February 24, 2022
WRITTEN BY:
Melinda Head

Coppola’s Masterpiece Turns 50: The Godfather

The Novel and Screenplay.

“The Godfather” is based on a book by Mario Puzo that was initially called “Mafia”.

Mario Puzo, author of “The Godfather” and (like his co-screenwriter, Frances Ford Coppola) a cigar man

Puzo grew up in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, the son of Italian immigrants. His father suffered from schizophrenia and was committed to a mental hospital, leaving Mario’s mother to raise 7 children on her own.

Before “The Godfather” was published, Puzo was nobody. He struggled to support his wife and 5 children, yearning to write a book that would appeal to the masses so he could strike it big.

“He liked to do things 1st class even though we only had 5th class money.” (Mario Puzo’s son, Tony)

The book was written in a broom closet-like space in the basement of his modest Long Island home. Accomplished authors Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Walt Whitman also lived there. Long Island was much more affordable than Manhattan … and, in case you’ve never been there, it is flanked with beaches, making it an idyllic place to live (minus commuting into NYC).

It was a complete surprise when “The Godfather” catapulted its way to the New York Times Best Seller list in 1969 for 67 weeks, eventually selling more than 20 million copies. At last, Puzo’s dream had come true: he hit the jackpot.

Two years prior to this unexpected breakthrough, Paramount had been asked to take a look at an unfinished 60 page manuscript written by the unknown Puzo. The studio made an offer of $12,500, with an option for $80,000 if the finished version was eventually made into a film. Puzo’s agent advised him to turn Paramount down, but Mario had a wife and 5 children to support, badly needed the money to pay off various unscrupulous lenders, and accepted the offer.

“I was stunned. The narrative was so strong … a masterpiece … an ice-blue terrifying movie about people you love.” (Canadian-American Al Ruddy, Producer of “The Godfather”)

For more dirt, read Puzo’s amusing insider book:

The Godfather Papers

The Director

Prior to “The Godfather”, Paramount’s most recent gangster movie, “The Brotherhood”, had done very poorly at the box office. Some thought it was because no authentic Italian talent had been used to make a movie about Italians. The next time, real Italian talent would be secured, starting with an Italian director who understood the idiosyncrasies of this cultural community. Sergio Leone fit the bill, but he was too busy working on “Once Upon a Time in America”. A slew of other directorial prospects all declined, some of whom admitted they feared working on a film having anything to do with the mafia. Frances Ford Coppola was a latecomer to the list of prospects: a. He was Italian; b. He wouldn’t cost much after receiving poor critical acclaim for “The Rain People” and owing $400,000 to Warner Bros. for budget overruns. He, too, turned down Paramount because he found the novel “sleazy and sensationalist”; however, just like Puzo, he had money troubles, eventually accepting a fee of $125,000 and 6% of the gross. This first film in the trilogy raked in $268,500,000 worldwide, putting a tidy $16.1 million in his pocket.

The Story

The film trilogy chronicles the Corleone family under patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), focussing on the transformation of his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), from a reluctant family outsider to a ruthless mafia boss.

The Cast

“The Godfather” is known for its iconic cast.

There were many standout performances, but two actors outflanked them all.

Notoriously hard to work with and considered to be somewhat eccentric, Marlon Brando’s jaw-dropping performances in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “On the Waterfront” and “The Wild One” were not sustainable. During the 1960’s, his career was in a nosedive. Stuffing tissue into his cheeks and applying black shoe polish to his hair to prepare for his quasi-Godfather audition, Brando demonstrated that he was no wash-up.

“The Godfather” revitalized Marlon Brando’s career. He went on to deliver stellar performances in “Last Tango in Paris” (directed by Italian film giant Bernardo Bertolucci) and “Apocalypse Now” (another stint with Francis Ford Coppola).

The role of Vito Corleone’s youngest son, Michael, is played by Al Pacino, a struggling method actor, who had left high school at age 16, eventually learning his craft from Lee Strasberg.  The Strasberg Method requires actors to go beyond emotional memory and use a technique called “substitution” to temporarily become the characters they are portraying.

“Acting isn’t for our kind of people. Poor people don’t go into this.” (Rose Gerardi, Al Pacino’s Italian-American mother)

Francis Ford Coppola saw Pacino on stage and was intent on hiring him, much to the chagrin of Paramount. He received a paltry $35,000 for his Academy Award nominating performance.

“The Godfather” was the lucky break Pacino needed. His career blossomed afterwards. I have so many favorite post-Godfather Pacino movies, including some of the edgier ones: “The Panic in Needle Park”, “Serpico”, and “Dog Day Afternoon”.

Coppola’s former classmate, James Caan, played Pacino’s older brother, the hot-headed Sonny, who was shot to death, leaving his little brother, Michael, to take up the family’s reins when an assassination attempt was subsequently made on his father.

Robert Duvall played Boo Radley in the critically acclaimed film “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Major Frank Burns in the blockbuster comedy “M*A*S*H” prior to playing Gordon in Coppola’s flop: “The Rain People”. In his unassuming manner, he also played a cab driver who chauffeurs Steve McQueen around town just before the famous chase scene in “Bullitt”. Without doubt, his first critical film success was playing Tom Hagen, the consigliere and chief legal counsel of the Corleone family, who is also Vito’s adoptive son. Duvall has been referred to as “Hollywood’s No. 1 No. 2 lead”. In a subsequent Coppola film, “Apocalypse Now”, his line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” will be forever embodied in our memories.

The Accolades

“The Godfather” was the highest-grossing film of 1972.

It won Best Picture (Al Ruddy), Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola).

Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall were nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and Coppola for Best Director, among many other honors.

The movie was followed by 2 sequels: The Godfather Part II (1974) and The Godfather Part III (1990), completing the trilogy. Three is, indeed, a lucky number.

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4. Have fun and Strut Your Smart!

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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