Ranking second on the AFI’s list of 100 greatest American movies of all time, The Godfather is a flat-out masterpiece — a compelling story brought to life with unforgettable performances.
It’s impossible to imagine the saga of the Corleone family with anyone but Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and, of course, Marlon Brando.
But if the big-wigs at Paramount had their way, we might be watching Laurence Olivier meeting with the Five Families, Burt Reynolds getting gunned down at an abandoned Long Island Parkway toll plaza, and Robert Redford hiking through the Sicilian countryside.
In fact, the casting of the 1972 film was a battle. “The cast was always up in the air and there was a lot of controversies,” recalled director Francis Coppola at a cast reunion at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. Reportedly, Paramount Pictures would spend over $400,000 on screen tests. But in the end, the actors and actresses Coppola wanted were hired. Noted James Caan (Sonny Corleone in the movie) at the Tribeca event: “Francis knew who had it and who didn’t.”
Sure, Marlon Brando seems like a no-brainer for the role of Don Vito Corleone. But at the time, Paramount execs weren’t buying it. For one thing, they thought the 47-year-old actor was unreliable.
What’s more, Brando was coming off a string of box office stinkers. (1969’s Burn! anyone?) In fact, when Coppola brought up Brando’s name at a meeting, Paramount president Stanley Jaffe hit the roof, telling him, “Francis, as the president of Paramount Pictures, I must tell you now that under no circumstances will Marlon Brando appear in The Godfather. And, as president, I no longer wish to waste the company’s time even discussing it.” Anthony Quinn, George C. Scott, Laurence Olivier, and Ernest Borgnine were just a few of the names being tossed around.
Coppola finally got Paramount execs to agree on Brando…on one (make that three) conditions: the actor work for a percentage of the film’s profits (rather than getting a salary), he promise to behave himself, and he agree to a screen test. Yeah, about that last bit… Coppola would end up meeting Brando at his home for a kind of “improvisation,” as he called it. Brando slicked back his hair, stuffed paper into his cheeks, and became the legendary Don Corleone. Coppola would call the transformation “miraculous.”
Pretty much no one, other than Coppola, wanted Al Pacino, a theater actor with just two big-screen roles to his credit, to play the pivotal role of Michael Corleone. The studio was set on a star (Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman were among the big names being bandied about).
Paramount executive Robert Evans was keen on Robert Redford, but Coppola couldn’t see the WASP-ish, blonde-haired actor as a member of the Corleone clan. (The ever-crafty Evans suggested that perhaps Redford might simply be taken as Northern Italian.) A conga line of up-and-coming young actors tested for the part, including Martin Sheen, James Caan, and Robert DeNiro.
Poor Pacino was put through the ringer and would recall, “It seemed like I was always testing. I kept testing after I got the part.” Short and pale, he simply wasn’t anyone’s idea of the head of a crime family…except for Coppola’s. “Every time I read [the script], I always saw his face,” said the director. Marcia Lucas, then-wife of director George Lucas, who was tasked with editing the screen tests, may have cinched the deal, telling Coppola that Pacino “undresses you with his eyes.” Coppola agreed and eventually wore down studio execs to get his man.
Rumor has it that Burt Reynolds was one of the actors considered for the part Sonny, the brutish Corleone son with a hair-trigger temper. James Caan would ultimately nab the role, but in the 1994 memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture, studio executive Robert Evans claimed that Coppola originally favored actor Carmine Caridi.
Evans, however, lobbied for Caan because a) he was a “known” actor — thanks to the 1969 movie The Rain People, and b) unlike the towering 6’4” Caridi, Caan (clocking in at 5’9”) was closer in height to the diminutive Pacino. Coppola’s instincts were spot-on. Caan played the part so well that people mistook him for his character. Not only did the Jewish actor win the title of “Italian of the Year” in New York, Caan was turned down by a country club because board members thought was a “made” man.
To play the role of the Corleone’s German-Irish adopted son and family consigliere and fixer (severed horse’s head, anyone?), Coppola tapped Robert Duvall, who had appeared in The Rain People with his off-screen buddy, James Caan.
Originally, the actor auditioned for the role of Sonny, impressing the director with his “unusual” approach. Ultimately, though, Coppola thought he was better suited to the more low-key role.
Diane Keaton might have seemed like a left-of-center choice to play Michael’s WASP girlfriend and wife, Kay. But the actress’s eccentricities — on full display in the 1970 comedy Lovers and Other Strangers — are precisely why Coppola gave her the part.
“She was written as this New England WASP in the book and she was pretty straight,” said Coppola, who figured Keaton would give the character more “texture,” as he put it. Keaton viewed herself as something of an outsider in the movie, but admitted (modestly), “I had a couple of good scenes with Al.”
The casting of Talia Shire, Coppola’s real-life kid sister, as Vito Corleone’s daughter might seems like a case of nepotism. But when Shire asked her brother for an audition, he was actually cool to the idea, because he couldn’t imagine her in the role of Connie — a character he envisioned as an unattractive girl who could only nab a handsome husband because she was wealthy and well-connected. “I thought Tally was so beautiful that anyone would want to marry her,” said Coppola. “It was Bob Evans who championed her.”
Figuring he was on shaky ground with the Paramount powers-that-be, the director decided, “If I’m going to get fired, my sister should at least get the chance.”