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Watch James Caan imitate Marlon Brando in his screen test for 'The Godfather'

The late, great James Caan was a force to be reckoned with on and off the set. Now, in some rare footage, we can see he was a dynamic auditionee too, as we look back at the iconic screen test for The Godfather, where Caan imitates Marlon Brando effortlessly.

As Sicilian Mafia paterfamilias battle out among themselves to assert their dominance, the family structures fall apart with gruesome violence and intense bloodshed. Don Vito Corleone, or The Godfather, has connections that help him carry out his business smoothly. His sons Michael, Santino and consigliere Tom Hagen are some of his most important associates besides Clemenza and Luca Brasi. When a family member betrays him, which results in the Godfather getting shot, the family indulges in bloodlust and vengeance both within the family and outside elements. 

Usually, when a film is faithful to the book from which it has been adapted, the charm and magnetism are somewhat lost. However, Francis Ford Coppola outdid Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel, released in 1969 with his incredible adaptation of the eponymous The Godfather. With Puzo and Coppola both working on the script, the film was produced by Paramount Pictures, which played a significant role in casting and other necessary means of production.

The film, which is still considered to be the greatest of all time, brought home various awards and accolades and continues to reign supreme in the hearts of cinephiles and film buffs as one of the most incredible movies that Coppola has ever produced. 

However, unbeknownst to many, the film had a lot going on behind the scenes, especially before the production began. The casting itself was intensely cutthroat, where heated discussions were made, and strings were pulled to make this masterpiece as perfect as the finished product. Paramount’s Robert Evans wanted an Italian director to make the film honouring its Sicilian roots to make it as authentic as possible. His first choice, Sergio Leone, turned down the offer, followed by a bunch of other directors before Coppola agreed to do the film. However, Evans and Coppola had a lot of different opinions regarding the casting, especially involving the characters of Vito Corleone and Michael Corleone. 

Marlon Brando’s iconic portrayal of the calm and calculative Godfather Vito Corleone will go down in history as one of the greatest characters ever played. While his character has been the butt of various mimicry and caricature, it is interesting to note how this classic method actor came up with his part. Paramount Pictures, especially Evans, was totally opposed to casting Brando as the Godfather due to the veteran actor’s scathing on-set reputation. However, Coppola and Puzo both wanted to cast him in the titular role. Apparently, every time Coppola brought up Brando’s name, the studio executives threatened to fire the director. 

The President of the studio, Stanley Jaffe, allegedly had a weird deal for Coppola. He declared that if Brando was a part of the motion picture, he would have to appear for a screen test and agree to a bond. “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.” Coppola further elucidated the deal by talking about the criteria, “one was that he would do the film for nothing, one was that he would personally post a bond to insure them against any of his shenanigans causing overages, and the third was that he would agree to a screen test. And I agreed, even though I didn’t even know Brando.” 

Coppola knew that asking a veteran actor of Brando’s stature to appear for a screen test would be highly insulting and would anger the latter. So he came up with a fake “make-up” test, hoping to get substantial footage to satisfy the studio’s demands. He had spread out an extensive spread of Italian cheese and cigars to set the mood. Brando, in his ingenious style, blackened his hair with shoe polish and stuffed tissues in his cheek to create a “bulldog”-like image, which became an iconic Corleone look for a mobster past his prime. This earned Brando the contract at a paltry $50,000, including incentives, and would go on to be one of the greatest highlights of his career. 

James Caan, who did a superb job of playing the hot-headed and impulsive gentle giant Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone, had jumped in to be a part of the bandwagon of people who imitated Brando’s impression as the Godfather as a part of his screen test where he bagged his role as Sonny. Although he jokes around calling himself a “bum” and addressing a “Charlie”, mumbling incoherently as Brando often did, Caan acknowledges his imitation to be the “worst”, celebrating Brando to be the incredible method actor that he is. It is indeed quite hilarious but at the same time asserts how the role of the Godfather was tailormade for Brando. Kudos to Coppola for going against all odds to cast Brando as the Godfather. 

Watch the video of James Caan imitating Marlon Brando’s Godfather below.