Strictly Business: Making The Godfather
On March 15, 1972 The Godfather premiered in New York. A late season snow fall marked the occasion. But the weather deterred no one; eager filmgoers snaked across six city blocks waiting to get in. The event itself was a star-studded affair. A gala of big shot executives, Hollywood royalty, and US diplomats; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew in from Washington to attend the event.
A notable absence was Francis Ford Coppola. The film’s director fled to Paris; the Atlantic Ocean providing a physical and metaphorical boundary from the project he’d completed. Coppola wanted nothing to do with the glitzy premiere. In his mind, the audience would shun his work and the picture would end up a disaster.
While the crowd filed in their seats, he sat alone in Hôtel d’Alsace, blissfully unaware that in three hours the credits would roll to rapturous applause, and the film he believed doomed to fail would become the most celebrated movie in the world.
From our vantage point, the idea someone might butcher The Godfather seems preposterous. As critic Roger Ebert points out, “The Godfather comes closest to being a film everyone agrees is unquestionably great.” How could a Francis Ford Coppola mafia flick starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino be anything less than a masterpiece? But at the time, its success was far from guaranteed.
At the time Marlon Brando was not the all-time great actor known for Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront. He was a washed up shell of himself who studio heads saw as a black hole for their money.
At the time Al Pacino was not a screen legend with nine Academy Award nominations. He was a short, gawky, unproven stage actor who Coppola had to beg the studio to cast.
At the time Francis Ford Coppola himself was not the director responsible for the Godfather saga, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. He was a cavalier film geek, with a production company on the verge of bankruptcy.
This cast of characters helped create one of the most successful Hollywood movies. Only it almost wasn’t a success. That it was made at all and turned out as great as it did borders on the miraculous.
I could write an article telling you why the Godfather is an important film: listing the many reasons we now consider it a classic. But you already know these things. People have written and rewritten that piece for decades since its release.
The story I wish to tell is about why the movie you love, that your friends love, that just about every critic calls a masterpiece was almost a colossal failure. And what lessons, if any, we can take away from its unlikely triumph.
The Playboy Who Saved Paramount
In the year 1966, Hollywood teetered on the brink of crisis. The combined effect of antitrust lawsuits, the rise of television, and shifting cultural values threatened the core of the motion picture business. For a time it seemed the once impregnable silver screen empires of Jack Warner, Jesse L. Lasky, and William Fox were in jeopardy.
While all struggled, the crash rattled Paramount Pictures in particular. A trio of expensive flops (Lili, Catch-22, and The Molly Maguire) sunk the once mighty studio to the bottom rung of Hollywood. By some estimates Paramount was now the 9th most profitable studio.
To avoid ruin, Paramount sold stake in their company to media conglomerate Gulf & Western. Their fate rested in the hands of Austrian-American industrialist Charlie Bluhdorn, a man with little experience or interest in movies. Paramount made up only 5% of Gulf & Western’s holdings and early rumors were Bluhdorn would sell the studio lots for scraps. But Bluhdorn saw promise in the floundering studio, and he hired Robert Evans to revive it.
Industry insiders found Evans an odd man for the job. The 6’4 former actor had little experience running a studio. His most notable credit was a middling role in 1957’s The Sun Also Rises. Evans also enjoyed a scandalous reputation around town, more known for his love of cocaine and starlets than his ability to peddle pictures.
But this talk did not dissuade Evans. He wanted to show the Hollywood establishment he was more than an untried pretty boy. Out the gate he scored two quick wins with 1966’s Rosemary’s Baby and 1970’s Love Story. But Evans hungered for a mega hit, one that would make him a top tier producer and stamp his name in Hollywood history. In 1968 that hit walked into his office in the hands of a plump cigar loving Sicilian.
