The Godfather

“Marlon Was as Dead as Could Be”: How Brando Beat the Odds and Became the Godfather

He was the only actor Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola could imagine as Mafia patriarch Don Corleone in The Godfather. There were just two problems: The studio didn’t want Brando, and Brando didn’t want the role. An excerpt from a new book reveals how flattery, a fake seizure, and a stealth screen test changed the course of cinematic history.

​It was January 1971. Paramount had snagged the rights to Mario Puzo’s raging best seller, The Godfather, cheap. Now, the studio had to make the picture, which many bankable directors had turned down. A promising young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola had begrudgingly taken on the project. But the studio resisted most of his casting decisions, especially the seemingly washed-up actor he was determined to cast as the lead. The battle over The Godfather had begun …

From the start, Francis Ford Coppola knew exactly who he wanted for all the major roles. He wrote out his wish list on lined yellow paper, with asterisks next to his top choices: Al Pacino as Michael, James Caan as Sonny, and Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen. Thus began the major battle of The Godfather, one that would far eclipse the heated skirmishes over where the movie would be shot and its increasingly escalating budget. On one side was Coppola, a young director determined to cast the actors he saw so vividly in his imagination. On the other side was Robert Evans, a studio chief determined to avoid the miscasting that had plagued Mob films like The Brotherhood. “Bob Evans was very handsome, tall, and impressive,” Coppola remembered. “I wanted him to accept and have confidence in me but wasn’t at all convinced that he did.”

And if Evans continued to harbor doubts about the young, untested director, they were confirmed by Coppola’s choice to play Don Corleone.

Image may contain Clothing Apparel Marlon Brando Human Person Hat Sun Hat Suit Coat and Overcoat
Producer Al Ruddy, Marlon Brando, and Director Francis Ford Coppola on set.  FROM THE EVERETT COLLECTION. 

At forty-seven, Marlon Brando was viewed in the industry as a washed-up, temperamental has-been. For the past decade, almost all of his movies had bombed at the box office amid reports of the actor’s tardiness and tyrannical behavior. “His antics in Mutiny on the Bounty were legendary,” noted the film historian Peter Biskind. “He was reputed to have given the clap to half the women on Tahiti, where the film was shot. He was hugely overweight, and worse, his most recent picture, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!, had flopped.”


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Brando held his Hollywood peers in equal contempt, deriding the directors he worked with as “no-talent assholes . . . who all think they’re young Eisenstein Misunderstood, or Orson Welles.”

Mixing Brando and Coppola in a film about the Mob seemed certain to produce the kind of pyrotechnics that could cause a film to crash and burn. Charlie Bluhdorn, the head of Paramount’s parent company, Gulf and Western, greeted the idea with his usual hot-tempered, spittle-spewing aplomb. “At the first mention of Brando’s name, Bluhdorn launched into a tirade that he was ‘box-office poison,’” Peter Bart wrote. Bludhorn had his own ideas of who should play Don Corleone. “Bluhdorn proposed Charlie Bronson for the Godfather, and, again, chaos prevailed,” Bart added. Stanley Jaffe suggested casting an unknown. Evans pushed for Carlo Ponti, an Italian producer who was married to Sophia Loren, or Ernest Borgnine, who had won an Oscar for his lead role in Marty—anyone but Brando. “Marlon was as dead as could be,” Evans said in a 1993 interview with Movieline magazine. Burt Lancaster was still after the role, as was Danny Thomas, who had starred in the popular and long-running TV sitcom that bore his name.

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It was Thomas, oddly, who had inadvertently sparked the movement to cast Brando as Don Corleone. Back in January 1970, Mario Puzo, the author of the novel The Godfather, had checked into a weight-loss clinic in North Carolina. There, he read a story in the morning paper that caused him even more distress than his bathroom scale: Danny Thomas was thinking about acquiring a controlling interest in Paramount Pictures with the sole purpose of casting himself as Vito Corleone. Thomas was certainly wealthy enough to buy a stake in the still struggling studio: in addition to starring in The Danny Thomas Show, he had produced a string of television hits that were generating a gusher of syndication rights, including The Dick Van Dyke ShowThe Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad. “My father was terrified by that prospect,” said Anthony Puzo. “He said, ‘No way.’”

