Why The Godfather Almost Didn’t Happen

Francis Ford Coppola’s classic adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather could have been a very different film.

The Godfather is one of the greatest movies of all time. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it was made on a $6 million budget, completed ahead of schedule, and was the first film in history to take in a million bucks a day. It was nominated for 11 Oscars, won three, and changed cinema forever. That seismic cinematic shift would never have happened if Paramount had their way. The studio suits hated everything about The Godfather until Michael Corleone put one in the head and throat of a police captain, getting brains all over his ivy league suit. They didn’t like the actors, the director, the setting, the tunes, or the tone. The studio didn’t even like the puppet strings logo that graphic designer S. Neil Fujita made for the book.

Figuring they would make a quick and cheap gangster picture, Paramount Pictures optioned the rights to Mario Puzo’s novel after his first 60 pages of scribbling in 1967. The Godfather was supposed to be Puzo’s quick fix sellout book after The Fortunate Pilgrim was lauded by critics but largely ignored by the masses. That is a mistake because the Italian immigrant stories at the center of the book are fascinating without the crime overlay. The studio ultimately paid $80,000 for the rights, beating out Burt Lancaster, who had his sights on playing Don Vito Corleone, by one day in a bidding war.

Nobody expected the book to be a hit, but it whacked the competition. The Godfather offered something nobody could refuse. It sat on top of The New York Times Best Seller list for 67 weeks and sold more than nine million copies in two years. The studio almost dropped plans for the feature film entirely because they were worried they wouldn’t live up to expectations. Italian-American households throughout the country could already see exactly what the characters looked like. Paramount’s literary scout and production Vice President Peter Bart realized that the book was more than just a Mafia story but didn’t count on how much when he got the check cut in March 1967.

The First Italian Mob Drama Made by Italians

The summer of love was also the year the ultraviolent gangster film Bonnie and Clyde ushered a new wave of American film directors. Francis Ford Coppola now stands at the top of that group, but at the time, he was not their first choice. Not by a long shot. Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production wanted The Godfather to be directed by an Italian-American. The studio’s first choice was Sergio Leone, but he was getting ready to make his own gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. Paramount then approached Peter Bogdanovich, who said the mafia didn’t interest him. They went through Peter Yates, Richard Brooks, Arthur Penn, Costa-Gavras, Otto Preminger, Elia Kazan, Fred Zinnemann, Franklin J Schaffner, and even Richard Lester, the director of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help! before they decided to put the squeeze on Coppola.

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The director of The Rain People said he’d work at a low salary and on a low budget. Coppola was already into Warner Bros. for $400,000 because his American Zoetrope studio went over budget on the film THX 1138. Coppola got the job on September 28, 1970 for $125,000 and a vig of six percent. But his cut rate wasn’t the only reason he got the job. Coppola had a vowel at the end of his name.

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Paramount promoted The Godfather as the first Italian mob drama made by Italians, but some Italians were offended. Italian-Americans were continually portrayed as criminals in the movies and they were fed up. Joseph Colombo, of the crime family that bore his name, formed The Italian-American Civil Rights League in 1969. They demanded the words “mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” get pulled from the script and that all the money the movie made at its premier get donated to their fund to build a new hospital.

Colombo didn’t just see The Godfather as good excuse to squeeze money from the studio, it was as personal as it was business. The Colombo Family used to be called the Profaci Family, one of the first families of the Five Families that ruled the Commission. All that talk at the center of the book about “sleeping with the fishes” and “going to the mattresses” came from the Gallo-Profaci wars that rocked the early sixties.

The Godfather Broke Omerta on a Real Mob War

The Gallo brothers, “Crazy Joe,” “Kid Blast,” and Larry, were on the rise, but the Profaci Family didn’t notice. They did the job on Albert Anastassia, the lord high executioner, who ran the waterfront and Murder Inc., in 1957, and still the Profaci command didn’t notice. In 1960, in the first known Mafia rebellion, Gallo made a run against Joe Profaci. The Gallo brothers kidnapped the upper tier, much like Tom Hayden was snatched in The Godfather, and got their ransom from the boss. A little while later they got a message that their lead enforcer “slept with the fishes” and the gang “went to the mattresses” in a safe house on President Street in Brooklyn. Gallo was convicted of extortion and sentenced for 7 to 14 years on December 21, 1961. Joe Profaci died in 1962.

