Like most people, I hate being proved wrong — especially on national television.
Here’s the back story: For its thoughtful 40th-anniversary retrospective on “The Godfather,” to be broadcast July 24, the History channel mobilized a formidible array of academics, social commentators and even a few Mafia hit men to analyze the impact of this iconic movie. Their conclusion was that the movie was to become a favorite of several totalitarian rulers around the world, emerging as a sort of textbook for tyrants. Further, more than any other film of its generation, “The Godfather” changed society’s view of Italian-Americans, the mob and family obligations in general. Leaders of the Mafia came to view the film as a source of self-esteem.
So why did that prove me wrong?
When Paramount (where I was production VP) was prepping the movie in 1970 I was surprised and irritated as several of the world’s top filmmakers turned down offers to direct the film. The reason they gave was that, upon reading Mario Puzo’s novel, they were fearful that the film version would glamorize the mob and turn criminals into folk heroes.
I felt that these filmmakers were mistaken — they were letting their social consciences intrude upon their artistic decisions.
I was thus gratified when Francis Ford Coppola, who was always my first choice (and that of my boss, Bob Evans), proved willing to take it on.
Of course Coppola, too, was resistant. As a middle-class Italian kid from an artistic background, Coppola did not want to get into the business of making gangster movies. He saw himself directing small “personal films” at his San Francisco studio.
But Coppola was also broke and needed a job, as his friend George Lucas and I often reminded him.
History’s two-hour doc, titled “The Godfather Legacy,” relates how the movie that no one wanted to make ultimately emerged as “one of the greatest movies ever made” (the doc was produced by Kevin Burns for Prometheus Entertainment with Susan Leventhal serving as executive producer for the History channel). In making their case, the producers not only interviewed a long list of academics but also Coppola, Al Pacino, James Caan and Talia Shire (and me).
The fact that “The Godfather” did indeed create its remarkable legacy is a reflection not only of the film’s artistic merits but also of the nature of the times. Movies had become the center of the conversation in the 1970s, and the public’s taste was changing radically. Society’s sensibilities had been rubbed raw by Vietnam, political assassinations and racial unrest, all of which altered the dynamic of our pop culture.
Looking back from the perspective of four decades I, too, misjudged the potential of the film as it stumbled toward fruition. The pre-production of the project was steeped in controversy. Paramount’s corporate chieftains, awed by the novel’s success, decreed that Marlon Brando was a box office loser. Caan wanted to play Michael and Pacino favored Sonny while the corporate hierarchs disdained them both. A bizarre group fronting for the mob adamantly protested the production, demanding that the word “mafia” be removed from the script. (It was never there to begin with.)
Upon reflection, just about everyone at the time got it wrong, me included. But at the premiere in March 1972 it became instantly clear that Coppola had gotten it right. The legacy was born. And it was kind of nice that a few mafia families felt good about themselves along the way.