The Godfather: 40 Behind the Scenes “Need to Knows”

The Godfather should be a primary reason why you should be glad you were born within the last 100 years. It is one of the best grossing movies of all time, and full of spirit, crime, drama, and the American dream! It’s the story of an Italian family first and foremost, they just a happen to run the mob. It’s a story full of betrayal, and sorrow. Kingship and peasantry, a true testament to what it was like to grow up Italian American in the early 40s. Despite the excitement around the novel that came before it, the film held much drama behind the scenes. We compiled some great behind the scenes drama that went on during the filming of the greatest mob story in American history.

“Don’t Quit! Let Them Fire You!”

It was 1971 when Francis Ford Coppola had just started filming what he knew may become the biggest project of his life! Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

“Don’t Quit! Let Them Fire You!”

Francis Ford Coppola. Source: Gettyimages.

Filming had barely begun when Coppola got a call from his agent saying. “Don’t Quit! Whatever you do don’t quit, just let them fire you!” Let’s examine what went on behind the scenes that lead to this phone call, and what did Francis have to do to keep his part directing the Godfather. Let’s start with Pacino.

The Pacino Complex

There seemed to be a conflict on who should play “Michael,” who is the son of Don Corleone in the Godfather novel.

The Pacino Complex

American actor Al Pacino (right) sits with Italian actor Franco Citti holding a rifle at an outdoor table in director Francis Ford Coppola’s film, ‘The Godfather’.  (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

Francis jokes about it in later interviews saying everyone on the production was Italian and wanted a reflection of themselves to be Michael. For Coppola that reflection was Al Pacino. Producer Bob Evans thought Pacino was too short to play the part and was very against it happening.

100 Different Michaels

In her past interviews, Diane Keaton had said she must have auditioned with at least 100 different Michaels after she read with Pacino.

100 Different Michaels

American actors Al Pacino and Diane Keaton in a scene from ‘The Godfather,’ directed by Fancis Ford Coppola, 1972. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/courtesy of Getty Images)

During that time, Coppola would frequent Pacino in his home to talk about the part and says that through that time he really felt like he was seeing Al Pacino become Michael in front of his very eyes. This would force Coppola to ignore the advice of the rest of the production, and insist on Al Pacino taking the part.

Too Much Abuse

Al Pacino was in the dark during all this deliberation. Godfather was a very successful novel, and despite Pacino getting offers for other movies, he held his breath for the part for months.

Too Much Abuse

Clemenza (Richard Castellano) kisses the hand of the new “Godfather”, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), in the last scene of The Godfather. Source: Gettyimages

Going to interview after interview, table read after table read, and still not getting the part. At one point when Coppola called Pacino for yet another table read, his wife answered and said, “this has to stop. It’s too much abuse! Is he getting the part or not?

It was Personal

Not every project is important for directors. A director may be signed to make many movies a year in his or her contract, and not all hold an equal place in their hearts. For Francis, the Godfather was a big deal, his pet project.

It was Personal

While his daughter’s wedding celebration proceeds outside, Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando (right), discusses “family” business with his consigliere, Tom Hagen, played by Robert Duvall, in the The Godfather, an Albert S. Ruddy Production in Color by Technicolor. Undated. UPI photograph.

Francis wanted it to be the first movie in America, with a mostly Italian cast. Every part in the movie, every detail, would be an ode to Italian America. He was not going to let go on any creative position he took, but he didn’t always have such high esteem for the book.

Originally Disappointing

When the Godfather novel was released, it quickly became a household name best seller book. Everyone raved about it, and it had become one of the most talked about novels of its time.

Originally Disappointing

Portraits of Mario Puzo in New York, July, 1996. (photo by Evan Kafka)

According to Coppola, he did not enjoy the book so much the first time he read it, saying it was very long, and going on to say that he felt a third of the book was just about Lucy Mancini’s anatomy. He probably had no clue yet what that book would mean to his career.

Strange coincidence

Francis Coppola once mentioned one of the most bizarre coincidences of his career right before he was tasked with directing the Godfather. Before he had read the book, he had seen an ad on the paper for “The Godfather.” Just as he glanced at the ad on the paper, he got a knock on the door from Al Rudy, and Grey Fredrikson who were in town for a movie.