Mario Puzo: The Reluctant Best Seller
“If you don’t give me an advance, they’re going to break my arm” wailed Mario Puzo. The 45-year-old author faced a dire financial situation. His previous two books had failed. He owed money to creditors, bookies, and family members. His last hope to make good on his debts and save his career as a writer laid in the wrinkled envelope on Robert Evan’s desk.
Puzo would have preferred not to be in Evan’s office. And he would have preferred not to have written the manuscript sitting between him and the producer. Puzo, like many writers, considered himself an artist. An author of serious fiction; not commercial pulp. As he states:
“I had been a true believer in art. I didn’t believe in religion or love or women or men, I didn’t believe in society or philosophy. But I believed in art.”
In 1955, Puzo thought his artistic dreams had come true. He’d published his first novel, The Dark Arena, and critics praised both the book and its author. However, the rough realities of publishing soon kicked in. Puzo earned only $3,500 for his work.
Puzo’s second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, was 10 years in the making. He felt it was his best work yet, and critics agreed. The New York Times called it “a small classic”. Unfortunately, this “small classic” only brought in $3,000; less than its predecessor.
At age 45, Puzo grew tired of life as a struggling artist. He had debts to pay and a wife and two children to feed. Another overlooked critical darling would not keep the lights on. For his third novel, he would cast aside his artistic ambitions and write a bestseller. It was in the seeds of this desperation that The Godfather was born.
Puzo admits to writing The Godfather entirely through research. Coming of age in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, he’d heard stories of the Mafia; whispers of a shady crime syndicate that lurked in the shadows of his neighborhood. But Puzo had never met a gangster in person. He pieced together the story and its characters using old crime reports and tips from local bookies.
After a few months of writing and research, Puzo had a 100 page manuscript for the book. Desperate for money up front, he showed the work to his publisher. They denied him an advance, weary of throwing money at another of the author’s duds. So Puzo turned to Robert Evans.
By all accounts neither Puzo nor his manuscript impressed Evans. Still, he paid 12,500 dollars for the film rights; a low-ball offer even for the struggling Paramount. Evans didn’t really care if he received a screenplay, and he certainly didn’t plan to do anything with a script if he got one. The money was more a way to get the desperate Puzo out of his office than a shrewd business maneuver.
But fortune changed in 1969, when the wrinkled manuscript that Puzo didn’t want to write and Evans didn’t want to adapt turned into a golden ticket for both men.
Putting The “Spaghetti On Screen”
Upon its release, The Godfather stormed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It occupied the number 1 spot for 21 weeks and stayed on the list for 67 weeks total. In its first two years of publication, the book sold a combined 9 million copies. The novel was now a smash hit Evans could no longer ignore.
In 1970, Paramount green-lit the Godfather and brought in Albert Ruddy to produce. Armed with the rights to a bestseller, Ruddy and Evans began the search for a director. They offered the project to the top names in Hollywood. Sergio Leone of The Good The Bad And the Ugly. Peter Bogdanovich of The Last Picture Show. Peter Yates of Bullit. Arthur Penn of Bonnie & Clyde. One by one they all turned the film down.
12 Directors in a row said “no” to The Godfather. While the book’s success was undeniable, no one would touch the film.
This may seem strange in a time when Goodfellas, Scarface, and The Sopranos are a part of our collective pop culture, but in 1970 Gangster films were bad for business. Prior to The Godfather, most crime flicks were either on-the-nose morality tales that preached “crime never pays”, or cheesy B-movies featuring offensive caricatures of Italian Americans.
Paramount themselves bear some blame. Two years prior, they had released a universally panned gangster pic called The Brotherhood. On the surface, the 1968 flop shared some similarities with The Godfather. It was a tale of family, power, and betrayal in the Italian Mafia. Only the film didn’t feature any Italians. Jewish-born actors and writers made up most of the cast and crew, with Kirk Douglas starring in the lead role.
