The Godfather looks back

Cinema still of The Godfather starring Marlon Brando (right) as the ageing godfather.
Cinema still of The Godfather starring Marlon Brando (right) as the ageing godfather.PHOTO: HANDOUT

The 45th anniversary reunion of the mafia films was an emotional outing for the director and cast of the movie and its sequel

NEW YORK • "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" is a line from the 1972 Godfather movie that has stood the test of time for its chilling take-it-or-else menace.

In real life, that was also what the head honchos at the movie studio dictated to Marlon Brando, requiring him to do a screen test.

They also thought that Al Pacino was too short, while director Francis Ford Coppola was almost fired.

The movie's director and cast reminisced last Saturday in a 45th anniversary reunion in New York about the trials, perseverance and inspiration that resulted in the Oscar-winning Mafia movies.

Coppola, Pacino, Robert de Niro, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Talia Shire and Robert Duvall watched back-to-back screenings of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II (1974) along with an audience of 6,000.

"I haven't seen these movies for years," Coppola, 78, said. "I found watching a very emotional experience. I forgot a lot about the making of it and thought about the story and the story used a lot of family and personal stuff."

The two films won nine Oscars and their tale of how an orphan from Sicily emigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century and formed the Corleone crime family became movie classics.

But the film had a less than auspicious start. Coppola recalled that Hollywood studio Paramount wanted to set the movie in the 1970s and make something "cheap and quick".

He was almost fired several times and met stiff resistance to the casting of Pacino as Michael Corleone and Brando as the titular Godfather.

Brando, who died in 2004, had made several box-office flops after a stellar career in the 1950s and had a reputation for being difficult.

"I was told (by studio executives) that having Brando in the film would make it less commercial than having a total unknown," Coppola said.

The studio later agreed "if Marlon will do a screen test and do it for nothing and put up a million-dollar bond that he wouldn't cause trouble during the production".

Brando created the rasping voice, jowly cheeks and oiled hair for Corleone in the screen test. Yet, three weeks into shooting, there was more trouble.

"The studio hated Brando. They thought he mumbled and they hated the film... It was very dark," said Coppola.

Brando went on to win an Oscar for his performance.

Newcomer Pacino had to screen test "countless times" for the role of Michael, the college-educated son who takes charge of the Corleone business of casinos, gambling and racketeering.

Studio bosses thought he was too short and wanted to cast Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal.

Yet, Coppola persevered because "every time I read the script, I always saw his (Pacino's) face, especially in the scenes in Sicily".

The film launched Pacino, now 77, as one of the most honoured actors of his generation.

Luck played a part in the creation of some of the most memorable scenes in the two films.

The revelation by Michael's wife Kay (Keaton) that she had aborted their baby because of horror over her husband's criminal activities was suggested by Shire.

And the cat Brando cradles in the opening scene of The Godfather, making for a stark contrast with his intimidating presence, was a last-minute addition.

"I put that cat in his hands. It was the studio cat. It was one take," said Coppola.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'The Godfather looks back'. Print Edition | Subscribe