A Movie I Can’t Refuse

There are two movies that make me drop whatever I am doing and watch: The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. To kick-off your weekend, here are some facts about The Godfather that you may find of interest.

The Book

Mario Puzo was in dire financial straits when he walked into Paramount Studios in 1968 with fifty pages of a book he was writing about the Mafia. Puzo’s previous books had been praised by critics but ignored by the public. “I was 45 years old, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and loan sharks. It was really time to grow up and sell out.” The studio bought the movie rights for $12,500 and literally put any production prospects on the shelf. The book was published in 1969 and spent 67 weeks on the best seller list.

The Director

The movie began production in 1970 with 31-year-old Francis Ford Coppola as director. Since mob movies had not been box office hits, Paramount did not want to pay a big-name director.  Coppola was reluctant to make a mob movie but saw an opportunity to broaden the theme into a family chronical and a story about capitalism.

The Don

Coppola wanted either Marlon Brando or Lawrence Olivier to play Vito Corleone. Olivier was ill at the time and turned down the role. The studio was adamantly against Brando who was difficult to control and notoriously held up production schedules. The studio considered many actors including Anthony Quinn and Burt Lancaster. They pushed back against Coppola with their favorites for the part:  Ernest Borgnine or comedian Danny Thomas (I am not making this up).

The studio finally agreed to Brando on the conditions that he would receive no money up front and would need to submit to a screen test. Knowing Brando would never do a screen test, Coppola visited the actor and asked if he could film him while they talked about the movie. As Coppola watched through the camera lens, Brando stuffed Kleenex into his mouth and started speaking strangely because Brando envisioned that Don Corleone had once been shot in the throat. Studio executives were elated when they saw Brando’s “screen test”

Upon signing, Brando studied tapes of the 1950s congressional hearings on organized crime to perfect speech patterns and mannerisms of mob leaders. Like Puzo and Copolla, Brando had never had first hand dealings with gangsters. Therefore, Al Lettieri who plays the drug dealing Sollozzo took Brando to visit his New Jersey relatives.


Coppola wanted the relatively unknown Al Pacino to play Michael, but the producers wanted a big name and pushed for Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal (Seriously?). Actors who auditioned for the role include Martin Sheen, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, and Dustin Hoffman.

Coppola threatened to quit if Pacino wasn’t cast and the producers eventually relented. Thus, the five main stars Coppola had always envisioned, Brando, Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall eventually got their proper roles. (The studio wanted Paul Newman or Steve McQueen to play Tom Hagen but Duvall prevailed.)

Johnny Fontaine

Frank Sinatra despised The Godfather because Johnny Fontane’s character drew obvious parallels to Sinatra. One evening, Sinatra encountered Puzo in a nightclub and screamed. “I ought to break your legs,”

Al Martino who plays Johnny Fontaine had his own run-ins with the mob and in 1952 went into hiding in London. Six years later, he negotiated a deal with a friendly Don to come back and resume his singing career. When Martino expressed his desire to play Fontaine, Coppola refused because Martino had no acting experience and Vic Damone had already been cast. Life would imitate art as Martino called on his Don to convince Damone to back out so he could get the part.

Bada Bing

Bronx born and bred, James Caan found it easy to play a gangster however he struggled to develop Sonny’ s character. He solved the problem when he decided he would play Sonny like the brash, uninhibited Don Rickles. This led to him improvising a monumental passage when he says to Michael “You gotta get up close, like this and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit”. Bada-bing would be adopted by real-life mobsters and would serve as the name of Tony Soprano’s strip club.

Speaking of improvisation, rando’s slap of a crying Johnny Fontaine was a spontaneous action to elicit a more inspired performance from Martino.

What’s wrong with a little nepotism?

Coppola cast his sister, Talia Shire as Connie and included many of his family as extras. His parents played patrons in the restaurant where Michael Corleone kills Sollozzo. The baby baptized in The Godfather was Coppola’s infant daughter, Sofia. Nineteen years later she would play Michael and Kay’s daughter in The Godfather: Part III.

If you want to view some of the auditions for the Godfather check out



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Have a great weekend.

Ted Curtin