Godfather: How Brando Was Cast?

Author Mario Puzo claims that he had Marlon Brando in mind as Don Vito Corleone while he was writing “The Godfather.” He sold the rights to Paramount before the book was published for $35,000, and a promise that he would also write, or collaborate on the screenplay for a fee of $100,000, and get a percentage on film’s returns.

 

At first, Paramount was not enthusiastic about The Godfather, as recently they had lost money on The Brotherhood, a crime-mafia movie starring Kirk Douglas.  They therefore instructed Puzo to design his script as a more contemporary crime story. The studio allocated a modest $2 million budget and hired Al Ruddy as producer and Francis Ford Coppola as director, both in their early thirties.

 

Coppola’s screen background was not impressive enough to qualify him as a director. Ruddy had been involved in TV and a few minor films, and Coppola had directed “You’re a Big Boy Now,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” and “The Rain People,” none of which was successful at the box office. But Coppola was more respected as a writer, having won an Oscar as co-scripter of “Patton,” directed by Franklin Schaffner.

 

Coppola persuaded Paramount to invest more money in The Godfather, after the successful reception of Puzo’s book, which had sold half a million copies in hardback and ten million copies in paperback. Coppola and Puzzo then wrote a literal translation of the book.

 

Who would play the title role? Ruddy and Coppola wanted Brando or Olivier. The great English actor declined, explaining that he did not feel well enough to tackle such a big part.  For his part, Brando read the book in three days. But the studio adamantly refused to consider Brando, due to his lack of bankability.

 

For the first time in his career, Brando agreed to make a screen test. Producer Ruddy took a videotape unit to Brando’s home in the Hollywood hills.  Says the producer, “Marlon just put some black make-up under his eyes, streaked his hair with gray and pulled it back, penciled a moustache, and puffed out his cheeks with toilet paper. He just sat there sipping on a little cup of coffee and puffing on of those Italian cigars — no talk, just expressions — and there he was, Don Corleone. Paramount flipped when they saw the test. Bob Evans, head of production, said, ‘He looks Italian, fine. But who is it?’

 

Brando’s problem in approaching the part was his age. He was 47 and the story required him to play a man 20 years older, not to mention that he had to further age during the saga. To help Brando with the physical aspects, Ruddy hired Dick Smith, a make-up artist who aged Brando by wrinkling his skin, and also applied liquid latex around the eyes.  To produce the sags and loose facial flesh, Smith created a denture of a band of metal designed to fit around Brando’s lower teeth and change his bite. A gum-like substance was then inserted at the jaw line to produce simulated jowls. He dyed his hair and added gray tones. They also used olive skin tones and dark eye make-up to create a more Mediterranean look.

 

Brando turned in an stunning performance: His Don Corleone is a tough Sicilian peasant who has risen to become an omnipotent chieftain in an empire of Italian-American crime, the leader of one of the five families that control the Mafia in the area of New York.  A family man, he treats his sons and his relatives as part of his extended clan and operation.  He expects and receives loyalty and devotion.  The most fascinating contradiction of the movie is that, though it’s a story of crime with brutal violence, it’s also a story of a family adhering to their own code of morality, based on concern and responsibility for each other.

 

Brando was shrewd in accepting a relatively small salary of $100,000, far less than his usual wage, gambling on taking “a piece of the action.”  Since no one believed it would be such a huge success, his contract allowed for 2.5 percent of the first $10 million gross earned by the picture, then 5 percent afterward up to 25 million, and after that 20 percent up to 100 million (which eventually the movie surpassed).