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How Francis Ford Coppola had to fight for Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather'

The Godfather is a triumph of cinema, starting the mafia series with a tidy, romantic look at the values of family in everyday settings. But the film could have been very, very different if the executives got their way. Director Francis Ford Coppola was told in no uncertain terms that his desire to cast Marlon Brando in the film was an unreasonable one. Indeed, the director recalled the rage as he was promoting the third chapter in the series in 1990: The Godfather Part III.

It would be much too easy for us to wag a finger at the money men, but let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. By the turn of the 1970s, Brando had not starred in a hit in some time, and he was developing a reputation for being difficult to work with. When he was cast, he declined to turn up for the sequel, prompting Coppola to re-write the scene at the eleventh hour. And when he was awarded by many of the executives with an Oscar for his turn as Don Corleone, Brando not only declined the award, instead choosing to use the time to wag a finger at their treatment of the Native American people in cinema. So, he wasn’t the flavour of the month in the 1970s.

But what he did offer was a startling performance, doubling as both the father and mob boss, using both strands of the role in one striking way. In the sequel, he was replaced by Robert De Niro, an actor many pegged as the “new Brando”. These days, people are searching for the new De Niro, which says something about his acting abilities, and like Brando, he won an Oscar for his role as Don Corleone.

What Brando brought to the film was a sense of history and stability, but he was hard to sell. He wasn’t the only one: James Caan had to do screentest as Michael Corleone because the execs weren’t sold on Al Pacino, who looked nothing like the heartthrobs that frequented cinema in the 1960s Like Brando, Pacino shut up the naysayers with a performance that flitted from gullible to treacherous in a three-hour running time. He was stern in the role, creating a new form of stern leadership and authority. If anything he was even finer in the sequel, as Michael Corleone had to gauge the severity of his family’s decline, before pulling the trigger on the one person who has stood beside him through thick and thin; his brother, Fredo.

The films were a gorgeous example of craftsmen, actors and artists at the peak of their work. Coppola would reunite with Brando during the making of Apocalypse Now, although the actor turned up on set grossly overweight, and unfamiliar with the script. And yet Coppola adored him, stating that the man was never difficult, but needed a certain amount of trust to deliver his strong performances. From this place of trust, Vito Corleone was born, as the actor utilised props – and pets – to enhance the central themes of his character, and that of the people around him. It’s to Brando’s credit that he submitted to a series of screen tests that showed what he wanted to do with the character, which impressed Paramount sufficiently to greenlight him.

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It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part of the older Vito Corleone, such is the commitment Brando brought to the role. By the time the film came out, those that doubted his work ethic must have felt a bit silly, although they may have felt easier in their decisions when Brando refused to turn up for the ending scene of The Godfather Part II.

It’s been 50 years, and the legacy of The Godfather series lives on, whether it’s the excellent first entry, the astonishing second film, or the grossly underappreciated beauty of the third film. Whatever way you look at it, Brando and Coppola created something beautiful, and although Coppola had to fight for his leadership, he was rewarded with a performance that has withstood decades of cultural changes and years of re-assessments. The Godfather is an out and out classic of American cinema.

“I think it’s already the movie I’m most known for,” Coppola conceded in 2022. “If you ask everyone to name why I should be at all even considered of importance, they’ll say The Godfather. Maybe Apocalypse Now is a close second. Apocalypse Now is a more unusual and more interesting movie, in some ways. But I was always making films that I actually did not know how to make and learn from the film itself. That’s why my career is so weird. I assure you, Megalopolis is the most ambitious, the most unusual and the weirdest film I’ve ever attempted, and I have no idea how to make it. And I love that because I know it will teach me.”

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