The Godfather: the three battles that decided the fate of a classic
Coppola’s solution was a trick: He told Brando he wanted to film him for a make-up test, which secretly served as a screen test for Paramount brass to watch. According to legend, Brando pulled his hair back, dabbed some shoe polish on his upper lip for a mustache, plugged tissue pads into his cheeks to create jowls, and literally transformed into the Godfather.
“They shot this video of Brando, where he stuffs Kleenex in his cheeks and becomes Don Corleone,” Seal reports. “But what I didn’t know was that Coppola immediately took that tape to New York and showed it to Charlie Bluhdorn, who was the head of Gulf and Western, Paramount’s parent company, and when he said, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing’ and then everyone lined up. The other interesting thing is that the tape just disappeared off the face of the earth – no one knows where it is.
In the end, Coppola got the exact cast he wanted, though the stress of getting there weighed on the already beleaguered director. And yet, in an alternate universe perhaps, there is a Godfather with either Ernest Borgnine, Danny Thomas (!), or maybe Anthony Quinn as Vito, Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford as Michael, a guy named Carmine Caridi (who thought he got the part) as Sonny Corleone, and Jennifer O’ Neill or Karen Black as Kay Adams. But would this version have become as iconic as the one we have?
“I don’t know,” Seal muses. “I don’t think it would work that well, because Coppola just considered so many aspects of this thing. It was just perfect casting. You can’t imagine anyone other than James Caan in the role of Sonny or Robert Duvall as Tom – just the way he talks to John Marley. And John Marley as well, as a producer, Jack Woltz. I mean, who could do a scene with the horse’s head in a bed like he did? Or Diane Keaton as Kay – the way she looks when that door closes at the end.
The Battle of Francis Ford Coppola
Like Brando, Coppola was reluctant to realize The Godfather first of all. After making two flops in a row (Finian’s Rainbow and rain people), he retired to San Francisco with his friend George Lucas and founded American Zoetrope, a studio aimed at creating artistic and experimental films with iconoclastic filmmakers who eschewed the Hollywood formula and mindset. But the company very quickly encountered financial difficulties and the artistic haven dreamed of by Coppola was in danger of collapsing.
“He had moved to San Francisco to get away from the big-budget blockbuster mentality,” says Seal. “The reason he did [The Godfather] was, like Puzo, he needed the money, and it wasn’t until his assistant George Lucas, future manager of star warssaid, ‘Francis, the sheriff is at the door, do The Godfather and then we can make the kind of movies we want to make.