Strange coincidence

The cast of the film, ‘The Godfather’ pose for a family portrait during the wedding scene in a still from the film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based upon the novel by Mario Puzo. Left to right: Robert Duvall, Tere Livrano, John Cazale (1935 -1978), Gianni Russo, Talia Shire, Morgana King, Marlon Brando and James Caan. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

Simultaneously Coppola got a call from Marlon Brando who was turning down a part for a different movie “The Conversation.” The 4 had no clue but shortly after they would be working together on the biggest crime/drama in American history. That moment for Coppola was his omen for what’s to come.

No Marlon Brando

The most critical challenge for director Francis Coppola was casting the right “Don Vito Corleone.”

No Marlon Brando

Left to right: American actors James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale (1936 – 1978) pose together outdoors in a still from director Francis Ford Coppola’s film, ‘The Godfather,’ based on the novel by Mario Puzo. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images)

Paramount pictures were very forceful in their intention to give the role to Danny Thomas because they thought maybe his production company would invest in the movie with the then broke Paramount pictures. In fact, Coppola was forbidden at one point even to bring up the name Marlon Brando.

Fighting for Al

During all this mess, another problem was brewing in casting Al Pacino. Paramount pictures were in limbo on their deliberations for the part.

Fighting for Al

American actors Marlon Brando and Al Pacino on the set of mob-drama film The Godfather (Le Parrain), based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1972. (Photo by STILLS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Coppola fought hard for Pacino until the execs finally caved and gave Pacino the role, but would it be too late?

“Gang who Couldn’t Shoot Straight”

Al Pacino was growing tired of waiting to get the green light from Paramount on his role as Michael. During Paramount’s deliberation, he had taken a part in the movie “Gang who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

“Gang who Couldn’t Shoot Straight”

Abe Vigoda and Robert Duvall watch Marlon Brando and Al Lettieri shake hands in a scene from the film ‘The Godfather’, 1972. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

Regardless, when Pacino got the part of Godfather, he broke the contract with the other movie, and Francis even hired a Chicago “mob fixer” lawyer to call the other production and figure something out. Meanwhile, Marlon Brando would go through a live transformation that would cement him once and for all to get the part of Vito Corleone.

Becoming Corleone

Francis Coppola knew in his heart along with Mario Puzo that Marlon Brando was the only man for the job to play the role of Vito. Coppola needed to devise a plan that would dodge the production and get Brando the part.

Becoming Corleone

Marlon Brando before and after Don Vito Corleone makeup. Source: Reddit

He invited Brando to his home for a “make-up test” and rolled the camera the second he got there. Coppola almost instinctively understood the role from the very first take, forcing even Danny Thomas to turn down the part after seeing how much justice Brando did to the role of Vito. This very much angered Paramount pictures, but they still had reasons to keep Coppola in the directors’ chair.

Reasons to Keep Him

Paramount Pictures had already begun to grow very frustrated by Francis Coppola’s insisting stubbornness on how the movie would be made, and wanted him fired before filming even started.

Reasons to Keep Him

American actor George C. Scott on the set of Patton, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. (Photo by Twentieth Century Fox Films Corp/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Coppola during all the drama had won an Oscar for his screenplay writing in the film “Patton.” This would force Paramount to keep Coppola for the time being. But what was all the panic about anyway?

“The Brotherhood”

Paramount Pictures was not too interested in making the movie in the first place. The company had an earlier flop that proved to be a horrible experience for them when they filmed the movie “The Brotherhood.”

“The Brotherhood”

Kirk Douglas (left) and Alex Cord in a scene from the mob movie “The Brotherhood”, 1968. (Photo by Camerique/Getty Images)

It had cost them tons of capital that they did not make back, and when they took on the idea to make a Godfather movie, they thought it would be a “quick, low budget” movie.

Taking Place in the 40s

Paramount was very adamant about not wanting to invest in making the Godfather for what it actually was, and wanted to save money on every possible detail. Meanwhile, you have Coppola who wanted just the opposite. One of the many hard-fought battles he had with the production execs was when the movie would take place.

Taking Place in the 40s

Producer Albert S. Ruddy (left) and actor Marlon Brando (1924 – 2004) on the set of ‘The Godfather’, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Little Italy, Manhattan, New York City, 1972. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Paramount wanted to film it in Nevada and make it 70s film mob movie. Coppola insisted that they stick to the plot, forget saving money, and shoot the movie in NY where it was supposed to be filmed in the first place. When the shooting started, the drama would begin to hit a boiling point from day one.

