d had a heart attack brought on by an
excess of sincerity and gave in, though on tough terms.

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the rest of the article

September
26, 2009

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