Evans would not make the same mistake with The Godfather. His picture would look and feel Italian. He wanted the audience to “smell the spaghetti on screen.” So Paramount Vice President Peter Bart brought up the name Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola was not a big time director like Arthur Penn or Sergio Leone, but he had two things going for him: he was cheap and Italian. The middle child of a Napolitano family, Coppola was someone who could give the film an authentic Italian feel. He was also young and inexperienced. Precisely the type of impressionable character the studio believed they could bend to their will. With that in mind, they called the young director in for an interview.
Bart and Evans were aghast. It appeared this 31-year-old “no-name” director would join the long list of people to turn down the movie. The Godfather simply didn’t interest Coppola. It seemed like a drudging studio production he preferred to avoid. In another world, this would have been the end of the story. But something loomed over Coppola’s decision. A dream on the verge of collapse called Zoetrope Studios.
At the age of 25 Francis Ford Coppola became a borderline folk hero for young film-makers. As a UCLA student, he turned his senior thesis into a feature film — a feat previously unheard of. Coppola found himself the de facto leader of a generation of “film brats”. A group of filmmakers who cut their teeth in the halls of Universities like USC and NYU.
Coppola’s early success caught the eye of Warner Brother. They hired him to direct their upcoming musical Finian’s Rainbow. The experience disenchanted the young Coppola. He deplored the meddling studio heads and phony back-lot production of the film.
However, the project introduced him to a shy intern by the name of George Lucas. In Lucas, Coppola found a kindred spirit. Someone who envisioned a future outside the studio system. One run by filmmakers instead of financiers. One that favored personal projects rather than bloated Hollywood pictures. One where the director was king.
While Finian’s Rainbow flopped, Coppola leveraged his work with Warner Brothers to get a $300,000 loan. He used the money to start an independent production company called Zoetrope Studios. Coppola saw the company as a place for ambitious young film-makers. A safe-haven where they could make movies outside the grip of Hollywood. As George Lucas explains.
“Zoetrope was a break away from Hollywood. It was a way of saying, ‘We don’t want to be part of the Establishment, we don’t want to make their kind of movies, we want to do something completely different.”
Coppola’s visionary rhetoric and maverick spirit inspired the staff, but it made running the business difficult. Within a few months, Warner Brothers halted funding and demanded their money back. The company now found themselves $300,000 in debt and unable to make payroll. It was at this point when Paramount offered Coppola The Godfather.
Even with Zoetrope close to bankruptcy, Coppola cringed at the offer. He saw himself as an outsider, not a studio puppet. The thought of teaming up with Evans and Paramount gave him flashbacks to Finian’s Rainbow. But saying no to the Godfather was saying no to Zoetrope. His company would not survive without the money. After weeks of back-and-forth Coppola, ceded to Paramount and agreed to direct the picture.
With Coppola on board, the Godfather had its director. But the struggle for the film was just beginning. Paramount and Coppola were about to embark on a prolonged battle. One that Robert Evans described as ”more volatile than the war the Corleone family fought on screen.”
Coppola Draws First Blood
“Marlon Brando will never appear in this picture!” Paramount head Charlie Bluhdorn turned apoplectic at the mere suggestion of Marlon Brando for the role of Vito Corleone. Hollywood had branded the once great actor as trouble, and Bluhdorn didn’t want him near the film.
Coppola didn’t flinch. The director may have been “green” by Hollywood standards, but he possessed the charisma to go toe to toe with the studio. And this was not his first time facing off with Paramount executives. So far he was undefeated.
The first tussle involved the budget and setting of the film. With the failure of The Brotherhood fresh in mind, Ruddy and Evans hesitated to dump money into The Godfather. They set a modest budget for the film and proposed a series of cost-cutting measures. The most controversial of which was a plan to ditch the novel’s 1940s setting and shoot the movie in Kansas City rather than New York.
Coppola would have none of it. He demanded a bigger budget to shoot on location. While initially sour to the source material, Coppola grew to respect Puzo’s novel. He saw the story as an operatic tale of family and succession, a parable for the promise and plight of the American Dream. In his view, Paramount was trying to squeeze an epic story into a “low budget quickie”.
