Francis Ford coppola has won nearly every award in the book, with multiple Oscars and prizes from guilds, critics groups and festivals. And on April 29, he will add one more kudo to that list: Turner Classic Movies will honor him with a hand and footprint ceremony at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theater.
But Coppola’s industry start was both auspicious and far from auteur.
On May 10, 1962, Coppola won the top prize in UCLA’s Samuel Goldwyn Foundation Creative Writing Contest. It netted him $2,000 plus a front-page story in Variety. As the filmmaker told Variety recently, “Two thousand was a vast sum for someone who didn’t have more than a hundred dollars.”
He started work with king of the low-budget pics Roger Corman, writing and directing the 1963 horror pic “Dementia 13” on a budget of $40,000 and a shooting schedule of nine days. Within a decade, he became one of the most influential filmmakers of post-war Hollywood, via such classics as “The Godfather,” “The Godfather: Part II,” “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now.”
It’s a great Hollywood success story. But before that UCLA script prize, Coppola was an insecure teenager with no confidence in his talent.
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“When I was maybe 15 or 16 I ran away from military school and I enrolled myself in Great Neck High School, and I took a wonderful creative writing class with a professional writer and teacher named Jack Field,” says Coppola.
“I wanted so much to participate and do well. So to be more impressive I submitted some of my older brother’s writing because it was so much better than mine. My older brother (the late author and American Zoetrope executive August Coppola) was my idol. Whatever he wanted to do, I wanted to do — but slightly different. When he said he wanted to be a novelist, I said, ‘Well, I’ll be a playwright.’ I always fantasized we’d be like Aldous Huxley and Julian Huxley, or Henry James and William James. If you can believe the audacity of this, I submitted my brother’s master’s thesis on Ernest Hemingway in that writing class. So that made quite a stir.”
By his freshman year at Hofstra University, Coppola, who counts Tennessee Williams and Oscar Wilde among his literary heroes, was well on his way to establishing his own creative voice, publishing his first short story in the school’s literary magazine.
“It was a five-page story of broken ideals and dreams,” says Coppola. “It was about a kid who used to sneak into a garden of this girl — a princess — and she was so beautiful and so perfect and at the end he was disillusioned with her.”
But his earlier deception always haunted Coppola. “About 10 years ago I was in correspondence with Jack Fields, who is so proud of me because of my success with ‘The Godfather.’ I confessed to him that some of the stuff I had submitted was my brother’s, thinking that he would say, ‘Oh, you were just insecure.’ But he was very pissed off. I think I disillusioned him because I was one of his star pupils.
“I went on to have, in his eyes, a great success with the movies I made, and I thought that he would just chuckle that I submitted my brother’s writing because I was afraid to submit my own. But he didn’t take it lightly. To this day he’s sort of disappointed in me.”
Clearly, Fields is the only one who is.