In what he would call “a panic,” Puzo dashed off a letter in long-hand to Brando, the actor he had imagined in the title role while he was writing The Godfather. Across the top Puzo scrawled his current address: “North Carolina Fat Farm.” The letter began:

Dear Mr. Brando, I wrote a book called THE GODFATHER which has had some success and I think you’re the only actor who can play the Godfather with that quiet force and irony (the book is an ironical comment on American society) the part requires.

The letter arrived in Brando’s life at a moment when he desperately needed a role, even if he refused to admit it. By that point, the actor widely regarded as the greatest of his generation was deep in debt, dependent on Valium, headed toward his third divorce, and determined never to work as an actor again. He lived alone in a rambling house at 12900 Mulholland Drive, high above Los Angeles, where he was tended to by his secretary and all-purpose assistant, Alice Marchak. It was Marchak who had discovered that Brando, who struggled with reading, was actually dyslexic. “Oh, what a happy day it was for him when I told him he wasn’t dumb because he didn’t have a high school diploma,” she said.

Marchak took over the task of reading all the scripts and books that were sent to Brando. “I was inundated,” she said. She turned down offers for Dirty Harry and for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, after Paul Newman offered Brando his choice of the lead roles. The problem, as Marchak recently emphasized, was simple: “Marlon decided he would not work—and he didn’t.”

Marchak forced him to face reality. “Something had to be done,” she said. Brando needed millions to climb his way out of debt, and he needed to kick his drug habit to maintain visitation rights with his children. He promised Marchak he would limit himself to one Valium a day, and he agreed to make three pictures—but only if the parts required no more than three weeks of shooting.

“He was adamant,” Marchak remembered. “But at last we were talking acting.”

To keep track of potential roles, she subscribed to the Hollywood Reporter. “It became my early-morning read to know what was going on in the industry,” she said. Brando found the magazine in her office and went ballistic. “This is my house,” he roared, “and I will not have anyone bringing movie magazines into it!”

Marchak left the house and stayed away for days, waiting for Brando to cool down. One morning, while she was reading the magazine that had driven her boss into a frenzy, she saw that Paramount was still looking for an actor to play the godfather. When Brando finally called her and asked her to return, she went straight to the mail that had piled up in her absence. There, atop the stack, was The Godfather, along with Puzo’s note.

Brando being transformed into Don Corleone.nbsp
Brando being transformed into Don Corleone. FROM MOVIESTORE/SHUTTERSTOCK.

Marchak took the book to Brando. “Puzo, the author, sent this to you,” she remembered telling him in her 2008 memoir, Me and Marlon. “It’s a book about a Mafia don.”

He tossed it back to her. “I’m not a Mafia godfather,” he said. “I’m not going to glorify the Mafia.”

Marchak took the book home and read it over the weekend. “I just knew that this was for Marlon,” she said, “and I was determined to change his mind.”

Her best chance was to appeal to the weak spot he shared with virtually every Hollywood actor: professional jealousy. Every time she heard of another actor being mentioned for the part of Vito Corleone, no matter how implausible, she would nonchalantly mention it to Brando. He listened in annoyance to the growing list of rivals being considered by Paramount, but ultimately ignored her.

Switching tactics, Marchak dug up Puzo’s note and placed it on his bedside table. Brando never mentioned it to her, but she knew he had read the letter because she noticed it had been moved. He surprised her by bringing it up, unprompted.

“Maybe I should call and thank Puzo for thinking of me for the part—and for sending me the book,” Brando said.

Marchak immediately set up the call.

