The Godfather has topped so many “Best Films of All Time” lists that such exercises have become largely redundant, though no one could ever argue that such an accolade wasn’t fully deserved.
Based on the bestselling crime novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather saw director Francis Ford Coppola craft an epic story within an Italian-American gangster setting that featured a perfect cast, which included the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, as well as a stellar supporting ensemble.
Indeed, it would hardly be an overstatement to claim that The Godfather excels in every possible area. The acting, the script, the direction, the cinematography, the music, and the casting are all some of the finest Hollywood has ever produced. However, it almost wasn’t that way.
The production of The Godfather was infamously plagued with behind the scenes battles, which were mostly between the director, the studio behind the movie, and Paramount Pictures. It also suffered a number of practical setbacks and limitations.
Despite these troubles, there are no qualms about the end result and the eventful production did at least give rise to a whole host of interesting facts surrounding this legendary picture.
With behind the scenes anecdotes, casting near-misses, and other nuggets of gangster trivia, leave the gun and take the cannoli. Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Godfather.
15. Marlon Brando Used Cue Cards To Remember His Lines
As iconic as Marlon Brando was in the role of Don Vito Corleone, the notoriously eccentric actor’s casting did lead to some behind the scenes issues. One of the main problems was Brando’s preference for using cue cards to read his lines whilst filming, a habit that the actor adopted on more productions than just The Godfather.
The cards had to be creatively hidden on set, such as behind props or even attached to other actors. Although some might feel that the cards indicated Brando’s unwillingness to learn the script like everyone else, the actor himself insisted that this method allowed him to be more spontaneous in filming and resulted in an overall improved performance.
14. Don Corleone’s Cat Was A Stray Found Nearby
The image of Don Corleone gently stroking a cat in his office is one of the most famous from the entire movie, but the way it came about was a total fluke.
Whilst preparing the opening scene between Corleone and the nervous funeral parlour owner Amerigo Bonasera, Francis Ford Coppola noticed a stray cat lurking around the set and, in a moment of inspiration, gave it to Brando to cradle during the scene.
The addition creates a perfect contrast between Don Corleone’s strong and threatening speech and his softer, more family-orientated side. The feline did cause problems though, with its purring becoming too prominent in the sound mix.
13. Some Seriously Weird Stuff Was Cut From The Book
With The Godfather’s running time a sore point between director and studio, plenty of material didn’t make it into the final cut. Vito Corleone’s back story was saved for the sequel, the character of Genco Abbandando was abandoned entirely, and the role of Johnny Fontane was greatly reduced.
One subplot that was also left by the wayside – and most likely never even considered for the movie – involved Sonny’s mistress, Lucy Mancini.
Mancini does appear in the film during the opening wedding scene, sneaking off with Sonny for some X-rated action, but the book takes her character in a very strange direction.
In summary, Sonny is particularly well endowed and Lucy is one of the few women able to… accommodate him. Seeking more conventional genitalia, Lucy visits a famed gynaecologist who later becomes her lover. Seriously.
12. Burt Lancaster Wanted To Play Don Corleone
In the 1960s, it was common practice for movie studios to acquire the movies rights to novels before they were published in an attempt to avoid expensive bidding wars for bestsellers.
With rumors inside the publishing industry spreading positive rumblings about Mario Puzo’s forthcoming novel, both Paramount and Burt Lancaster’s production company at Universal were keen on obtaining the rights to The Godfather.
However, if Universal were to win the battle, Lancaster was keen to play the lead role of Don Vito Corleone himself. Although Burt was undoubtedly a legendary actor, it’s hard to imagine him having the same impact in The Godfather’s lead role as Marlon Brando did.
11. Paramount Were Against Brando’s Casting… Until They Saw A Screen Test
One of the biggest battles Francis Ford Coppola had with the producers at Paramount concerned the casting of Don Vito Corleone, with the studio discussing names such as Carlo Ponti and Charles Bronson for the lead role.
Both Coppola and Puzo had Marlon Brando earmarked for the part from an early stage, but Paramount Pictures were vehemently against the idea and set out a number of restrictions designed to dissuade Coppola. These included a humiliating screen test for Brando, a low initial fee, and the actor posting a bond in case he proved unreliable during filming.
Surprisingly, Brando agreed to the conditions and shot a makeshift audition video which, when seen by the bosses at Paramount, instantly convinced everyone involved that he was the perfect choice for Don Corleone.
10. Brando And Pacino Had Dental Work Done For The Movie
As Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando was playing a man more aged and weathered than he was himself and, as such, some work was needed in order to create the illusion of age.
In his screen test, Brando had stuffed his cheeks with tissue paper to give himself more prominent jowls, but for the movie, a custom dental appliance was created for the actor to wear. The piece gave the Don his signature jutting jaw look.
Al Pacino’s Michael also required some dental work for the movie. After an attempted hit on his father, Michael confronts Police Captain McCluskey and receives a broken jaw for his troubles. In order to simulate this injury, a pair of splints was molded from a cast of Pacino’s teeth which would give the actor a disfigured look.
9. There Was Backlash From The Italian-American Community And The Mafia
If you thought that movies attracting criticism over their portrayal of cultural groups was a recent phenomenon, think again. With Francis Ford Coppola insisting on shooting much of The Godfather on location in New York, members of the Italian-American community were concerned that such a production would only propagate the stereotypes that were already rife.
Ironically, the actual Mafia themselves were also highly skeptical about the movie, and took several threatening actions in protest, including shooting at a parked car that belonged to a producer’s secretary.
