Godfather, The: Best American Film Ever? 50th Anniversary

The Cast Looks Back on Legendary Oscar-Winning Picture and Shares Insights on the Production

James Caan, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire and John Martino talk Marlon Brando, including his acting trick that screwed the rest of them up; bitterness over a cut scene; nailing a dangerous moment in one take; and a loathing for cannolis; among much more.

Based on the best-selling book by the late Mario Puzo, The Godfather debuted in theaters on March 24, 1972.

Immediately receiving universal acclaim, the Paramount Pictures film was, for a while, the highest-grossing movie of all time, hauling in $243.8 million worldwide, which adjusted for inflation equals $1.6 billion.

Novice Italian American director Coppola, then 32, helmed the Mafia picture for producer Albert S. Ruddy; tales of its uphill production, fraught with one issue after another–such as casting the brilliant Marlon Brando–are so epic, they’re getting a limited series treatment on Paramount+ titled The Offer.

The Godfather was enshrined as best picture at the 45th Oscar Awards. In addition to Coppola winning an Oscar (shared with Puzo) for best adapted screenplay, he was also nominated for best director (which he would later nab for the 1974 sequel). Several of the iconic cast were also nominated, including Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Caan.

The Godfather inspired two sequels, The Godfather: Part II (considered by some to be superior to the original) and 1990’s The Godfather: Part III, which failed to earn a single Oscar.

In 2020, Coppola recut Part III, which finally showed his real  vision for the film, which was retitled Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.

Paramount Pictures released The Godfather trilogy on 4K Ultra HD.

To commemorate The Godfather’s halfcentury mark, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire and John Martino shared memories of making the legendary mob blockbuster. The overall feeling is that The Godfather is a masterpiece of which they are very proud.

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Tom Hagen (Duvall) and Sonny Corleone (Caan) fight over the best way to run the Mafia family after Don Vito, their father, is shot and hospitalized. Hagen implores Sonny to stop being so rash with emotion and think long-term business strategies. EVERETT COLLECTION

 

James Caan is still irritated that Coppola cut one of his larger scenes. In fact, he was so angry when he discovered it was missing, he walked out of the screening.

“When Michael [Pacino] tells me he is going to take care of the cop and Sollozzo [Al Lettieri], I say, ‘You’ll get brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.’ There was a scene before in the same room that I had with Bobby [Duvall] that was like 10 pages long — and Francis cut all of it out! I was so pissed off, I couldn’t watch the rest of the film.” He adds with a laugh, “But otherwise, he gave me a great honor.”

Caan played Santino “Sonny” Corleone, the eldest son of the Mafia don Vito Corleone (Brando) and Carmela Corleone (Morgana King). Sonny becomes the head of the crime family after Vito is shot. His temper and brash actions ultimately lead to his violent, albeit memorable, death.

While discussing the film, also Caan cleared up a longtime rumor that he allegedly disliked Gianni Russo — who played Connie Corleone’s (Shire) husband, Carlo Rizzi — and that Caan may have taken out his frustration on his fellow actor during their fight in the street after Carlo physically abuses Connie.

“He had a fight with someone else. Not me,” Caan explains. “I did the fight scene with stuntman Paul Baxley. He came in, and we made up the whole fight. And everything you saw in there is something that Paul and I created the day before.”

Caan also made sure to note that the shoes Sonny wears in that scene he bought himself, knowing they were right for the character. “Every Italian I knew from my neighborhood, they may have two suits, but they had 12 pairs of shoes, and one pair was always black and white. When I came into wardrobe, I asked, ‘Where are the black-and-white shoes?’ And they said, ‘Not in the script.’ So, I went and bought them.”

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Connie Corleone (Shire) and Vito Corleone (Brando) dance at the wedding that opens the film. In between shots of the massive, lavish party, the Godfather takes requests for his services from friends and confidants. EVERETT COLLECTION

 

Talia Shire thought she was going to be spending just three days in a cumbersome wedding gown for the opening party scene of The Godfather. It turned into two weeks.

That is one of many vivid memories the actress has from her time on the picture she holds so dear to her heart. “So, I cannot tell you what the stress was like,” she says of those 14 days. “My father was the band conductor in the scene. And my mother was there. Seeing me as a bride, that is all that she could see. She couldn’t see any of the stresses around it.”

Shire, who also portrayed the iconic Adrian Balboa in the Rocky series and is Coppola’s sister, played Connie in all three Godfather films.

In the first film, Connie finds herself in an abusive relationship with Carlo that culminates in a brutal fight where several dishes are broken. Shire remembers that as a tough day of production, especially because she knew they only had one shot at the moment.

