Godfather: Celebration and Reunion–Casting Pacino and Brando–Part 2

The Godfather (1972) The Godfather, Part II (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Talia Shire

Taylor Hackford (moderator)

April 29, 2017, Tribeca Film Festival, New York

Casting Al Pacino:

Coppola: He was doing it and it came out much later.  Ultimately, they did see it.  Evans and the Paramount people did see it close to when they made that final switch. But what was interesting was that Al had gotten a part in, “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight” so he wasn’t even available when they finally made the decision.

I had met Al. He came to San Francisco to visit me. I had written another screenplay about a kind of guy like me, an Italian guy. And I heard Al was a wonderful theater actor and I invited him to come to San Francisco and he came and spent maybe almost a week with me and I got to hang out with him and enjoy his company.  Later, when they gave me, “The Godfather” script to read.  Every time I read it I always saw his face. And in the scene in particular when he was walking across Sicily with the shepherds, I just saw a handsome young guy with black hair. Once you see someone in the role during the reading, it’s very hard to get that out of your head.

Al Pacino: It seemed liked I was always testing.  I kept testing after I got the part.

Coppola: Once I called him after he had tested six times and his girlfriend got on the phone, and I said, “If Al would just come in one more time” and she says, “What are you doing to him?!” and she just yelled at me and berated me. Saying that I was torturing him.

Al Pacino: I even said to him, without Frances where would I be.  At the same time, I even said to him, “Francis, its ok, we’ll work again, there is other things to do.” He said, “No, I want you.”  I thought, this guy can’t be happening.  I’m dreaming or something. This is too much. I said, “Ok, fine then. I’ll do whatever.”  Then finally got accepted.

Francis Ford Coppola: I think it was, “The Panic in Needle Park.”  When they finally saw some footage, and saw his power on the frame.

Al Pacino: You don’t want to do it anymore. I mean really, it’s just a thing with me. I’ll say it because it’s true. You don’t want to be somewhere where you’re not wanted. I even said it to Francis.  I’m not interested in that at all.

Coppola:  Bobby was involved in that.  Bobby had done a wonderful reading audition. One that you would say, wow.  It was for Sonny. But it was totally unusual and real and just different. I was very impressed and so I, for sure, wanted him to be in the movie so I cast him as Paulie Gatto, the guy who was the traitor.  And then he called me and said he was up for a part in, “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight” but he didn’t want to take the part because he didn’t want to lose Paulie Gatto. I told him to go for the part, if he got it – great, If he didn’t I would hold the part for him. I wouldn’t cast anyone else. So, he did get the part.  When I came back from England and I heard he didn’t get the part so he would ply Paulie Gatto.  Al did get a part in, “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight” and was legally signed and everything so I didn’t know how they could put him in, “The Godfather.”

Al Pacino: So then they wound up suing me. So, by the time they finished, “The Godfather” I had no money but I owed fifteen grand for lawyers. I remember that.

Coppola: But the test that Bobby talks to when they all went to in San Francisco, including Diane. They had the whole cast for like a $6.00 screen test.  My wife was doing the haircuts and they were not satisfied so we then spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with every bright young leading man. In fact we did so many screentest that I remember, and this is no doubt true, Charlie Bluhdorn said, “I saw your two hundred screentests they are all terrible.  Those actors can’t all be terrible. There are so many actors but there is only one director. It is the director that is terrible.”

Marlon Brando

Coppola: It wasn’t a matter of convincing Marlon Brando, it was a matter of convincing Paramount.  I never talked with Marlon again after that turn down but I was told by the executives at Paramount that absolutely Brando who had been in Quemada for the film, “Burnt!” which had been unsuccessful, that having Brando in the film would be less commercially then if a total unknown had did it. Finally, I was told, by the President of Paramount, “Francis, as President of Paramount Pictures I am telling you Marlon Brando will not appear in this picture and I prohibit you from bringing up his name again.” After that I sort of, like Kevin Kline, I fell on the floor in a faint. And they all looked. I said, “well if I can’t even talk about him, what am I supposed to do? I think Marlon Brando would be great.” And Fred Roos, who was involved with all of the people, said, “Alright, if Marlon will do a screentest, if he’ll do it for nothing, and if he’ll put up a million dollar bond that he won’t cause trouble during the production then you can have him.” and I said, “I except!” and ultimately, they left the door open just a tiny bit and then a whole lot of stuff went on how he actually got the part.

Coppola: Brando was himself.  Dick Smith was a genius at what he did. He took it to the next level. But, when I went to Brando’s one early morning, I said to do some improvisation, I didn’t say it was a screen-test. I went and I brought provolone cheese, salami, props I could put around. He came out of his bedroom that early morning and he was beautiful. He had long blonde hair, and he had a Japanese robe on. Not a word was spoken.  He saw me there, he saw there was a camera.  He took his hair and rolled it up, then put shoe polish on it. Then put a shirt on and started bending the colors. He said, “they always have the colors bent.” And he would take a little bite of the provolone.  Then he took some paper and stuffed it in his jaws. He said, “These should be like a bulldog.” Then he also said, “he was shot in the throat, so maybe he should talk like this.” (imitates Brando) and he started turning into the character.  Even as he was there doing that the phone rang and he picked up the phone still in character. He had totally turned in the character.  I had it all on video tape and that is really what did the trick.

I thought it was miraculous. I was very impressed with him.  I communicated with him.  You don’t talk to Marlon about acting stuff. He just wants to hear louder or not so loud.  Or he wants to be told where the camera frame is going to be or you could put props, like I put that cat in his hand.  He just would use whatever.

Brando and Cat

Coppola: It was a studio cat. It was only one take, I picked it up and put it in Brando’s hand.

Brando had a wonderful way with children and animals.  He loved children and animals.  He was very comfortable with them and they were comfortable with him.

John Cazzale

Coppola: Fred Roos brought him and said he was a natural and that he should definitely be Fredo.

Al Pacino: He was a very close friend of mine. We had worked a lot together. We had done plays and “Dog Day Afternoon.”