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Five Things That Almost Ruined The Godfather

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It's not easy to make a perfect film.

This Saturday marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of The Godfather — arguably, a perfect film. But as with anything we call perfect, a million little pieces had to fall into place for The Godfather to achieve such lofty standing. One miscast, one rewrite, one trip into Robert Evans' office after a night spent in L.A.'s opium dens with Roman Polanski, and boom, you're looking at a good movie, but not one of the all-time greats. In celebration of what thankfully never was, here are five things that almost ruined The Godfather.

1. Casting roulette

Paramount Pictures had big things in mind when they purchased the rights to Mario Puzo's book, which had already become immensely successful. And the Paramount executives — most notably the highly successful, highly "colorful" Robert Evans — wanted a famous cast. Imagine a bizarro-world version of The Godfather where Robert Redford is Michael (no), Laurence Olivier is Vito (eh, okay, still no Brando), and Burt Reynolds is Sonny (am I drunk? I must be drunk). All of these casting choices could have happened, and if it had been up to Evans and Paramount, Al Pacino wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the film. In fact, upon finding out that Francis Ford Coppola wanted Al Pacino to play Michael, Evans began referring to Pacino as “The Midget.”

2. Directorial roulette

Evans said he wanted the film to be so authentic he could "smell the spaghetti" — meaning he wanted him some authentic Italians. Sergio Leone was offered the chance to direct, but turned it down. The offer then went to Peter Bogdanovich… who must really like spaghetti, because he's not even remotely Italian. Finally, the studio settled on Coppola, a young and relatively unknown director, who executives felt they could "push around." (This turned out not to be the case, thankfully.)

3. Joe Colombo tries to whack the film

Real life mob boss Joe Colombo, who was part of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, tried to get The Godfather shut down. In the name of civil rights, he went so far as to shoot out the windows of producer Albert S. Ruddy's car. He then left a horse's head note in the front seat that read, "Shut down the movie, or else." If I were Ruddy, I would have fled the country, but the Paramount team stood pat, so Colombo countered with a few "requests." First: remove the terms "Mafia" and "La Cosa Nostra" from the film entirely. Second: shoot whoever suggested casting Robert Redford. (Okay, I'm kidding on that one.) After his request was fulfilled, Colombo backed off and actually ended up helping with production… only to be mortally wounded by a hitman on June 28, 1971, only blocks from where Coppola was shooting the film's climactic assassination montage the same day. 

4. Al Pacino almost gets fired

After watching several of the scenes filmed early on in production, Paramount executives demanded to know when Pacino was "going to do something." Only after seeing the soon-to-be-famous restaurant scene, in which Michael Corleone guns down Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey, did they actually approve of Pacino's performance. (I guess no one at Paramount was given a script.) Pacino has revealed in interviews that even Coppola considered sacking him. Appropriately enough, it was Marlon Brando who convinced the director to keep the kid in the picture.

5. Executives decide they understand lighting

When they received the first cut of the film, Paramount thought the tester reel was defective. When Coppola explained that cinematographer Gordon Willis was using dim lighting to enhance the mood of the film, Paramount went ballistic (then presumably ordered a new edit of the The Godfather full of rainbows and unicorns). Coppola refused to sack Willis, and eventually, Paramount execs conceded. Willis' lighting design turned out to be enormously influential. As with any successful creative risk, it doesn't seem as revolutionary in retrospect, but think about how dark the film looks compared to any movie you've seen from before it came out. It wouldn't be the movie it is without its beautifully funereal lighting.

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