It was an offer you couldn’t refuse: on Saturday night, the Tribeca Film Festival hosted a 45th anniversary screening of The Godfather I and II, followed by an epic reunion featuring director Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, and Robert De Niro (who is also the co-founder of the festival).
After an epic back-to-back screening of the two films (the third film shall not be mentioned) at Radio City Music Hall, the stars took the stage for a lengthy discussion, moderated by a particularly talkative Taylor Hackford, the Oscar-nominated director of classics like An Officer and a Gentleman. Over the course of the night, the conversation often turned back to behind-the-scenes drama (Coppola’s near firing, Pacino’s multiple screen tests), to countless Marlon Brando stories (like the time he and Duvall mooned everyone on set). The late icon’s presence was commemorated onstage in the form of a large, framed photo of him in full Vito Corleone form.
Though the Godfather films are now regarded as two of the best movies ever made, everything was stacked against the production of the first film. Coppola remembers not even particularly liking Mario Puzo’s original novel at first blush: “I was disappointed in the book when I first read it,” he recalled.
The entire production was fraught before it even began. Coppola was constantly worrying about whether the studio was going to fire him, to the point where his secretary warned him not to quit outright, but to let himself get fired—just in case.
“I didn’t have any money. I had two kids, one on the way, and I was totally broke. And I knew that if they fired me, then they’d have to pay me,” he says. Coppola later got his revenge, firing 12 people who were the main “naysayers” of his vision that wanted him off the project.
His secretary gave him the firing advice after the first time Coppola went to meet with Brando, another figure the studio wasn’t fond of. “I was told by the president [of Paramount] . . . ‘Brando will not appear in this picture, and I prohibit you from bringing up his name again,’” Coppola said. The actor eventually got the role after doing a screen test, taking a measly salary, and putting up a $1 million bond as insurance that he wouldn’t “cause trouble” during filming.
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Brando, who later won an Oscar for his role as the jowly Corleone patriarch, was an ever-present topic throughout the night, with many cast members recalling their favorite moments with the acting icon. Robert Duvall remembered that Brando thought James Caan was the funniest person on the set, and loved causing a little mischief of his own.
“During the wedding scene, we all were mooning each other,” Duvall ssaid. “Some woman turned to me said said, ‘Mr. Duvall, you’re fine.’ She turned to her friend and then said, ‘But did you catch the balls on that Brando?’”
Back then, Brando was already a long-time household name. Al Pacino, on the other hand, was still somewhat unknown, with only a couple of movies under his belt (including The Panic in Needle Park, the film that got Coppola’s attention). The director called up the burgeoning star, who remembers thinking it was “strange” that anyone would adapt the daunting best-seller, and thought it was even more “nuts” that Coppola wanted him to play chameleonic Michael Corleone.
“It’s not a good role,” he remembers thinking. “Sonny [James Caan’s role] is the part I can play!”
Still, he was flattered that Coppola had thought of him, and later put himself through a grueling number of screen tests in order to win over the studio as well. “The studio didn’t want me . . . and then they didn’t want me after they had hired me.”
“I was living on 90th and Broadway, and I walked to the Village and back every day,” he said. “I did it thinking about this role.”
He also worked off some of his new-to-movies nerves on the set, saying he and Diane Keaton got “so loaded after that wedding scene,” bonding over their theater backgrounds. During the reunion, Keaton also admitted her own confusion about getting cast in the film, saying she still doesn’t know why Coppola chose her. “I read recently that Francis thought I was eccentric,” she said with a laugh. “Yeah. Right. He wasn’t wrong.”
Talia Shire, who is Coppola’s real-life sister, had to fight a little harder for her part as the long-suffering Connie. Coppola thought the role called for someone a bit more “homely,” an adjective he’d never use to describe his sister. Plus, she also had little on-screen experience.
“One of my first scenes, I walked into the camera and knocked it down,” Shire recalls. “It was Marlon Brando who said ’That’s O.K.’”
Of course, Shire was later nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for the performance, and also inspired a future plot point for the film: according to Coppola, it was Shire’s idea for Kay to have an abortion in the sequel.
If, at this point, you’re wondering what Robert De Niro had to say at the reunion, there’s surprisingly little to add here. The actor, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the young Vito Corleone, answered only one question during the night (he was, frankly, hardly asked any questions), discussing the process of taking the role over from Brando.
“I was honored that Francis asked me to do the part,” he said, adding that he meticulously watched Brando’s performance “over and over again . . . I looked at it in kind of a scientific way.”
Though it’s difficult to imagine the modern film landscape without the sweeping influence of the Godfather films, Coppola thinks there’s no way these movies could have been made in today’s franchise-happy studio system.
“It could be made today, but it wouldn’t get the go-ahead,” he says, adding that “nothing can get a green light” unless it’s a Marvel movie. He remembers that Kirk Kerkorian, the late former head of MGM, asked him for the secret to make a film that’s “successful financially and also artistically.”
Coppola’s response was cool and brief, an acute illustration of how he forged such a groundbreaking career: “I said ‘Risk.’”