Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, this mob drama, based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, focuses on the powerful Italian-American crime family of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). When the don’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), reluctantly joins the Mafia, he becomes involved in the inevitable cycle of violence and betrayal. Although Michael tries to maintain a normal relationship with his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), he is drawn deeper into the family business.
In a 1994 interview that can be found on the Academy of Achievement website, Coppola insisted, “The Godfather was a very unappreciated movie when we were making it. They were very unhappy with it. They didn’t like the cast. They didn’t like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired.” When word of this reached Brando, he threatened to walk off the picture, writing in his memoir, “I strongly believe that directors are entitled to independence and freedom to realize their vision, though Francis left the characterizations in our hands and we had to figure out what to do.” In a 2010 television interview with Larry King, Al Pacino also talked about how Brando’s support helped him keep the role of Michael Corleone in the movie—despite the fact director Francis Ford Coppola wanted to sack him. Brando was on his best behavior during filming, buoyed by an impressive cast that included Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Diane Keaton. In the Vanity Fair article “The Godfather Wars” Mark Seals writes, “With the actors, as in the movie, Brando served as the head of the family. He broke the ice by toasting the group with a glass of wine. ‘When we were young, Brando was like the godfather of actors,’ says Robert Duvall. ‘I used to meet with Dustin Hoffman in Cromwell’s Drugstore, and if we mentioned his name once, we mentioned it 25 times in a day.’ Caan adds, ‘The first day we met Brando everybody was in awe.'”
It was the 1971 film The Panic in Needle Park, in which Al Pacino played a heroin addict. That role brought him to the attention of director Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him as Michael Corleone in the blockbuster Mafia film The Godfather (1972). Although several established actors, including Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and little-known Robert De Niro, also tried out for the part, Coppola selected the relatively unknown Pacino, to the dismay of studio executives.
Robert De Niro had a pivotal role in the Francis Ford Coppola film The Godfather Part II (1974), playing the young Vito Corleone and his performance earned him his first Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor. De Niro became the first actor to win an Academy Award speaking mainly a foreign language. In this case, multiple Sicilian dialects, although he delivered a few lines in English.
Coppola cast James Caan as the short-tempered Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Originally, Caan was cast as Michael Corleone (Sonny’s youngest brother); both Coppola and Caan demanded that this role be played by Al Pacino, so Caan could play Sonny instead. Although another actor was already signed to play Sonny, the studio insisted on having Caan, so he remained in the production.
Keaton’s breakthrough role came when she was cast as Kay Adams, the girlfriend and eventual wife of Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather. Coppola noted that he first noticed Keaton in Lovers and Other Strangers, and cast her because of her reputation for eccentricity that he wanted her to bring to the role (Keaton claims that at the time she was commonly referred to as “the kooky actress” of the film industry). Her performance in the film was loosely based on her real life experience of making the film, both of which she has described as being “the woman in a world of men.”
As Coppola later recalled in an interview:
“The Godfather was a very unappreciated movie when we were making it. They were very unhappy with it. They didn’t like the cast. They didn’t like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired. So it was an extremely nightmarish experience. I had two little kids, and the third one was born during that. We lived in a little apartment, and I was basically frightened that they didn’t like it. They had as much as said that, so when it was all over I wasn’t at all confident that it was going to be successful, and that I’d ever get another job“.
Photos: vanityfair, bfi