After bidding adieu to Broadway, Marlon Brando turned to movies, albeit a rocky start, starring in a decade of box office flops before being cast in The Godfather as mafia boss Don Vito Corleone. Brando contributed to many of his character’s defining traits and even had a hand in the death scene.
“[Brando] said, ‘Here’s how I play with kids,’ and took an orange peel, cut it into pieces that looked like fangs and slipped them into his mouth,” director Francis Ford Coppola told Playboy.
The role revitalized Brando’s career, yielding him his second Oscar for Best Actor, though Brando famously refused the award to protest the industry’s treatment of Native Americans.
The Hollywood icon was featured in the hits Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Superman (1978) and reunited with Coppola for Apocalypse Now (1979). Brando’s career fizzled out in the ’80s and ’90s amid personal issues, though he parodied his Godfather role for the 1990 comedy The Freshman, costarring Matthew Broderick.
Brando died in 2004 at the age of 80; he had 11 children.
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
Coppola battled to cast the then-little-known Al Pacino in the lead role of Michael Corleone because the studio initially refused. The casting decision was the right choice, resulting in a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Pacino in 1973.
In March 2022, Pacino told The New York Times that he was “deeply honored” by the reverence the film has received over the years, adding that it’s a piece of work he “was so fortunate to be in.”
Following his iconic performance as Vito’s youngest son and successor, Pacino kicked off four consecutive years of Oscar nominations, including The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
Pacino would go on to be nominated for Oscars for …And Justice for All (1979), Dick Tracy (1990) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) — before finally taking home a statuette for Best Actor for 1992’s Scent of a Woman. He received another Best Supporting Actor nomination for the 2019 Netflix crime drama The Irishman. Pacino’s other major movie roles in the genre include Scarface (1983), Carlito’s Way (1993) and House of Gucci (2021). Since 2020, he has appeared on Amazon Prime Video’s Hunters series.
The actor’s legendary career also includes Emmy-winning performances on the 2003 limited series Angels in America and the 2010 TV movie You Don’t Know Jack. Pacino is also a Tony Award recipient for 1969’s Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? and 1977’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel. In 2007, he was honored with the lifetime achievement award by the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016.
Pacino has three children. He shares twins Anton James and Olivia Rose with National Lampoon’s Vacation actress Beverly D’Angelo; the two were in a relationship from 1997 to 2003 but never married. His eldest daughter, Julie, is a filmmaker.
Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone
Robert De Niro was considered to play both Paulie Gatto and Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, but he left the project to star in the 1971 comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Though the latter film was poorly received, it allowed De Niro to be cast as a younger Vito Corleone during the flashback sequences of The Godfather Part II (1974). De Niro spent months learning Sicilian to play the younger Vito, as nearly all of the character’s dialogue in the film is in the dialect.
De Niro won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the role — the first time in Oscars’ history that two actors won an Academy Award for portraying the same character. He was also named Best Actor for 1980’s Raging Bull.
Long recognized as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, De Niro’s career has included many critically acclaimed films, including Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), The King of Comedy (1982), Awakenings (1990), Cape Fear (1990), Goodfellas (1991), Casino (1995), Wag the Dog (1997), Righteous Kill (2008), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and The Irishman, among others.
De Niro then transitioned into more comedic roles like 1999’s Analyze This, 2002’s Analyze That and the Meet the Parents film series. But he later reunited with Godfather costar Pacino in the 2008 crime thriller Righteous Kill. De Niro also starred in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), The Family (2013), The Intern (2015), The Irishman (2019), Joker (2019), The War with Grandpa (2020) and Savage Salvation (2022).
Like Pacino, De Niro was honored with the lifetime achievement award by the American Film Institute in 2003 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009. He was also the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. The legendary actor has also been the driving force of the Tribeca Film Festival since its inception and is an active part of the annual event.
De Niro was married to actress Diahnne Abbott from 1976 to 1988. He later married Grace Hightower in 1997, but they separated in 2018. De Niro has six biracial children from previous relationships
Talia Shire as Connie Corleone
Talia Shire — who played Vito Corleone’s only daughter, Connie, whose extravagant wedding scene opens The Godfather — had only appeared in a few films before her brother, director Coppola, cast her in his mafia epic.