read more: The Real History of The Godfather

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When Gallo was released from prison in 1971 after serving 10 years, the Profaci Family was called the Colombo Family and Joseph Colombo Sr. was the new boss. Profaci had avoided the public spotlight. Colombo formed civil rights groups. Colombo had been a capo until he became head the family with the support of Carlo Gambino, in 1963. The Genovese, Bonanno, and Lucchese gangs agreed because it put a temporary stop to the Gallo wars. When he got out of prison with a personal rep for civil rights defense, Gallo had a sit down with Colombo and Joseph Yacovelli, who offered him $1,000 to keep the peace. Gallo told them to make it $100,000. Joseph Colombo was shot and paralyzed at the second Italian Unity Day by Gallo associates on June 28, 1971, which happened to be the same day Coppola was shooting the film’s influential operatic ending a few blocks away. A year later, Joe Gallo was shot, on his birthday, at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy by Carmine “Sonny Pinto” Di Biase, although Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran also confessed to it.

Such bad blood, and so much of it, wasn’t the best PR the mob could buy and while the civil rights group made slow progress, the New York gang sped it up. A Colombo crew stole a truck with a million dollars’ worth of equipment from the Little Italy set where Coppola was shooting a test. They followed producer Al Ruddy’s car around and called Paramount executive Robert Evans at his New York hotel to threaten the life of his wife Ali McGraw and their infant son Joshua. Paramount had to evacuate its offices in New York’s Gulf and Western Building twice for bomb scares.

Before The Godfather started filming, Italian-American civil rights groups had no muscle, but the protests took on a life of their own. Thousands of people joined. Colombo’s civil rights group held rallies around New York City, including one at Madison Square Garden that raised $500,000 to help efforts to shutter production.

The Godfather producer Al Ruddy and Colombo had a sit down at the Park Sheraton Hotel. Ruddy agreed to remove the word “mafia,” which was only used once in the script anyway, from the movie. After Colombo gave the film his blessing, gangsters started showing up on the set to meet the cast. Caan got friendly enough with Carmine “The Snake” Persico that he asked why gangsters were always touching themselves. Years later, Caan would stand bail for Colombo crime family member Andrew “Andy Mush” Russo. Brando got elocution lessons from Joe Bufalino on Mott Street.

Colombo also made Ruddy cast Gianni Russo, who had worked for the mob boss, in the part of Carlo Rizzi, Don Corleone’s son-in-law. Coppola cast former wrestler Lenny Montana as Luca Brasi after he came to the set as the bodyguard of the crime boss.

“That part is perfect. It’ll make him a big star. I’m gonna run him out of the movies.”

That was an easy part of casting. Today it is impossible to see anyone but acting legend Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. At the time, executives could see anyone but. Studio head Charles Bluhdorn said the former Terry Malloy, the boxer and enforcer from the docks of On the Waterfront, would “never appear in a Paramount picture.”

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Everybody wanted to play Don Vito, except Rod Steiger who wanted to play the young Michael Corleone, which pained Puzo because, while he admired the actor, he hated the age difference. Ernest Borgnine, Orson Welles, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn, George C. Scott, Jean Gabin, Vittorio De Sica, John Huston, Paul Scofield, Victor Mature, and the original Little Caesar himself, Edward G. Robinson, were considered for the role. Robinson even got to go all Rico on Puzo’s manager, threateningly telling him he should “love his clients.”

In The Godfather Papers, Puzo says he was particularly distressed when he heard Danny Thomas was seriously considered to play Vito Corleone. Puzo had sent Marlon Brando a letter saying he was the “only actor who can play the Godfather.” The studio was especially pushing for Laurence Olivier, who went on to star in Sleuth later that year.

read more: How The Godfather Killed The Mafia

Brando was cast after he was tricked by Coppola into doing a screen test for Paramount president Stanley Jaffe. Brando stuck cotton balls in his cheeks, put shoe polish in his hair to darken it, and rolled his collar. During the filming, he wore a mouth piece that a dentist made for him.

Brando agreed to do the movie for free and put up a personal bond to insure the studio against potential losses. That didn’t stop Brando from playing pranks, like weighing his stretcher when the hospitalized Vito was brought home and taken upstairs to recuperate after the assassination attempt or mooning his cast mates from the windows of city cabs. Brando read from cue cards during most of the film and modeled his speech after mob boss Frank Costello who he saw testifying in a trial on TV.

