It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 50 years since Francis Ford Coppola’s”The Godfather” made moviegoers an offer they couldn’t refuse.
The film was a sensation when it debuted in March 24, 1972, setting box office records, revitalizing the career of Marlon Brando, launching the likes of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan onto the A-list, and scoring an Oscar for Best Picture. But things could have gone very differently. Coppola, an up-and-coming director tasked with bringing Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel to the screen, was hardly the studio’s first choice for the task (Paramount production chief Robert Evans preferred Costa-Gavras). And things didn’t improve when cameras started rolling, with Paramount openly flirting with firing the filmmaker at several key points.
Somehow, however, Coppola persevered and delivered a masterpiece. In the five decades since the epic story of a criminal family whose ambitions to achieve the American dream turns into a nightmare first unspooled on screen, “The Godfather” and its sequel “The Godfather Part II” have only grown in the estimation of film lovers and critics. They are widely considered to be among the greater movies ever made. The third film, not so much, but it has its virtues. To commemorate the big anniversary, Paramount Pictures will release The Godfather trilogy on 4K Ultra HD on Tuesday. Variety is marking the half-centennial of the movie by talking with three key actors on the film about their memories of making a movie classic.
JAMES CAAN (SANTINO “SONNY” CORLEONE)
Why has “The Godfather” endured for 50 years?
There’s something that doesn’t get dated and that’s the truth. “The Godfather” has a lot of truth to it, a lot of sincerity to it and a lot of art. The cast was great and we all had a lot of fun making it. Having fun and liking the people you’re working with is a very important ingredient, which I found out after 130 movies or whatever.
You didn’t just audition for Sonny. You also read for the role of Michael?
Yeah, I had a number of auditions for different parts. Mario Puzo wrote a book on the making of “The Godfather” and in it, he said if Caan had tits he’d have played Kay. I wanted to play Sonny, because that’s what Francis wanted. But he called me one night from New York and said, “Jimmy the studio wants you to come here and test.” I said, “test what? You got a Porsche you want me to drive around the block?” And Francis told me they wanted me to play Michael. So I went to New York and read for the role and then they had Al [Pacino] come in and test and he was a little self destructive. They warned him, don’t do that again or you’re fired. But Francis got what he wanted in the end. He always does.
Did you know that Francis was in danger of getting fired by the studio?
Yeah, we all knew. There was a lot of pressure. One day, Francis and [cinematographer] Gordon Willis had a huge fight. Huge. They were throwing furniture and shit like that. I guess you get one of those in every picture. But we wouldn’t have stayed on the film if Francis was thrown off. We would have thrown his replacement out the 30th floor window.
What do you remember about shooting your death scene?
It was very scary. I had 147 squibs on me and there were 5,000 in the tollbooth and the truth is that I only did it because there were girls on the set. I remember [special effects head] A.D. Flowers putting these wires on me, and as he’s putting them on me he’s mumbling to himself about how he never put this many squibs on somebody in his life. I told him, “shut the fuck up A.D., will ya for god’s sake?” Thankfully we only did it once.
You shot that scene in one take?
Fuck yeah. Those squibs would blow a hole in you. Once was enough.
Are you still planning to work with Coppola again on his next movie “Megalopolis”?
Yes. We shoot in September. It’s his last big one and he’s been working on it for years. He told me I was a part of it and I go, “Yes, sir.” I do what Francis tells me.
But you turned down a chance to star in “Apocalypse Now.” Why?
My wife was pregnant with my dream child Scott. Francis called me and said he wanted my to play Willard. He said he’d get me a house in Manila with a maid and fly me to location in the jungle every day on a helicopter. I said, “Francis there’s two things I hate — heights and tsetse flies, so let’s not do this.” I couldn’t be away six months while my wife was pregnant. But I helped write a scene. The letter that Martin Sheen’s character writes to his wife, I helped with that. You didn’t care if the character lived or died without that. You had to make the audience care about Willard.
TALIA SHIRE (CONNIE CORLEONE)
Francis Ford Coppola is your brother. Was it hard to land the part?
It was terrible. Any actor will tell you that auditions are their own difficult thing and I could never do auditions well. I was trying very hard to get over my terror and I was looking to audition and I asked to have one and at first it was rejected. I didn’t know all the political issues that were taking place around Francis’s job. But finally he relented and I don’t know why, but I had a moment of freedom and my reading went well.
Did you sense the studio was gunning for Francis?
Yes. The first thing we filmed was the wedding sequence. It was scheduled for three days and it went on for two weeks. That created incredible tension.
What’s the key to understanding Connie?
Connie is an abused and spoiled person, and that’s a rare combination. Connie changes a lot over the series. By the third film she is toxic with power. She’s trying to conjure up a replacement for her father because she fears her brother Michael is going to go legitimate. She cannot permit that.
Is it true that you came up with the idea that Kay’s miscarriage in the second film is actually an abortion?
Yes, I went to Francis with the idea and he got excited because he recognized that it was more powerful if it was her choice not to have one more child born into a crime family.
Both Connie and Kay have to navigate this male-dominated world. Was that difficult to play?
Please, I was born having to know how to navigate those kind of spaces.
ROBERT DUVALL (TOM HAGEN)
Did you realize while making the movie that “The Godfather” was going to be a classic?
About a third of the way through I realized it was going to be something special. I’ve only sensed that maybe twice on movies I’ve made. There was just an inner feeling that we were going to hit it big. I gained a lot of respect for Francis during the shooting of the movie because he felt like at any moment he could be fired from the studio. He was not necessarily making the film that they wanted to make, but he was compelled to make the film that he wanted to make.
Despite the tension, James Caan said there were a lot of pranks on the set. Is that how you remember it?
Yeah, we had a lot of fun. One day, when Jimmy Caan was shooting a scene with me, we were a little bit late getting back from lunch. So Jimmy grabbed a piece of pita bread and put the hottest pepper he could find in it. The hottest. Francis reached for the sandwich because he loved to eat and bit into it and goes, “you sons of bitches.” Another time Jimmy told Coppola’s mother “how come Pacino has a trailer that’s two feet bigger than your son’s?” She went ballistic. Funny stuff. Jimmy Caan always knew what buttons to push.
What was it like to work with Marlon Brando?
We were all big fans. Back in the day, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and I used to sit in a drug store in New York City once a week and just talk. If we mentioned Brando’s name once, we mentioned it 25 times. In many ways he was like the godfather of actors. We all respected him.
You starred in the first two movies, but you turned down a chance to appear in “The Godfather Part III.” Why?
Money. If you’re going to pay Pacino three or four times what you pay me, no way. You can pay two times what I make, but not three or four.
Do you regret that decision?
Not one bit. Coppola came to my farm in Virginia to convince me to do it, and I was cooking. He always liked my mother’s Maryland crab cake recipe. I wrote it out for him and when he left he forgot it. He kept calling. He was more concerned about getting that crab cake recipe then if I would be in “The Godfather Part III.”
How did the release of the first film impact you?
I had a bit of a career going before that. Some of the guys hit right away, but I knew that eight or ten years after this movie would be my time to achieve a certain fruition.
Why did you think it would take you longer to become a big star?
I’ve always been a late bloomer.
Could a movie like “The Godfather” be made today?
Why not? It’s just about saying action and cut. People revere the past too much.