“We had a talk on the phone,” Puzo wrote. “He had not read the book, but he told me that the studio would never hire him unless a strong director insisted on it. He was nice over the phone but didn’t sound too interested.”

Marchak had one more card to play. She had heard that Paramount’s other idea for the role of Don Corleone was Laurence Olivier. She casually informed Brando of the news.

“Laurence Olivier! He can’t play a Mafia don!” he exclaimed.

“They are going to test him, I read,” Marchak said.

Brando, suddenly, was interested.

From the moment he was hired as director, Coppola had two actors in mind for the leading role. “For me it came down to Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier,” he said. Playing the Godfather, he knew, required star power of the highest order—“an actor of such magnetism, such charisma, just walking into a room had to be an event.”

At forty-seven, Brando might have seemed too young to play an aging Mafia don. Olivier, at sixty-four, was old enough, but his proper British persona might make him a tough sell as an Italian American crime boss.

Coppola was called into a meeting with “all the big shots” at the studio. “You know how they are sometimes,” he said. “They gang up.”

Paramount’s president, Stanley Jaffe, sat the young director down and gave him a direct order: “As long as I’m president of the studio, Marlon Brando will not be in this picture, and I will no longer allow you to discuss it.”

Coppola, who had suffered from epilepsy as a teenager, resorted to cheap theatrics: He fell to the floor in convulsions and pretended to have a fit. “I did it as a gag,” he said. “I knew the floor was carpeted, so it wouldn’t hurt.”

But his response was dead serious.

“I give up,” Coppola told Jaffe. “You hired me; I’m supposed to be the director. Every idea I have you don’t want me to talk about. Now you’re instructing me that I can’t even pursue the idea. At least let me pursue it.”

After a brief discussion, Jaffe agreed to consider Brando—on three conditions. First, the actor had to put up a bond of $1 million, to ensure that his temperament and tardiness wouldn’t delay the production. Second, he had to forgo his usual salary and do the film for next to nothing. Third—and most unusual for a star of Brando’s magnitude—he had to do a screen test for the role.

Coppola, who was, he confessed, “scared shitless” of Brando, knew better than to call it a screen test. “I was thinking, How am I gonna handle this?” he later told Cigar Aficionado. “I call up Brando. I say, ‘Mr. Brando, don’t you think it would be a good idea if we fooled around a little bit, and do a little improvisation for this role, and see what it would be like.’ I didn’t say it was a screen test. I said it was like a little experiment with a video camera.”

Brando readily agreed. By now, he had read The Godfather, or had Alice Marchak read it to him. “He thought it was a delicious part,” Coppola remembered. “He used that word, delicious.”

“Marlon Was as Dead as Could Be” How Brando Beat the Odds and Became the Godfather

As usual, he turned to Marchak for help. “One day he said he wanted me to look at some photographs with him,” Marchak wrote in her memoir. “We sat in the living room and he began to pass me photos of different men. I asked who they were. He said he had asked Francis to get him some photos of the Mafia. I knew who Francis was as I had been following all the news about The Godfather and updating Marlon.”

Brando and Marchak looked through the photos, which had been taken in everyday locations: “on the street, in cars, in restaurants,” Marchak wrote. They were struck by how unremarkable the Mob bosses looked. “After we had gone through the stack a few times, we concluded the Don should be an ordinary-looking man you passed on the street,” Marchak continued. That’s when Brando stumbled on “the germ of the idea.”

He would start with how he himself might look when he aged and build the character from there. And with that, according to Marchak, “Marlon morphed into the Don.”

Brando always slept late.

Up most nights until 3:00 a.m., he rarely rose before noon. But on that morning in January 1971—the exact date is lost to time—he was ready. His longtime makeup wizard, Philip Rhodes, was ready to prep him, and Coppola had arrived at 7 a.m.