Eventually, an agreement that appeased all was reached. Efforts were made to show the darker side of the gangster lifestyle, rather than a glamorized perspective, and the word “Mafia” was banned from the script. The film’s producers also allowed several Mafia members to work on the production as extras or crew members, easing the tension between the groups.
8. Robert De Niro Nearly Played Both Sonny And Paulie
With many Italian-American actors being discussed during casting meetings for The Godfather, one name that kept recurring was Robert De Niro. A young De Niro initially auditioned for the role of Vito’s hot-headed eldest child Sonny, who would eventually be portrayed by James Caan.
Although De Niro didn’t get the part, the producers were impressed enough to offer him the smaller role of Paulie, the Corleone henchman who would eventually betray the family.
The actor was very interested in the offer but ultimately had to decline since he was casted in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
Of course, this misfortune would prove a blessing in disguise, as Robert De Niro would later be cast as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, which earned him an Oscar.
7. Brando Based His Voice On A Real-Life Gangster
Although some of Marlon Brando’s on-set habits might have called the actor’s work ethic into question, it’s difficult to deny that the man was incredibly dedicated when it came to building his characters and developing a performance. An example of this can be found in how Brando conceived Don Corleone’s famous vocal tones.
Francis Ford Coppola gave Brando tape recordings of a 1950 investigation into organized crime which featured several real-life mobsters, including Joseph Valachi. Brando based Don Corleone’s distinctive mumbled drawl on Valachi’s own speech, adding further authenticity to the movie and creating cinematic history in the process.
However, some of the bosses at Paramount felt that the character’s lines were sometimes too difficult to understand and would joke about whether or not the movie would need to be released with subtitles. Needless to say, Brando had the last laugh.
6. During Filming, Coppola Was Worried About Being Replaced
With Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount Pictures clashing on everything from casting and location shoots to running time and the soundtrack, it’s perhaps not surprising that at various junctures during the production, the director was fearful of being fired by the studio.
Tensions were high and shooting was running drastically behind schedule, leading to Paramount reportedly beginning to consider replacements for Coppola. The man lined up to edit The Godfather, Aram Avakian (The End of the Road, Cops and Robbers) was on the top of their list.
Aware that something was amiss, Coppola fired Avakian among others and Brando promised to leave the production should Coppola be removed as director, and, thus, relative order was restored.
5. The Main Cast Were Keen Practical Jokers
In between shooting scenes of graphic violence and adhering to an intensive shooting schedule, the main cast of The Godfather managed to unwind by partaking in a number of practical jokes.
Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and James Caan would each take turns mooning (the art of displaying ones buttocks in public) at the most inappropriate moments, to the hilarity of the rest of the crew.
Brando went one step further and, before filming the scene where Vito is transported home from hospital and taken upstairs on a stretcher, hid a number of lead weights under the blankets with him, giving the actors who were tasked with carrying him a huge and exhausting surprise.
4. Most Of Coppola’s Family Made An Appearance
Many fans of The Godfather know that Talia Shire, who played Vito Corleone’s daughter Connie, is actually Francis Ford Coppola’s sister, and that the actress would go on to appear in all three Godfather movies.
However, Talia isn’t the only member of the Coppola clan to find themselves on screen in some capacity. Francis and Talia’s father and renowned musician Carmine Coppola contributed piano parts to the movie’s soundtrack and also appeared alongside his wife Italia during a restaurant scene.
Italia also had a brief scene playing a switchboard operator, and Francis’ own daughter played Connie’s child during the stunning Christening finale sequence.
Francis Ford Coppola’s reliance on family backfired in The Godfather Part III, however, when his daughter Sofia (then much older) was cast in a main role to widespread derision. Since then, Sofia has proved far more successful following in her father’s footsteps as a director.
3. The Horse’s Head Was Real
When most movie fans think of The Godfather, the first scene that springs to mind is the one in which perverted Hollywood big-shot Jack Woltz turns down a request from the Corleone family and wakes up the find a horse’s head in his bed.
Whilst many would assume that the severed animal head would be nothing more than a movie prop, animal lovers will be horrified to hear that the item was in fact very real.
Although the blood was indeed faked (a mixture of food coloring and corn syrup), Coppola and co. failed in their attempts to create a realistic-looking prop horse’s head, and therefore conspired to use the genuine article.
2. Sonny’s Murder Scene Required Over 100 Explosive Charges On James Caan’s Body
The murder of Santino “Sonny” Corleone is perhaps the most visceral and violent scene in the entire film, and the moment was created via a very complex series of practical special effects.
Under the guidance of effects guru A. D. Flowers, James Caan was covered in small gunpowder charges attached to concealed bags of fake blood. The explosives were wired to a console and set off remotely at the appropriate moments to simulate the fire of guns. Non-explosive packs were placed on Caan’s head and face and set off manually using invisible strings.
Flowers and co. had intended to go further with Sonny’s facial injuries, but were concerned about causing damage to the actor. Nevertheless, the experience must have been incredibly uncomfortable for Caan, even if it did produce such a memorable scene.
1. The Movie Inspired Several Real Acts Of Mafia Violence
The real life Mafia may have been worried about the influence of The Godfather prior to its release but, in the years since, the movie seems to have become an inspiration for genuine acts of violence.
In 1991, Sicilian mobsters used the old horse’s head trick to deter a group of unwanted contractors, putting the bloody item inside a car trunk that was discovered later on.
Furthermore, several testimonies have suggested that gangsters were generally huge fans of the film. Shortly before The Godfather was released, undercover reports note that mobsters would often discuss who should play the role of Don Corleone and, allegedly, Japanese gangs once hired a production company to create a similar movie set in the Far East in order to improve their own image.
Do you know any other interesting facts about The Godfather? Let us know in the comments!
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