The King of Darkness

Production execs were watching Coppola like hawks through the beginning of filming and were not at all happy with the way it was coming out.

The King of Darkness

Italian actor Salvatore Corsitto, as Amerigo Bonasera, kisses Marlon Brando’s hand, as Don Vito Corleone, in a scene from the movie The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola. 1972. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

They complained about Cinematographers Gordon Willis’s (nicknamed “king of darkness”) for making the scenes too dark, and Coppola had very much begun to feel the pressure of losing his job. Why was the film so dark though?

Filmed So Dark

It’s very common in movies to have a disconnect between production executives, and directors. In the case of the darkness of the scenes, executives were furious.

Filmed So Dark

American actor Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola. 1972. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

They did not understand that if the movie would be filmed with a lot of light in the shots, it would end up like Patton where the main actors would have faces that were obviously full of makeup.

“Risk It All”

The first few weeks of filming proved to be some of the most stressful times in Coppola’s career. The production watched his every move, and he had started to feel his fellow cow producers, and assistants turning on him.

“Risk It All”

Behind the scenes photo of Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando & Gordon Willis. Copyright by Paramount Pictures

That’s around the same time he got the call that he was going to get fired. In one interview Francis was asked how you make a movie so successful? He replied “you risk it all!” and that’s precisely what he did! The next moves Coppola would make did not just help him keep his job; they also set the tone for the rest of the movie.

Keeping Al

After getting a call from his agent on his imminent firing. Coppola had only a weekend to devise a plan to save not just his job, but Pacino’s as well.

Keeping Al

Behind the scenes photo of Al Pacino & Francis Ford Coppola. Copyright by Paramount Pictures

He quickly rescheduled shooting the next week to start with the “Stilotso” scene, where he could showcase Al Pacino’s performance ability as he enacts his revenge on behalf of Vito Corleone, but that’s not the only step Coppola took to keep his job.

The Wedding Scene

The wedding scene at the beginning of the movie is one of the most major dramatic sequences in the behind the scenes drama in the production. Francis Coppola needed to pull all the stops to keep his position as director, as his replacement was already on set during the weekend without him knowing.

The Wedding Scene

American singer Al Martino as Johnny Fontane sings to American actress Talia Shire playing the bride Constanzia in the wedding scene from director Francis Ford Coppola’s film, ‘The Godfather’. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

Coppola did the unthinkable, and fired 14 production employees on the first day of the third week of filming, as he simultaneously changed the schedule. That’s when Paramount pictures had a meeting with him and told him that he was doing good and they would leave him alone. It’s a good thing they let him work because Godfather would go on to be one of the biggest successes in American cinema history even earning Brando an Oscar opportunity to shake Hollywood to its core!

Rejecting the Oscar

Marlon Brando proved himself bigtime in his performance as Vito Corleone. He did so well in fact that he was nominated, and even won an Oscar for his role.

Rejecting the Oscar

Academy Award winning actor Marlon Brando chats with two members of the Yakima (Wash.) Indian tribe while attending the First American gala at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Starlight roof. The affair will benefit the American Indian Development Association. Brando is chairman of the affair. Source: Gettyimages

Paramount’s initial fears of the unstable Brando came full circle when Brando decided to take his Oscar to make a statement that no one would expect.

Self-Image

Marlon Brando was very well known for his pollical antics in Hollywood, and it was always very important to him to take any opportunity to give light to issues in society he thought were important.

Self-Image

At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest of American treatment of the Native Americans.

In the case of his Oscar, Brando chose to bring someone else on stage to talk about her experience of Hollywood in-equality. Towards native Americans, saying in later interviews that he saw the impact on Native American youth from seeing how they are portrayed on the big screen.

Voice Her Opinion

Native American portrayal was one of many issues that needed to be discussed with regards to the treatment of Native American’s in Hollywood.

Voice Her Opinion

Native American Sacheen Littlefeather speaks at the 45th Academy Awards. On behalf of Marlon Brando, she refused the Best Actor award he was awarded for his role in Godfather. Brando refused the award because of the treatment by the Americans of the American Indian.

Brando thought it best to bring well known Apache actress Sacheen Littlefeather on stage to speak about her experience of racism in Hollywood and talk about solutions.