The young director’s demands rankled the Paramount team. The kid could “hardly get a cartoon made in town” and he was already asking for more money. But Coppola had a youthful guile that affected even the executives at Paramount. As Lucas put it: “He could sell ice to an Eskimo”. Eventually the studio caved in and gave him the money to shoot a period piece in New York.
With a budget in place, Coppola and Paramount feuded over casting. In particular, over who would play the two leads: Michael and Vito Corleone. For the role of Michael, Coppola favored Al Pacino: an up and comer from New York’s theatre scene. He thought Pacino’s raw talent and offbeat Sicilian looks could bring the character to life.
Paramount contested Coppola’s choice. The Godfather would be Pacino’s second role on screen, and they doubted he could carry the picture. The actor’s short, shaggy appearance did him no favors.
Robert Evans in particular detested Pacino. He referred to him as “the little dwarf”, “a runt”, “barely 5’5 in heels”. If he’d had his way, they would cast a towering star like Robert Redford. But again, Coppola wouldn’t take no for an answer. Al Pacino would go on to play Michael Corleone.
It was Mario Puzo who first suggested Marlon Brando for the role of Vito Corleone. Coppola immediately jumped on board. For artists of their generation, Brando was THE leading man. Iconic roles like A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront made him one of the most sought after stars of the 1950s.
But by 1970, the once-legendary actor’s stock had sunk to a low point. He was overweight, over the hill, and hadn’t made a hit in over a decade. Worse yet, he was a nightmare to work with. His diva antics on the set of Mutiny On The Bounty caused the picture to go millions of dollars over budget. While Paramount agreed to Pacino, they were firm with their stance: “anybody but Brando.”
But Coppola had a plan. One that involved tricking both Brando and Paramount. He believed he could sway the studio if they saw footage of the actor in character. So he phoned Brando and told him to shoot a screen test for the makeup department. Coppola then set up a meeting to show the studio an audition tape from an “unknown actor”. The footage on that tape is now etched in the film’s mythology.
The video begins with Brando approaching the camera in a Kimono, his long blond hair slicked back with shoe polish. Before reciting a line, he crams a wad of tissue paper in his mouth, producing the character’s iconic grumble. Over the next two minutes Marlon Brando would give a virtuoso performance, reminding everyone in the room why audiences considered him the best actor of his generation. By the end of the tape, even the grouchy Charlie Bluhdorn agreed Brando deserved the part.
With Brando on board, Coppola scored a hat trick of victories with the budget, location, and cast. But his bullheaded antics made him an unpopular presence. This silent animosity would follow him on set.
Survival On Set
Several months into the shoot, word spread that Coppola “wasn’t up for the job”. In an act of betrayal fitting of The Godfather, insiders outed editor Aram Avakian as the source of the rumor. Coppola’s long-time friend and collaborator had aspirations to direct the movie and wished to see him fired. While Avakian, not Coppola, would lose their job, the attempted coup made it clear: the director was surrounded by enemies.
This didn’t come as a surprise. From the start of production in March 1971, Coppola’s work style made him a target for members of the crew. Some accused him of being absent-minded and indecisive. Others criticized his plodding pace on set; often writing and re-writing scenes between takes.
Evans and the Paramount staff also showed their disapproval. Within a few weeks of filming they were already behind schedule, and the studio had yet to see any footage. When Coppola finally sent in dallies from the set, Evans and Ruddy had no kind words to say. They criticized everything from the grainy footage, Brando’s mumble, to the fact there was too much talking and not enough action.
In particular, they complained about the dark lighting. The lighting was, of course, an artistic choice. Coppola and Cinematographer Gordon Willis preferred a drab look on screen; with Willis’ overhead lighting painting the characters’ faces in shadow and light. Critics and Cinematographers would later praise this choice, but Paramount hated it.
