12 Things We Learned About The Godfather

From Francis Ford Coppola himself.

Francis Ford Coppola (Courtesy of Regan Arts)

Thirteen hundred Godfather fans got an opportunity to see Francis Ford Coppola live on Tuesday night. It was the proverbial offer they couldn’t refuse. The Conversation director and six-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter, director and producer (Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) made a rare appearance as part of The Commonwealth Club’s Good Lit series to plug his new book The Godfather Notebook and chat about the 1972 crime drama that would go on to define his career, spark two sequels, and revitalize the gangster genre for decades to come.

While many of the fans present could rattle off trivia or iconic lines from The Godfather, such as “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” there was still much to learn about the film and the director, himself. Here are some of the insights that Coppola shared in conversation with retired Mythbusters cohost Adam Savage.

1. Coppola didn’t like Mario Puzo’s The Godfather novel. 

“I liked parts of the book. If any of you read The Godfather book, there was a whole section — a third of it if not more — which was about a character named Lucy Mancini, who appeared briefly in the movie. She has certain anatomical problems and finds a surgeon who can correct them, and they fall in love. It’s like a third of the book. It was absurd, like an Irving Wallace book.”

2. The film script was originally set in a very different time and place.

“The script they had was not very good. It was set in the ’70s with hippies walking around, and it was to be shot in St. Louis.”

3. When Coppola expressed doubts about the project, his pal George Lucas convinced him to do it.

“We all moved to San Francisco with the dream of having an independent studio of filmmakers. And George said, ‘Francis, you’ve got to do this movie. We’ve got no money, and the sheriff’s going to chain the door on American Zoetrope. We haven’t paid the rent in two weeks. And you’re the only one who can make some money so we can get through this.’ So I realized he was right.”

4. Coppola was paid $125,000 and six percent of the net.

“But I said that seven is my lucky number, so please give me seven percent. They said they would, but never did.”

5. Coppola had wanted Al Pacino to play Michael Corleone from the start, but Paramount Studios had different ideas.

“I had already heard about Al Pacino. He was in an Israel Horovitz play in New York, The Indian Wants the Bronx. He wasn’t movie-star handsome, but he had something that really worked. After meeting him, every time I read The Godfather and they described Michael Corleone, I always saw his face. 

“When you see someone in your mind, it’s very hard when the studio says they want Ryan O’Neal, which is what they said. He had just had a big hit with them called Love Story. Or they wanted Robert Redford. But they absolutely rejected Al Pacino. I realized later that Bob Evans, who was the head of production and was a tall, good-looking guy, wanted a guy that looked like himself. Then they saw Pacino in Panic in Needle Park and agreed.”

6. Convincing the studio to take Brando for the Godfather role was also difficult.

“Mario had always wanted Brando, too, and even before I suggested it, they said, ‘Absolutely not.’ They said he was box-office poison and a lot of trouble, which he was, because no one went to see his last film. The names I heard floated were Danny Thomas, Ernest Borgnine, and they even had the idea of Carlo Ponti, who was an Italian producer.  We wanted Brando, but there was an absolute stonewall. The president even said that he forbids me from discussing it further. They already turned down Pacino, and they kept wanting to do more screen tests.

“Finally, they said, ‘We give you three conditions: 1. If he does a screen test. 2. If he’ll do it for free. 3. He has to put up a million-dollar bond to guarantee that there’ll be no shenanigans.’ So I said, ‘I accept.'”

7. Marlon Brando’s screen test blew everyone away.

“I wanted to do a little improvising with Brando for the screen test. We walked into his home in L.A. and I brought some Italian mortadella and provolone and Italian cigars. Then the door opens and out walks this spectacular man with flowing blond hair in a Japanese kimono. He caught what was going on, and he came out and rolled his blond hair into a bun and got some shoe polish, and I told my ninjas to start shooting, and then he put on a shirt and started folding his lapel, because he said those guys always fold their lapels. Then he said, ‘You should look like a bulldog,’ so he’s stuffing his face with tissues. In the story he got shot, so maybe he should talk like this [imitates raspy voice] because he got shot. And he starts sitting there and using all these props to arrive at this Italianism. Then the phone rings and he picks it up in character. I couldn’t believe the transformation.

“I took the footage to New York to the Gulf + Western Building and showed the footage to the owner of Paramount. First he sees Marlon with the long hair coming out of the door, and he says, ‘No, no’ in his Viennese accent. Then he says, ‘That’s incredible.’ That was it.”

8. Coppola might have been overthrown by a palace coup.  

“Every week the rumor was that I was gonna be fired. I found out that the editor wanted to be made the director and kept complaining about the footage. And he had asked me to hire some of his friends as assistant directors, so there was an active group of them in the company that was rooting to fire me. I knew who the 13 or 14 conspirators were, so I fired them all.”

9. Gangsters don’t brown; they fry.

“I could cook a little bit, so I had one of the characters come in to talk about cooking. I thought it’d be good for the movie to have a recipe. So I have the character saying, ‘This is how you brown the sausage and add a little sugar.’ And the note from Mario Puzo was, ‘Gangsters don’t brown, they fry.’ Mario was always there making it better.”

10. Michael Corleone’s baby boy who gets baptized at the end of The Godfather is not a boy at all.

“By the way, that baby was my daughter Sofia. She came into life baptized as a boy.”

11. There was originally no intention of doing a second film.

When I got out of The Godfather, I was out. I wanted nothing more to do with it and just hated the experience. I was made to feel so crummy. But the owner of Paramount said, ‘Francis, you’ve got the formula of Coca-Cola.’ He said, ‘You can have anything you want.’  So I said, ‘I want three things. I want a million dollars. I want Bob Evans to have nothing to do with this, because my experience under his thumb was the most terrible thing, and the third condition is that I want to call it The Godfather Part II.  That was the only thing they objected to, because they thought people will think it’s the second half of the movie. But I said, ‘No, that’s what it’s called.’ It’s so ironic, though, because I was the inspiration for Rocky V.

12. The Godfather may be your favorite film, but it’s not Coppola’s.

“It’s so hard to separate whether the experience was good for you personally or not, and it was not a good experience for me. Also, it was so successful when it finally dug in that my mother and father went into the Godfather industry, writing The Godfather album, and everyone around me gets Godfather crazy. When I walk into places, I get [Coppola hums the ‘Love Theme from the Godfather’].”
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