In the book Michael is tall and blond. Paramount Pictures wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal to play the returning World War II vet and college graduate. Warren Beatty turned down the role. The studio auditioned Caan, Martin Sheen, Dustin Hoffman, David Carradine, Dean Stockwell, and Robert De Niro, who also tested for Sonny. Coppola wanted theater actor Al Pacino, who had only starred in the film The Panic in Needle Park at that point. Even Puzo didn’t support Pacino after seeing his audition. The actor was unprepared and hadn’t memorized the scene. Pacino, who was contracted to star in MGM’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a comedy about the Gallo-Profaci wars, got past casting director Fred Roos by doing the part for only $35,000.

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read more: Controversial Casting Choices and How They Turned Out

Pacino really had his jaw wired shut for the first part of the shoot after his character gets punched in the face by the crooked cop. Robert De Niro was initially cast as Paulie Gatto but quit to star in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Good thing, too, because it would have made him ineligible to play Vito in The Godfather Part II.

John Cazale got the part of Fredo Corleone after Coppola saw him perform in an Off Broadway play. John Cassavetes and Peter Falk were both approached to play consigliere Tom Hagen. The role of Sonny Corleone was originally awarded to Carmine Caridi. James Caan and Robert Duvall both acted in Coppola’s The Rain People (1969). Caan’s breakthrough role as Brian Piccolo in Brian’s Song came out as The Godfather was in post-production. Caan tested for Michael and Tom Hagen. James Caan scared everyone on set with his improvisational style, especially after the scene where Sonny fights his brother-in-law Carlo Rizzo and Caan broke actors Gianni Russo’s ribs with a garbage can.

Coppola wanted Italian singer Vic Damone to play Johnny Fontane. Al Martino, who was originally cast, went to crime boss Russ Bufalino to pressure Coppola in giving him the role. Frank Sinatra, who was pissed off about the similarities between him and the character Johnny Fontane, talked with Coppola about playing Vito Corleone.

Coppola didn’t just fight the studio. He fought his own mother. Coppola thought his sister, Talia Shire, was too pretty to play Connie Corleone. But he had no problem casting his three-week-old daughter Sofia as Michael Francis Rizzi, Connie’s and Carlo’s newborn son for the baptism scene. Coppola’s wife, mother, and two sons all appeared as extras in the picture. His father, Carmine Coppola, who also wrote some of the music, appeared in the film as an extra playing a piano during a scene.

The score was composed by Nino Rota. The studio didn’t like it. They still didn’t like a lot of things.

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Paramount hired Puzo to write the script on April 14, 1970. He got $100,000 and some of the vig. His first draft was finished on August 10, 1970. A second draft was written with Coppola. They finished the final screenplay on March 29, 1971. It was 40 pages longer than Paramount wanted. Robert Towne did uncredited work on the screenplay.

It’s not all dollars and cents

Paramount already took a bath on the mafia movie The Brotherhood and wanted Coppola to modernize the script to 1972 and move it to Kansas City to cut costs. The directors refused and demanded a $5 million budget and an 80 day shooting schedule. Paramount gave him 53 days to shoot. Coppola spent the first day at a family dinner with the cast who remained in character until after the espresso.

Coppola was constantly undermined during filming. Paramount Vice President Jack Ballard kept a close eye on production costs. The studio thought cinematographer Gordon Willis shot the film too dark and that the film was too talky and introspective. Paramount threatened Coppola with a “violence coach.” The studio threatened to fire Coppola and Brando and Pacino kept solidarity by threatening to quit if the director was taken off the project. The studio kept Elia Kazan on standby until the Sollozzo scene came. Paramount loved that. All that blood and linguini, not to mention the veal and the accusatory look Sterling Hayden’s bad cop throws at Pacino’s good son. They even scrapped the intermission.

read more: The Real History of Goodfellas

The Godfather was the highest-grossing film of 1972. For a while, it was the highest-grossing film ever made. Pacino, Caan and Robert Duvall were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Coppola was nominated for Best Director. Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor. Puzo and Coppola won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. The movie won the Academy Awards for Best Picture. Paramount was happy. They released The Godfather Part II in 1974 and some film analysts think that was an even better film. The Godfather Part III came out in 1990 and, while it’s far better than its reputation suggests, it is not accepted as the classic that the first two films are…and almost weren’t.