The Godfather trilogy is one of the most beloved film series, and part of its universal acclaim comes from its incredible cast of all-star Hollywood actors and amazing newcomers. The mobster movie franchise is about the rise and fall of war-hero-turned-evil-gangster Michael Corleone, and it’s an endlessly captivating crime drama that’s had an influence on cinema for more than half a century. The first Godfather movie was released in 1972 and put writer-director Francis Ford Coppola on the map, The Godfather Part II was released in 1974 and is as good as, if not better than, the original, and the legacy sequel The Godfather Part III was released in 1990.
The franchise continues to have a significant legacy, with The Offer, a drama series about the true story behind the making of The Godfather, being released on television in 2022. The trilogy has received tons of accolades, and even The Godfather Part III, which didn’t have the greatest reception, was nominated for seven Academy Awards. In total, the franchise has won seven Oscars, and only two of them were for acting, which comes as a surprise given how the Godfather trilogy has more of a stacked cast than almost any other film series.
Al Pacino As Michael Corleone
Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone, who is introduced as a war hero in the opening act of the first movie, becomes an evil mobster blinded by power in the second movie, and dies alone as a regretful old man in the final movie. Michael was the actor’s breakthrough role, but Pacino’s Godfather casting was controversial at the time because he was an unknown leading an expensive production. It paid off, and he’s one of only a few actors to ever be nominated for two Oscars for playing the same character. Since the breakout role, he has starred in tons of crime movies, most notably in Scarface, Heat, and The Irishman.
Marlon Brando & Robert De Niro As Vito Corleone
Portrayed by Marlon Brando, Vito Corleone is introduced as the mellow but firm head of his family. While he’s no better than other criminals, he has morals, as he refuses to go into the drug business, which is what causes a feud with the Tattaglia family. The character isn’t murdered, but he dies from a heart attack midway through The Godfather. A younger version of the character, played by Robert De Niro, appears in the sequel. While the movie follows Michael becoming corrupted by his power, The Godfather Part II is a part-prequel, too, as it also follows young Vito moving to New York from Sicily and building his empire.
Brando is best known for playing Vito, but the actor had already been one of the most beloved movie stars of the early ’50s with dramatic performances in A Street Car Named Desire and On the Waterfront. The Oscar-winning actor disappears into the role of Vito and won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1973. Two years later, De Niro won an Academy Award for playing the same character. But where Vito was one of Brando’s last great performances, it was one of De Niro’s first. He went on to become Hollywood’s go-to mobster actor and a regular collaborator of Martin Scorsese’s, starring in Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and The Irishman.
Diane Keaton As Kay Adams
Though Diane Keaton didn’t like The Godfather Part III, she’s one of the very few actors who starred in all three movies in the series. Keaton plays Kay Adams, who dates Michael before he flees to Sicily after murdering Captain McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo. While mob wives are generally depicted as hypocritically enjoying what their husbands’ professions can afford them, Kay always feels like she’s captive, and Keaton does a great job of portraying that. Keaton became a household name after The Godfather, but she veered away from mob movies and focused more on clever romantic comedies, including Manhattan and Annie Hall.
Talia Shire As Connie Corleone
Connie Corleone, played by Talia Shire, is Michael’s sister, and while her brothers protect her and shield her from the lives that they lead, that’s also what makes her so paranoid and distressed. Shire is Francis Ford Coppola’s sister (she also features in the director’s epic movie Megalopolis. Nepotism aside, this is an example of great casting. Regardless of whether Coppola cast Shire because she’s a blood relative, she plays the emotional and unpredictable Connie with so much intensity. Though she hasn’t been in many other movies, she’s an important part of another ’70s franchise, Rocky, playing Adrian in the boxing movie series.
Robert Duvall As Tom Hagen
Played by Robert Duvall, Tom Hagen is the consigliere to the Don — first to Vito and then to Michael. He’s the right-hand man to the boss and an advisor. He’s also the adopted son of Vito, though he’s Irish-German rather than Italian. Unfortunately, Tom’s arc is one of the few that isn’t neatly and satisfactorily wrapped up. Though he continued to work with Francis Ford Coppola, starring in Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, Duvall didn’t return for The Godfather Part III in 1990 simply because of salary disputes. Instead, that year, Duvall starred alongside Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder, which was a much bigger hit.
John Cazale As Fredo Corleone
Fredo Corleone, portrayed by John Cazale, is Michael’s older brother, but there’s a reason he isn’t the head of the family when Vito dies. Fredo is a layered but flawed character, as nobody expects anything from him, but he embarrassingly tries to gain the same power and status as his much more revered brothers. Cazale only starred in five movies before he passed away in 1978, including The Deer Hunter, Dog Day Afternoon, and the Godfather movies, and every one of them was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Cazale is a brilliant dramatic actor, and his performance as Fredo in the movies is a perfect example of that.