Cutting Her Off

When finding out that her time would be cut out before commercials, Sacheen and Brando decided that she would not only go up on stage, but also turn down the Oscar on behalf of Brando, and begin a speech of awareness and unity.

Cutting Her Off

Sacheen Littlefeather accepting the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando for his role in “The Godfather”. Source: Gettyimages

She had the strength and bravery to stand up to Hollywood. What would happen next would shock the world!

Booing

As Sacheen came on stage a silence fell on the crowd immediately, rumors had spread that Brando was not going to accept the Oscar, but no one knew why, and who would come on stage for him.

Booing

Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather speaks after rejecting the Academy Award in place of Best Actor winner Marlon Brando. Source: Gettyimages

As Sacheen came on stage, she shooed away the trophy from the hands of the host and got on the mic. From the moment she brought up in-equality, a barrage of “boo’s, and heckling had fallen upon her.” Littlefeather met the heckling with strength, took a deep breath, and called for unity and justice in the American movie industry.

“Would You Do It Again?”

Brando knew what he was doing. When asked on the Dick Cavett Show “if you could do over the Oscars, would you do anything differently?” Brando replied that he would not change a thing.

“Would You Do It Again?”

A bearded Marlon Brando (left) talks with Dick Cavett during the taping of Cavett’s show here June 12. Brando who was Cavett’s only guest on the 90-minute program spoke mainly on the topic of the grievances of Indians and other minorities in American society. Source: Gettyimages

It was an opportunity where a minority can have their voice heard in front of 85 million people around the world. Let’s move on to some lighter miscellaneous movie facts though. You would be surprised what little details you may learn about the movie!

Young Vito

Francis Coppola was going to cast Marlon Brando to play young Vito in Godfather II, but after some disputes with Paramount on his contract, Brando decided to opt out of the second movie.

Young Vito

Robert De Niro performs a scene in The Godfather Part II directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

With the position for young Vito open, Coppola chose to task the young Robert De Niro for the role. De Niro did exceptionally well with his role as Vito, and had become a critically acclaimed actor ever since!

Makeup

Marlon Brando often insisted on doing his own makeup, and it took him three hours to finish the look of Vito Corleone.

Makeup

Behind the scenes photo of Marlon Brando & Francis Ford Coppola. Copyright by Paramount Pictures.

Brando even would shove cotton balls in the sides of his mouth to give him the curious swelled up cheeks. The end result would be the mysterious Don Vito that we have come to know and love.

Fake Teeth

James Caan played the oldest and most notorious, violent, and impulsive son to Vito Corleone. Sunny had insisted on joining the family business at an early age and had witnessed his father’s violent acts from an early age.

Fake Teeth

Publicity still of James Caan & Robert Duvall. Copyright by Paramount Pictures.

James Caan had sharp natural vampire looking teeth that he had molded bigger to look even scarier for the part.

Historical Accuracy

Ford Coppola took realism very seriously when planning the different sets of the movie. Considering the film takes place in the early 1940s to 1950s, there was a lot of small details to consider. For instance, the getaway vehicles used in the movie had wooden bumpers.

Historical Accuracy

Source: Reddit

A feature they had from WW2 in real life to protect the cars better from the challenges in the battlefield. These were the bumpers on cars in the mid-1940s, so the production took that into consideration when making the cars for the movie.

Momma Morgana

Morgana King played the lovely gentle Sicilian mother to Don Vito’s three sons. Something pretty funny though is the fact that the actress was only 5 to ten years older than the rest of the actors playing her sons. Talk about having a young momma!

Momma Morgana

Wallpaper with Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Gianni Russo, Talia Shire, Morgana King, James Caan, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Anthony Gounaris & Julie Gregg. Copyright by Paramount Pictures.

Maybe that’s not too crazy though considering that actors play all types of weird roles for their ages and the audience can barely tell!

An Early George Lucas

Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas have a friendship that goes back decades starting from their relatively unknown reputations in their early work in Northern California.

An Early George Lucas

American executive producer George Lucas and director Francis Ford Coppola (R) on the set of Coppola’s movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Coppola worked as an executive producer for Lucas in the film THX 1138, and in return, Lucas took a job as a set assistant on the Godfather. Lucas had a big part in the silent hospital scene on the Godfather. It was his idea that you would here steps echoing around the halls but see nothing in each frame.

The Baby in the Baptism

In the dramatic baptism scene in towards the end of the film, the young infant Michael Francis Rizzi is actually played by a girl.

