Love it or loath it, there is no getting away from the fact that The Godfather has eternally sat at the top of the tree on IMDb’s top 250 films of all time list. Lauded by fans and critics alike, the Italian gangster epic remains a paragon of American cinema values. As Spike Lee once said, it is “essential viewing” for any would-be filmmaker. As such, you would imagine it would be an offer any actor can’t refuse, but apparently not.
When the first instalment was released in 1972, Jack Nicholson was fresh from the success of Five Easy Pieces and performances in recent epics like Easy Rider had made him a counterculture icon. Thus, it is no surprise that Francis Ford Coppola offered him a lead role in his forthcoming film, but it perhaps is surprising that Nicholson turned it down without a second thought.
When he was later asked about why he refused the role not only for The Godfather but also the Paul Newman and Robert Redford classic The Sting, he simply responded: “I think I had enough business acumen, in fact, I know I had enough business acumen by then to know that both The Sting and The Godfather were going to be huge hits.”
Naturally, however, they weren’t the only offers on the table. As Nicholson explains: “At the same time, I happen to think that Last Detail and Chinatown are, to me, the more interesting of the four films.” Released in 1973, The Last Detail starred Nicholson as a Navy officer order to bring a young offender to prison but along the way, they decide to give him one last wild night of freedom. Albeit the film is less well known it proved to be a romp with a swathe of transcendent depth that remains entertaining to do this.
When it comes to the Roman Polanksi crime epic, Chinatown, there is a cult school of thought that may well opine that it is the greatest film of the 1970s. Although this contingent is far smaller than those championing The Godfather, Nicholson opting for the former is indicative of his keen script appraisal and attraction to a wide variety of roles.
However, there were far more factors at play than Nicholson merely seeing where he would be best suited at the time. “The Godfather was going to be a good film,” he expressed, “I had always wanted to work with Marlon [Brando], but I was asked to play the lead and a) I thought it should’ve been an Italian person and b) I didn’t have any scenes with Marlon in the script I read, and I thought well I am liable to only get to work with Marlon once and hope that it might be something when we got to work together.”
Four years after the release of The Godfather, Nicholson got his wish and starred opposite Brando in the western The Missouri Breaks. While the film itself, unfortunately, didn’t quite live up to expectation, there is no doubting the quality of the performances on the display and the self-evident chemistry between the two actors—not to mention stellar ensemble performances by Kathleen Lloyd and the eternally excellent Harry Dean Stanton.