I once heard a radio broadcast about a lady who watches The Godfather every single day. Impressive as that may sound, it probably doesn’t even count among the top hundred acts of cinematic faith performed in the name of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 Mario Puzo adaptation, featuring Marlon Brando. Though I myself more often go to the well of Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam-themed Joseph Conrad adaptation, featuring Marlon Brando, I understand why Godfather fans obsess. Roger Ebert, of course, understands even better. His “Great Movies” piece on the picture describes it as “a brilliant conjuring act, inviting us to consider the Mafia entirely on its own terms,” with a “subtly constructed” script that “follows no formulas except for the classic structure in which power passes between the generations,” populated by “remarkable faces” and captured with “rich, atmospheric, expressive” cinematography (by Gordon Willis), “celebrated for its darkness.” These qualities all do their part to make us hold up The Godfather as a paragon of American cinema, but lovers of American cinema tend to value one craft above all: acting. How, then, did Coppola and his collaborators arrange for such unforgettable performances?
These clips about the casting of The Godfather shed light on the process. Many of us grew familiar with what Ebert calls Brando’s “justly famous and often imitated” portrayal of Don Vito Corleone through cultural osmosis alone, before we’d ever seen the movie. At the top of the post, you can hear Coppola and James Caan talk about what a hard time studio executives had accepting Brando in the first place. ”Every time [Coppola] mentioned Brando’s name,” Caan remembers, “one of the executives said, ‘If you mention his name again, you’re out!’” Coppola quotes the president of Paramount Pictures as simply declaring that “Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture,” but when the filmmaker pressed them, they offered a deal: “If he does a screen test and puts up a bond guaranteeing that none of his shenanigans will cause a delay, you can consider him.” It was in this screen test that Brando came up with the iconic bulldog-like look and manner of the all-powerful Sicilian paterfamilias. But that alone didn’t guarantee the film’s ascent into greatness; other cast members, like Caan and Al Pacino, also had to fall into place. Neither were yet box office-friendly stars, nor was Robert de Niro, who also auditioned. In the end, it all came together. Rotten Tomatoes summed up the critical consensus as follows: “The Godfather gets everything right.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.