Who almost played Michael Corleone in The Godfather instead of Al Pacino? In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic drama became an immediate classic, primarily because of the collective performances and the fictional study of an American crime organization. Marlon Brando headlines the mob film as Vito Corleone, but it’s Pacino who steals the show as a soft-spoken World War II veteran who takes over the family business.
The Godfather marks the second movie role for Pacino. He made his feature film debut in Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drama The Panic in Needle Park, portraying a heroin-addicted New Yorker who spirals out of control. Pacino was already 31 years old by then, and his relative anonymity in pop culture appealed to Coppola, a fellow Italian-American who was in the process of adapting Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel, The Godfather. Paramount executives reportedly wanted an A-list actor to portray Michael Corleone, yet Coppola wanted an up-and-coming performer who would be convincing as a Sicilian American. Despite Pacino’s short stature at 5’7″ he ultimately landed the role and delivered an Oscar-nominated performance, one that preceded starring roles in ’70s classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and, of course, The Godfather Part II.
According to Peter Cowie’s 1997 publication The Godfather Book, Paramount initially targeted Warren Beatty and Robert Redford to star as Michael Corleone. By the early ’70s, however, Beatty already had a loyal following after starring in the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde. He did indeed have box office clout but didn’t quite have the physical look that Coppola imagined for Michael Corleone, a Godfather in-the-making. As for Redford, he brought the same amount of star power after appearing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but his appearance similarly differed from that of Pacino, an Italian-American through and through who understood the cultural nuances of portraying such a character, as his grandparents were actually from Corleone, Sicily. Redford may have been convincing in The Godfather with dark hair and a stoic demeanor, but his cultural persona would’ve affected how audiences interpreted Michael Corleone’s actions. Paramount wanted a movie star, Coppola aimed for authenticity.
Paramount also auditioned Dustin Hoffman and Martin Sheen for Michael Corleone in The Godfather (per The Godfather Family: A Look Inside documentary). In retrospect, Hoffman made sense because he has a similar look to Pacino, and seemed like a viable alternative that audiences could relate to after starring in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. Coppola would eventually collaborate with Sheen for the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, but he wasn’t quite a big name during the early ’70s and didn’t have the same look as Pacino. According to Jenny M. Jones’s 2007 book The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay, Paramount executive Robert Evans wanted Ryan O’Neal to portray Michael Corleone, based primarily on his Oscar-nominated performance in Love Story.
Ultimately, Paramount actually cast James Caan as Michael Corleone (per a 2009 Vanity Fair article), but Coppola continuously rallied for Pacino and got his way in the end, and agreed to cast Caan as the ill-fated Corleone brother Sonny. Looking back, Caan seemed like a wise choice to portray Michael Corleone in The Godfather because he was a native New Yorker with major star potential. However, he’d already been a working film actor for nearly a decade and was arguably just as recognizable as the other performers that Paramount auditioned. As for Pacino, his performance in The Panic in Needle Park convinced Coppola not only of his talent, but also his ability to sell an authentic performance of a deeply-flawed individual who means well. Michael Corleone initially has good intentions in The Godfather, but his need to avenge his father’s death changes everything. The legend of Pacino doesn’t begin with Coppola’s mob classic, but it’s the film that displays his full skill set.