Shire would go on to star as the love interest of another prominent cinematic Italian-American: Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (1976) and its first four sequels (she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for the original film). She reprised her role in The Godfather Part II — for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress — and The Godfather Part III (1990). While those remain Shire’s best-known roles, she has also appeared in films like I Heart Huckabees (2004) and Dreamland (2016). In 2023, she starred in the drama Chantilly Bridge.
Shire was married to songwriter David Shire from 1970 to 1980 and then to film producer Jack Schwartzman from 1980 to his death in 1994. She has three children, including actor Jason Schwartzman.
Diane Keaton as Kay Adams-Corleone
Diane Keaton had only appeared in one feature film before playing Kay Adams, who becomes Michael’s second wife, in The Godfather.
The role kicked off her career as one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actresses, and she starred as Kay again in The Godfather Part II, The Godfather Part III (1990). She won an Oscar for Best Actress for another defining film of ’70s Hollywood — Annie Hall (1977) — which was written and directed by her then-partner Woody Allen.
Keaton has since received Oscar nominations for Reds (1981), Marvin’s Room (1996) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003). Keaton’s other major films include Manhattan (1979), Father of the Bride (1991), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), The First Wives Club (1996), The Family Stone (2005), Because I Said So (2007), Mad Money (2008), And So It Goes (2014) and Book Club (2018)
The actress — who became as well known for her eccentric fashion as for her movies — remains a Hollywood darling and continues to dole out inspiring life advice: “Don’t take too much time on yourself,” she told PEOPLE in 2017. “Keep looking outward — that’s where the amazing part of life is.”
While she had high-profile relationships with Allen, Pacino and Warren Beatty, Keaton has never married (though she insists someday that she will walk down the aisle). She has two adopted children, daughter Dexter and son Duke.
Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen
Robert Duvall, who played Corleone family consigliere Tom Hagen, had been acting in films for a decade before being cast in The Godfather, including starring in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Bullitt (1968), True Grit (1969), M*A*S*H (1970) and THX 1138 (1971).
Duvall was one of four actors — the others were Pacino, James Caan and even Brando — who flew to Coppola’s home to do private screen tests for The Godfather. Duvall had previously worked with Coppola and Caan in the 1969 film The Rain People. Duvall returned for a larger role in The Godfather Part II, but he famously turned down starring in The Godfather Part III because of a pay dispute, and his character was written out of the film.
He received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather and was named Best Actor for 1983’s Tender Mercies. He has continued appearing in acclaimed films, earning Oscar nominations for Apocalypse Now (1979), The Great Santini (1979), The Apostle (1997), A Civil Action (1998) and The Judge (2014).
Duvall has proven himself a versatile actor, appearing in both comedies and dramas. His other films include Network (1976), The Natural (1984), Sling Blade (1996), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), John Q (2002), Gods and Generals (2003), Kicking & Screaming (2005), Four Christmases (2008), Crazy Heart (2009), Widows (2018), 12 Mighty Orphans and The Pale Blue Eye (2022). He has also won Emmys for the 1996 TV movie The Man Who Captured Eichmann and the 2006 miniseries Broken Trail.
Duvall has been married four times. He has been married to Argentine actress Luciana Pedraza since 2005.
James Caan as Sonny Corleone
As the fiery Sonny, James Caan won over audiences — and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor — with his role in The Godfather.
He made a brief cameo in a flashback sequence in The Godfather Part II and appeared in several popular films in the ’70s, including The Gambler (1974), Funny Lady (1975), Rollerball (1975) and A Bridge Too Far (1978). Though he acted less frequently in the ’80s, he received critical acclaim for his role in the horror film Misery (1990) and reached a whole new generation with his comedic turn in the Christmas classic Elf (2003). He also had a leading role on NBC’s Las Vegas and the short-lived ABC sitcom Back in the Game. His last film was in 2021’s Queen Bees, costarring Ellen Burstyn, Loretta Devine and Christopher Lloyd.
Caan passed away in July 2022 at the age of 82 from a combination of heart issues. He was survived by his five children, including Hawaii Five-O actor Scott Caan.
John Cazale as Fredo Corleone
John Cazale, who played the black sheep of the Corleone family, Fredo, died of lung cancer at age 42 in 1978. Cazale appeared in just four other films aside from The Godfather and The Godfather Part II — The Conversation (1974), Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter and, via archival footage, The Godfather Part III. All six films were nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.
At the time of his death, Cazale was in a relationship with actress Meryl Streep, whom he starred alongside in the 1976 Shakespeare Festival production Measure for Measure.