The Baby in the Baptism

Source: Pinterest

Not just a girl, it was no other than Francis Coppola’s daughter Sofia Coppola who was born in May 1971. Talk about bringing home to work with you!

“It’s Not Going to Work”

You would think to play a lead role in a movie like the Godfather would instill nothing but confidence in an upcoming actor, but for Al Pacino, this was not the case.

“It’s Not Going to Work”

Al Pacino and James Caan having a conversation in a scene from the film ‘The Godfather’, 1972. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

His experience getting the part made him a bit self-conscious on set, and he often reflects that he thought the movie was not going to work. He probably changed his mind very quickly after seeing people line up for hours just to get a ticket to see it in week one of release.

Losing Confidence

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg famous for movies like E.T. and Schindler’s List was very young at the time of the release of The Godfather.

Losing Confidence

Photograph of Steven Spielberg (1946-) an American director, producer, and screenwriter, during the filming of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Dated 20th Century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Spielberg has been quoted as saying that he was so amazed by how great the movie was that he almost quit the movie business, saying “I never thought I could ever reach that level in my life, so why even try!

Kenneth Turan

The Godfather shattered box office records of its time, and people flocked to see it again and again.

Kenneth Turan

Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, James Caan, Al Pacino e Talia Shire, no Radio City Music Hall (Photo Credit: Kevin Mazur)

With some people waiting in line for days on the first week of release, some just to see it a third time over. According to prominent movie critic Kenneth Turan, “every time” you see the movie is better than the last.

Friends in a Past Life

Remember the wedding ceremony scene. Don Vito is in his office looking very serious holding a cat. That cat was actually a stray that Coppola found on the Paramount lot.

Friends in a Past Life

American actor Marlon Brando, as Don Vito Corleone, strokes a cat in a promotional still from the film, ‘The Godfather’, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the novel by Mario Puzo. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

According to Francis Coppola, he picked the cat up, entered the studio, and just handed it to Brando before yelling action. The cat apparently took a great liking to Brando, and it was according to Coppola “as if they had known each other forever”.

A Makeshift Audition

According to Robert Duval who plays Tom Hagen in the Godfather, auditions were makeshift and kind of rushed with some of the character roles. Coppola even hired his sister Talia Shire (at her request) to play the role of Don Vito’s daughter Connie Corleone.

A Makeshift Audition

Talia Shire dancing with Marlon Brando at her wedding in a scene from the film ‘The Godfather’, 1972. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

She jokes to her brother in a 2017 reunion “I asked for an audition from my brother, and I couldn’t figure out what a mark was-you didn’t need me to be there and you were very kind, thank you.

A Tribute

In the same event, Coppola goes on to give tribute to the actors who passed away since the release of the movie in 1971, as should we. Johnny Cazale (1935-1978) who plays Fredo, Al Lettieri (1928 – 1975) who played the notorious Sollozzo the Turk who had died of a heart attack just a few years later.

A Tribute

Behind the scenes photo of James Caan, Marlon Brando, Richard Conte, John Cazale & Francis Ford Coppola. Copyright by Paramount Pictures

Sicilian theatre actor Salvatore Corsitto who played Amerigo Bonasera, Richard Castellano (1933 – 1988) played Peter Clemenza, and of course, there is sadly no other than Marlon Brando who died in 2004 of congestive heart failure.

God Father II

The Godfather II would come out two years later and just as well. The scene on Ellis Island was actually filmed in Northern Italy at a fish market of all places because the actual Ellis Island was being renovated at the time.

God Father II

Director Francis Ford Coppola guides Robert De Niro in a scene in The Godfather Part II in 1974 in New York, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

It would be the place where Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando could share an Oscar for playing the same actor too!

Was It Better?

This brings us to the final question what did you think was better, Godfather I or II? Godfather II held a record at the time for most Oscars, it also held the Record for the first sequel to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, and that’s a record it held for 29 years!

Was It Better?

American film director Francis Ford Coppola stands with his family, holding three Oscars for his film, ‘The Godfather, Part II,’ during the 47th Annual Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center, Los Angeles, California. Clockwise, from left, his wife, Eleanor, his parents, Pennito and Carmine, and sons, Roman and Gian Carlo. (Photo by Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images)

We will be doing a special on the Godfather II soon, so stay tuned for more!