Released 50 years ago this week, “The Godfather” broke all box office records, won Best Picture at the Oscars and introduced millions of fans to a world of mob bosses, of murders for account and cannoli.
But when director Francis Ford Coppola, then “about 29 years old”, was offered to adapt Mario Puzo’s bestseller, he says he almost refused.
“I was very disappointed when I started reading…it was really a pot that Mario Puzo had written to get money (for) his children,” Coppola said at a 50th anniversary screening at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles late March 21.
“When they offered me the opportunity to do it – mainly because everyone had turned it down – I turned it down as well.”
Fortunately, a young associate by the name of George Lucas insisted that Coppola take the job, as their fledgling countercultural film studio American Zoetrope was heavily in debt.
“’Francis, we need the money! The tax office is going to chain the front door… You have to accept a job like this, ”recalled Coppola, saying the future creator of “Star Wars”.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Godfather, released on March 24, 1972, in an unusually large number of theaters on its first day, was in September the highest-grossing film of all time, supplanting “Gone with the Wind”.
In doing so, he helped usher in the era of blockbusters, which really took off when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” took over the box office record three years later.
According to Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Coppola won a bet that Paramount would buy him a stretch limo if the film made $50 million. It grossed over $130 million.
Coppola became the first superstar director, with the financial clout to back up his artistic credentials.
“It was the start of a new era for directors,” Biskind wrote.
But in many ways, “The Godfather” was an unlikely hit.
By 1972 gangster movies were out of fashion. Paramount had released “The Brotherhood” with Kirk Douglas four years earlier, and it bombed.
But Mario Puzo’s mafia novel was gaining popularity and the same studio owned the rights.
Still, Paramount struggled to find a director – Hollywood title writers like Elia Kazan, Costa-Gavras and Peter Bogdanovich refused.
Although he was a leader of the New Hollywood movement of hot young, anti-establishment directors, Coppola did not have any major successes to his name and was approached in part because of his Italian ancestry.
“If it got a lot of resistance from offended Italian-Americans who thought it was disparaging Italians, I’d get the heat, you know?” said Coppola.
While Paramount wanted a quick and cheap adaptation, Coppola fought for a bigger budget, insisting the film be shot in New York City, in its original 1940s setting rather than the present day.
“The budget was around $2 million, $2.5 million. And by my desire to do it in New York and to do it in the 1945 period, that meant it was probably going to be at least doubled,” Coppola recalls.
“Which they weren’t happy about at all.”
Paramount production chief Robert Evans, a major Tinseltown actor who had bought the film rights, battled with Coppola over the casting.
The only star name attached, Marlon Brando, was washed away, while Al Pacino was a relative unknown, not the “big, handsome guy” Evans wanted.
“Al is very handsome, but in his own way,” Coppola joked.
He added: “All the women liked him a lot. Al Pacino was very attractive to girls. I wondered why exactly. But it always was.”
“Nevertheless, when I suggested Al Pacino for the role, the people at Paramount really started wondering if they had cast the wrong person.”
As it turned out, “The Godfather” won Best Picture, Brando won Best Actor, and Coppola and Puzo shared the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Pacino was one of three film stars nominated for Best Supporting Actor, along with James Caan and Robert Duvall. The film had 11 nominations in total.
A sign of her lasting legacy, Coppola was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this week ahead of Sunday’s Oscars, and the Academy Museum announced a new gallery dedicated to the film.
“‘The Godfather’ was so much more successful than anyone could have imagined,” Coppola said.