After seeing the footage, executives debated what to do with Coppola. Some wanted a hired hand on set to monitor him. Some wanted to bring in a “violence coach” to help him shoot a more exciting movie. Some simply wanted him gone. There were rumors Paramount had On The Waterfront’s Elia Kazan ready in the wings to direct.
While Coppola kept his job, he went through production convinced Paramount would fire him at any moment. The only time he felt secure was after he showed the studio the Sollozzo and McClusky murder scene, one of the most iconic (and violent) parts of the movie.
As filming wrapped, Coppola and Evans fought a final battle in the editing room; one in which both men hailed themselves the victor. Coppola claims his preferred cut of The Godfather was always the 3 hour theatrical version we know and love. Evans reportedly told him the studio would never accept a three-hour movie, and warned that “if it was over two hours and fifteen minutes, he would yank the film to L.A. and cut it there.”
Evans disputes this. Until his death in 2019, he took responsibility for the 3 hour theatrical release. He insists he never pressured Coppola, and says he fought both the studio and the director for the longer cut. Whose account was more accurate? We’ll never know. What we know is Coppola left the encounter jaded and exhausted. Until its release, he thought the film he championed for two years would end up a failure.
The Success Few Saw Coming
Despite every obstacle, The Godfather triumphed from the moment it opened. During its first theatrical run, it made a record-setting 86 million dollars. Six months later, it sat alone atop the all-time Box Office list; replacing Gone With The Wind which held the top spot for over three decades.
The film also received unanimous critical acclaim both during and after its release. In 1973, The Godfather earned 11 Academy Award nominations, and went home with three wins for Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Picture. It currently sits at number 2 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest movies of all time.
In the following decade, almost everyone involved reaped the benefits of its success. His depiction of Michael Corleone catapulted Al Pacino from “runty” unknown stage performer to Hollywood A-lister. Pacino would become one of the most sought after leading men of his generation.
The Godfather saved Marlon Brando’s career. His role as Vito Corleone not only earned an Oscar, but allowed him to momentarily cast off the title of “Hollywood Pariah”. In the 1970s he enjoyed a renaissance with lauded roles in Last Tango In Paris and Apocalypse Now.
Paramount Pictures soon reclaimed their spot at the top of the industry pecking order. Robert Evans, the once maligned producer, was now part of the Hollywood establishment. Evans and Paramount enjoyed a decade-long hot streak that saw the release of classics like Chinatown, Saturday Night Fever, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
And of course there’s Francis Ford Coppola: the film’s staunch champion and perhaps the hero of this story. The Godfather was the first in a four movie run many consider the best in cinema history (The Godfather Parts I & II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now). While Zoetrope would continue to struggle, its scruffy founder is considered one of the best directors of all time.
There is a proverb that “success has many authors, failure none.” These words ring especially true for The Godfather. There are hundreds of people on and off the screen who played a role in making the film. Thousands of decisions made and unmade that created the work of art we consider a classic.
With a single wrong move, this cinematic house of cards could have come tumbling down. What if Coppola stuck to his guns and turned down the job? What if Paramount set the story in Kansas City? What if Evans got his way and Al Pacino and Marlon Brando weren’t cast? If just one of these “what ifs” were a reality, The Godfather may well have been a forgettable flop rather than the beloved movie it is today.
This makes The Godfather, and any artistic achievement, even more astounding. It reminds us that while success seems inevitable in hindsight, in the murky present it is anything but. We apply labels like “masterpiece” and “classic” looking backwards. During the act of creation, there is always uncertainty.
This may dishearten those aspiring to produce something great of their own: an unpleasant reminder of the dubious, messy work that is the creative process. But it should also make us grateful for the rare circumstances when bets pay off, art and commerce work hand in hand, and something wonderful is created.
The Godfather is as good an example of this as any. We can choose to dissect it, debate it, dole out praise to who or what is responsible. Or we can choose to be thankful the pieces aligned, and by some miraculous ruse what could have been many things, turned into something incredible.