Leave the gun, take these facts about Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece adaptation of Mario Puzo’s gangster novel, which premiered in New York City 44 years ago (on March 15, 1972).
1. FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA WAS AT RISK OF BEING FIRED DURING PRODUCTION.
Francis Ford Coppola (who got the job because of his previous movie, The Rain People) wasn’t the first director Paramount Pictures had in mind for The Godfather. Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn, Richard Brooks, and Costa-Gavras all turned the job down. And after filming began, executives didn’t like the brooding, talky drama that Coppola was shooting.
The studio wanted a more salacious gangster movie, so it constantly threatened to fire Coppola (even going so far as to have stand-in directors waiting on set). Coppola was reportedly getting the ax until he shot the scene where Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey, which the executives saw and loved.
2. COPPOLA FOUGHT TO KEEP THE FAMOUS LOGO.
The studio originally wanted to scrap the now-iconic “puppet strings” logo (which was first created by graphic designer S. Neil Fujita for the novel’s release) with Puzo’s name above the title for the movie release, but Coppola insisted on keeping it because Puzo co-wrote the script with him.
3. HE ALSO FOUGHT TO KEEP THE STORY AS A PERIOD DRAMA.
As a cost-cutting measure, Paramount asked Coppola to modernize the script so the action took place in 1972 and to shoot the movie in Kansas City as a stand-in for the more expensive New York City. Coppola convinced them to keep the story in a post-World War II New York setting to maintain the integrity of the film.
4. FAMILY DINNERS HELPED EVERYONE GET IN CHARACTER.
Coppola held improvisational rehearsal sessions that simply consisted of the main cast sitting down in character for a family meal. The actors couldn’t break character, which Coppola saw as a way for the cast to organically establish the family roles seen in the final film.
5. PARAMOUNT DIDN’T WANT MARLON BRANDO FOR THE ROLE.
When Coppola initially mentioned Brando as a possibility for Vito Corleone, the head of Paramount, Charles Bluhdorn, told Coppola the actor would “never appear in a Paramount picture.”
The studio pushed the director to cast Laurence Olivier as Vito, before eventually agreeing to pursue Brando under three stringent conditions: 1) Brando had to do a screen test; 2) if cast, Brando would have to do the movie for free; and 3) Brando would have to personally put up a bond to make up for potential losses caused by his infamously bad on-set behavior.
Coppola surreptitiously lured the famously cagey Brando into what he called a “makeup test,” which in reality was the screen test the studio demanded. When Coppola showed the studio the test they liked it so much they dropped the second and third stipulations and agreed to let Brando be in the movie.
6. PACINO WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MICHAEL, EITHER.
The studio wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone, but Coppola always wanted Al Pacino. Other actors, like Martin Sheen and James Caan (who would go on to play Sonny), screen tested for Michael.
7. ROBERT DE NIRO AUDITIONED FOR SONNY.
Robert De Niro auditioned for the role of Sonny, but Coppola thought his personality was too violent for the role. De Niro would later appear as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, and win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.
8. COPPOLA LET THE WEDDING PLAY OUT AND SHOT IT GUERILLA-STYLE.
To add a sense of reality to the wedding scene (and because he only had two days to shoot it), Coppola had the cast freely act out and improvise in the background. He then shot specific vignettes amongst the action.
9. COPPOLA TOOK ADVANTAGE OF MISTAKES.
Lenny Montana, who played Luca Brasi, was a professional wrestler before becoming an actor. He was so nervous delivering his lines to a legend like Brando during the scene in the Godfather’s study that he didn’t give one good take during an entire day’s shoot. Because he didn’t have time to reshoot the scene, Coppola added a new scene of Luca Brasi rehearsing his lines before seeing the Godfather to make Montana’s bad takes seem like Brasi was simply nervous to talk to the Godfather.
10. THE CORLEONE COMPOUND WAS A REAL LOCATION ON STATEN ISLAND.
The residence was put up for sale in 2014 for just under $3 million. That’s a price we can probably refuse.
11. THE GODFATHER’S CAT WAS A STRAY.
During his daily walks to the set, Coppola would often see a stray cat, and on the day of shooting the scenes in Vito’s study, Coppola took the cat and told Brando to improvise with it. The cat loved Brando so much that it sat in his lap during takes for the whole day.
12. PACINO WAS THE ARCHETYPICAL METHOD ACTOR.
He really had his jaw wired shut for the first part of the shoot after his character is punched in the face.
13. THE INFAMOUS HORSE’S HEAD WAS REAL.
The horse head in the movie producer’s bed wasn’t a prop. The production got a real horse’s head from a local dog food company.
14. THE “TAKE THE CANNOLI” LINE WAS IMPROVISED.
The line in the script only had actor Richard Castellano as Clemenza say “Leave the gun” after the hit on the mobster who ratted on the Corleones. He was inspired to make the addition after Coppola inserted a line in which the character’s wife asks him to buy cannoli for dessert.
15. THERE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE AN INTERMISSION.
The 175-minute movie is long by Hollywood standards, and an intermission was going to be included just after the Solozzo/McCluskey shooting scene—but the idea was scrapped because the filmmakers thought it would ruin the momentum and take the audience out of the movie.