Many directors have had an impact on the astral firmament, spawning stars who would affect the course of movies, from John Ford’s use of John Wayne and Elia Kazan’s of Marlon Brando to Martin Scorsese’s employment of Robert De Niro.
But Francis Ford Coppola’s inspirational casting has resulted in watershed pictures that crowded two decades of players onto the A list. In the 1970s, the “Godfather” movies boosted the star courses of De Niro, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and John Cazale.
Nearly a generation later, in a much less spectacular but more influential way, Coppola’s casting for a pair of teen dramas adapted from S.E. Hinton novels — “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish” — introduced or enhanced the careers of Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Nicolas Cage, Mickey Rourke, Vincent Spano, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell and others.
“A lot of people say that casting is 90% of directing,” says Martin Landau, whose certified “comeback role” as Abe the lawyer in Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) won him his first Academy Award nomination. “If you cast a kangaroo, you’re not going to get a camel.
“Francis is adventurous with his casting,” Landau adds. “He saw the talent in Nic Cage. He uses a terrific actor, Frederic Forrest, quite a lot. He has an interesting eye and gets amazing performances out of his casts in unique ways.”
That uniqueness brought Brando his own comeback role that immortalized the adage about offers not being refused and the specter of Sacheen Littlefeather with “The Godfather,” and presented some of Hollywood’s finest actors with roles that can certainly be counted among their most challenging — Gene Hackman in “The Conversation,” Jeff Bridges in “Tucker,” Gary Oldman in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and Martin Sheen, Duvall and others in “Apocalypse Now.”
“I don’t know how he does it,” says Teri Garr, who played in two Coppola-directed films, “The Conversation” and “One From the Heart,” and two of his executive-produced movies, “The Escape Artist” and “The Black Stallion.” “I was dancing on ‘The Sonny and Cher Show’ and doing commercials and got picked to go up to San Francisco for ‘The Conversation.’
“Here I thought I was doing this movie about surveillance, and Francis, at the first cast reading, starts talking about his personal vision of the movie as a treatise on Catholicism and how priests listen in, and, I thought, OK.
“But he really taught me the meaning of creativity — his method was to go exhaust all possibilities and make a big mess, then edit it down to the essence later.”
Diane Lane, who has played in four Coppola-directed pictures — “The Outsiders,” “Rumble Fish,” “The Cotton Club” and “Jack” — concurs that the director’s “love of the possibilities” is the key to his creative sensibility.
“He has a sense about him of being an explorer or discoverer, and you want to come through with something that he’ll find inspired,” Lane says. “You know when you’re pleasing him and you know you’re finding the answer together. When he smiles at you, it’s like the sun warming you.”
Coppola’s eclectic taste came to play in other casting moments by choosing noir icon Sterling Hayden to smash Pacino’s jaw in “The Godfather,” placing gutter balladeer Tom Waits behind a greasy spoon counter in “Rumble Fish” and, in “The Godfather Part II,” taking Lee Strasberg out the classroom and into the role of a gangland kingpin, and making movie dealmaker Roger Corman a senator.
“I was off all the lists and doing a TV series in Britain,” Landau says. “I hadn’t been offered anything like ‘Tucker’ in quite a great while. It sure did change things for me” — the actor went on to earn another supporting nomination for “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and an Oscar win for “Ed Wood.”
The director’s on-set methods have been “like being in a laboratory,” Hackman once said. De Niro once remarked that “trusting Francis Coppola is very easy.” To actors, making a Coppola movie is like being part of a growing organism all its own — the most storied case being “Apocalypse Now,” on which Martin Sheen had a heart attack and for which a very young Laurence Fishburne spent two birthdays in the Philippines.
“A Francis picture is a nice combination of give and take,” says Joe Mantegna, who played the volatile Joey Zaza in “The Godfather Part III.” “We were doing a scene in Little Italy where I meet three reporters and start commenting on important Italians. I did some ad-libbing, talking about Mariuchi, who’s Italian, having really invented the telephone.
“And I said, ‘It’s Don Ameche who many people think invented the telephone.’ Don Ameche, who had played in ‘The Story of Alexander Graham Bell’ was a friend of mine from having done ‘Things Change.’
“Coppola laughed and said, ‘Keep that in there.’ Coppola, like Woody Allen or David Mamet, is open for your interpretation, open for anything that will make the film better.”
Adds Landau of his experience on “Tucker”: “(Coppola) said, ‘I already cast Jeff Bridges in “Tucker.’ Jeff and I are the same height and Francis said, ‘I see Abe a little shorter and a little older.’ So every day in rehearsal, I got a little older and a little shorter.”
Being on a Coppola set “was one of the milestones, working for one of the giants, like playing for the Yankees,” Mantegna says. “Coppola has a bigger-than-life bearing and in his work is a touch of Italian opera. He talks about the work with such zest — he’s operatic — and others pitch in and emulate him.”
Garr, who wisecracks, “Is he a billion-dollar director because he owes a billion dollars, or because his pictures have made a billion?,” remembers the day the money sources dried up on the multimillion-dollar sets of “One From the Heart”:
“Francis gathered the actors and the crew together at lunch and said, ‘We have run out of money. We’re asking for everyone to work even though we’re holding off on the paychecks.’ Everybody loved Francis so much we decided to hang in there. Then he said, ‘OK, back to work — time is money.’ I turned to another actress and said, ‘No. Time is just time now.’ But Francis engenders loyalty. I’d play any part for him.”
The Coppola touch often brings more than excellent filmmaking and good roles.
“Because Francis cast me, it changed my life,” Garr says. “Bobby Duvall was in ‘The Conversation,’ and introduced me to his agent, who became my agent, who then set me up from there to do ‘Young Frankenstein.’ ”
Lane remembers: “I used all my growing years and entire adolescence working. I told him after ‘Cotton Club’ that I was tired. I wanted to take my football and go home for a season. He knew that I needed it and he said, ‘Go!’ So I did. I always responded to that fatherly thing in him, ever since ‘Rumble Fish,’ in which his daughter, Sofia, played my little sister.”
Coppola films have that family feel, and not just for families trafficking in imported olive oil, hearty red table wine and cement overshoes.
“We were all sitting in this church in Little Italy about to do the scene in ‘Godfather III,’ where Al gets this award from the Catholic Church,” Mantegna remembers. “Sofia was standing up there, too, and Francis says, ‘You know, this is interesting for me — 19 years ago, Al was up there holding Sofia for the baptism scene in “Godfather I.” He was touched by that.”