James Caan As Sonny Corleone
While Sonny’s massacre inspired many Godfather memes, it’s such a hard-to-watch moment in The Godfather, mostly because of how exciting of a character Sonny is. Played by James Caan, Sonny is a terrible person, as he cheats on his wife, vandalizes other people’s property, and gets up to all sorts of mob-related crimes, yet he still has some lovable qualities. Caan was perfectly cast as Sonny, as he had that distinct combination of uncaged energy and likability, and he was previously known for playing macho roles. However, though he played hotheads throughout the ’70s, his best-known role in the 2000s is as the hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside father to Buddy in Elf.
Andy Garcia As Vincent Corleone
While The Godfather Part III doesn’t have the same universal acclaim as the first two movies, it did introduce Vincent Corleone, a fresh, young character in the series played by Andy Garcia. Vincent is Sonny’s long-lost son, and he’s just as hotheaded and unpredictable as his father. The Godfather Part IV was planned with Vincent being the lead character, but though that didn’t happen, Garcia still became a popular actor. After playing Vincent, Garcia leaned into playing criminals with swagger in films like Ocean’s Eleven and Let’s Be Cops. But he hasn’t ever bested Vincent, the role for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
The Godfather Trilogy Supporting Cast & Characters
Richard S. Castellano and Bruno Kirby as Peter Clemenza: Peter Clemanza is Vito’s oldest friend and acts as a mentor to Vito’s sons in the first movie, specifically teaching Michael how to use a gun. The role was played by Richard S. Castellano in the original and Bruno Kirby played a younger version of the character in The Godfather Part II.
Al Martino as Johnny Fontane: Johnny Fontane is Vito’s godson and a famous Italian singer, and he goes to Vito for help in getting a role in a Hollywood movie. The Godfather character is based on Frank Sinatra, but Al Martino was actually a pop singer himself, and he’s still better known for his musical career.
Gianni Russo as Carlo Rizzi: Carlo Rizzi is Connie’s husband, who constantly abuses her, which leads to his assault by Sonny and his eventual murder at the end of The Godfather. Carlo was Gianni Russo’s first-ever movie role, and he had a modestly successful career afterward, with small roles in such movies as Any Given Sunday and Rush Hour 2.
John Marley as Jack Woltz: Jack Woltz is the studio head working on the movie that Johnny Fontane wants to star in. After turning down Tom’s insistence, Jack wakes up to his prized $600,000 racehorse’s head in his bed. John Marley mostly had small roles in low-budget crime movies before and after The Godfather. He also received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Love Story.
Abe Vigoda as Salvatore Tessio: Salvatore Tessio betrays Michael despite having worked with the Corleones for years, as he maneuvers to become the head of the crime family himself. This leads to Michael ordering his murder. Abe Vigoda landed many roles following The Godfather’s success, most notably a voice-only role in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Richard Conte as Emilio Barzini: Emilio Barzini is the head of the Barzini crime family and the mastermind behind an attempt to build a heroin empire. The character is also responsible for the hit on Vito but is killed by Al Neri at the end of the first movie. Conte was nearing the end of his career in 1972, but he had starred in over 100 movies.
Lenny Montana as Luca Brasi: Luca Brasi was terrifying in the Godfather novel, but in the movie, the assassin is a bumbling fool who’s quickly murdered. However, Francis Ford Coppola at least got the character’s physical appearance right, as he cast Lenny Montana, who wasn’t an actor but a professional wrestler.
Al Lettieri as Virgil Sollozzo: Virgil Sollozzo attempts to have Vito fund Barzini’s drug operation, but when Vito declines, he attempts to kill Vito and muscle the Corleone family into working with him. He is killed by Michael in the Italian restaurant. Al Lettieri had previously worked with Marlon Brando on 1969’s The Night of the Following Day.
Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone: Mary Corleone is Michael’s daughter, who starts a relationship with Vincent and has a bright future ahead of her, but she’s killed at the end of The Godfather Part III. The character is played by Francis Ford Coppola’s own daughter, Sofia, who is better known now as a director. A re-cut version of The Godfather Part III removes several scenes featuring Mary, which massively improves the movie.
G.D. Spradlin as Pat Geary: Pat Geary is a corrupt U.S. senator from Nevada whom Michael tries to bribe, and when that doesn’t work, the mobster turns to blackmail. When Geary visits a brothel, Michael’s men make it look like he killed a prostitute while he was passed out. G.D. Spradlin often played figures of authority in movies, but Geary is his best-known role.
Sterling Hayden as Captain McCluskey: Captain McCluskey is a crooked police captain in The Godfather who is on the Tattaglia crime family’s payroll. He sucker-punches Michael, who then kills him along with Virgil in the restaurant. Hayden was a staple of 1950s film noir but also had major roles in the Stanley Kubrick movies The Killing and Dr. Strangelove.