“Francis told me about filming Brando at his house. It was a clandestine mission and we were to keep it absolutely secret,” said Hiro Narita, the young cameraman Coppola selected for the screen test. “He said he needed to convince the studio executives of his choice of Brando.”

Coppola and Narita arrived at Bob Hope Airport, in Burbank, on the early-morning flight from San Francisco and climbed into a white van with their equipment and aspirations. They were accompanied by a San Francisco barber, who had cut hair for the first screen tests, and an assistant or two. Together they drove skyward, toward Brando’s home on Mulholland Drive.

Arriving at the back door, everyone removed their shoes and entered. Alice Marchak made a cup of coffee and took it down the hall to Brando’s bedroom, where she woke him.

“Is Philip here?” he asked, referring to his makeup maestro.

“No,” she said. “You didn’t tell me he was coming, too.”

“When he gets here, send him down.”

When she returned to the kitchen, Rhodes had arrived. She sent him to the bedroom and served Coppola and his crew some coffee.

“They were in the living room standing around and talking in whispers,” she said. “I left them, as I thought they were checking the light, and where to shoot, and I didn’t want to disturb them.”

Coppola had brought along some props: Italian prosciutto, cheese, and cigars, which he thought might help Brando get into character. He instructed Corsitto to wait outside, until it was time to deliver his lines.

Buy Leave the Gun Take the Cannoli on Amazon or Bookshop.

Buy Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli on Amazon or Bookshop.

Then, into the all-white living room—white carpet, white walls, white drapes—walked the man of the house: dressed in a Japanese kimono, his hair long and blond. He was “soft-spoken and reticent, very different from his screen persona,” said Narita. “I could have mistaken him for another person if I was not there to film Brando.”

Narita set up a single soft light and his 16mm camera and waited.

Brando nibbled on the prosciutto and cheese. Then, to the astonishment of everyone in the room, he began the transformation into Don Vito Corleone. He tied back his ponytail, darkened his blond hair with shoe polish, jutted out his jaw, and wrinkled the tips of his shirt collar.

“You t’ink I need a mustache?” Brando asked, slipping into a subtle accent.

“Oh, yeah,” Coppola said. “My uncle Louis has a mustache.”

Brando dabbed some shoe polish on his upper lip.

Then he reached for the Kleenex, stuffing it into his cheeks to give himself jowls. “I want to be like a bulldog,” he said, his voice suddenly full of gravel.

Brando moved to the living room couch. “I just wanna improvise,” he said. Coppola called for silence. “I told my guys to keep quiet,” he said. “I’d heard that noise bothers him. He always wears earplugs when he’s working.”

Brando began moving this way and that, experimenting with his posture and mumbling to himself.

Finally, after fifteen or twenty minutes, he looked up. “Okay, I’m ready,” he said.

Brando told Coppola not to record his voice, because he hadn’t settled on the don’s speech pattern. The director nodded to Narita to begin rolling, and Marlon Brando, supposedly washed up and finished as an actor, began to turn forty-seven years of preparation, experience, and talent into art. “Slightly, from a low angle, I filmed him holding a glass of wine in one hand and a cigar in the other, going through animated gestures,” said Narita. “Francis was videotaping at the same time. At one point Brando dipped the end of the cigar into the wine. The phone rang unexpectedly. Brando calmly picked it up, staying in character, and mumbled a few words as if talking to someone on the other end of the line. Then he hung up and continued his pantomime.”

Coppola felt the moment was right to spring his surprise. “Without warning, I ushered in my barber friend, who went up to Brando and launched right into his speech,” he told Playboy in 1975. “Brando didn’t know what was going on for a moment, but he listened and then just started doing the scene. It was my shot. The thing worked. I had it down on tape. I’d watched forty-seven-year-old Marlon Brando turn into this aging Mafia chief. It was fantastic.”

Copyright © 2021 by Mark Seal. From the forthcoming book LEAVE THE GUN, TAKE THE CANNOLI by Mark Seal to be published by Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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