A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Casting of The Godfather with Coppola, Pacino, De Niro & Caan

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.

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