“The camera was in the center of the violent experience,” the actress explains. “Francis and I went there the night before to plan how I would circle around. I didn’t want to screw it up. Take two with a scene like that is impossible. I remember spinning around, breaking dishes, and I lost my shoes. So, I was running around barefoot thinking, “Oh please, don’t let me step on anything” — and I didn’t. The moment was raw and extremely vulnerable — and pathetic.”

To this day, the actress still marvels at Brando’s transformation into his Oscar-winning character, as she explains one of his tricks for looking authentic on camera.

“When he came to the set the first time, he was this handsome male,” says Shire, still a bit taken. “So that was breathtaking. But I will tell you what he did. There is a term actors use called ‘active listening.’ It’s not always when you say your lines that you pay attention; it is the listening to all the others around you. So Brando had a technique where he put wax in his ears, so he had to strain to hear you. And we all tried it — and we missed our cues.”

For Shire, the film’s legacy is defined by one word: art. “The Godfather has a soul and a presence,” she says. “And that’s what movies do: They change you if they’re alive. When you’re dealing with a work of art, you have to be changed — or don’t go near it.”

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Tom Hagen (Duvall) and Vito Corleone (Brando) discuss who among the Mafia family’s soldiers and connection should be tasked with requests that were delivered on Connie’s wedding day. EVERETT COLLECTION

 

When asked his favorite moment in The Godfather, Robert Duvall quickly says: When Tom Hagen struggles to tell Vito that Sonny has been murdered. It’s arguably the most emotional scene in the film, perhaps even the entire trilogy, due to the two powerhouse actors’ shared devastation. Duvall credits the organic moment to brevity.

“We did two takes,” Duvall explains. “Coppola said, ‘You want to do one more?’ And we said ‘fine.’ And the last one was it. Like in the theater, when things happen in the first and second reading, it doesn’t happen again. And that happens in film. So, I am not a believer in 25, 30 takes, as some directors do. Coppola does not do that.”

Duvall played Tom Hagen, Vito’s adopted son. He becomes consigliere and head lawyer of the Corleone family. Tom is as wise and tactful as he is cold, such as when he instantly denies Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda) a reprieve for attempting to betray Michael (Pacino).

The first time the entire cast was together was for dinner before production began. It was in that moment Duvall knew the group was going to gel. “Brando sat at the head of the table, and it really felt like a family entity at the moment.”

Having already shared plenty of zany stories about Brando over the years, Duvall prefers these days to focus on what made him a tremendous actor. “Whatever scene you did with Brando, it was fun,” says Duvall. “He gave, you gave. He talked, you’d listen. You’d talk, he’d listen. I call it from ink to behavior. It was great.”

The Godfather: Part II may be considered the superior film, but for Duvall the first was more fun to make. The reason? James Caan. “Jimmy made it so funny,” the actor says, pointing to a particular moment the day after they shot the not-very-funny scene where Vito looks upon Sonny’s mangled body at the morgue.

Before shooting, Brando asked Coppola to prepare himself. “It was a small scene, but it meant something to him emotionally,” Duvall recalls. “The next day, Jimmy [facetiously] asks, ‘Can Bobby have a moment?’ So I take a moment like I am getting ready to do something emotional. Francis called action. And I simply walked across the stage. And Brando gave me a look. It was just Jimmy having fun, and Coppola liked that because it ultimately relaxed the set.”

Duvall remembers all too well the enormous stress Coppola was under during production as he butted heads with Paramount brass. “He didn’t know if he was going to be fired because the higher-ups weren’t quite compatible with his interpretation,” Duvall says. “But, he did it his way. And about a third of the way through, I said, ‘We are really in something special here.’ I have only felt that way twice: Godfather and Part II.”

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Vito Corleone (Brando) lays wounded in the street as his helpless son Fredo (John Cazale) looks on. Vito was set up by Corleone soldier Paulie Gatto (John Martino) after he refused to help orchestrate drug trafficking on the request of other Mafia families. EVERETT COLLECTION

 

It became one of the most famous lines of The Godfather, perhaps all of cinema. Actor John Martino could not believe his ears when he heard it for the first time as he was hunched over a steering wheel, covered in fake blood.

“I am dead, and Clemenza [Richard S. Castellano] comes back and ad-libs, ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli.’ I hear him, and I am thinking, ‘He just killed his friend, his right-hand guy — and all he cares about taking the cannoli?!’” exclaims Martino. “That line, I had no idea it was going to become one of the top lines of all time. But sure enough. And anytime I go someplace, they have cannolis in front of me. And I say, ‘Oh, my God. I hate cannolis!’”

Martino played Paulie Gatto, a Corleone soldier and bodyguard to Vito. Paulie pretends to be sick so that Vito would be more susceptible to a hit after refusing to help facilitate drug trafficking for the other Mafia families using his political connections.

The actor makes clear there is nothing to debate: Sonny was right. Paulie got greedy. “I betrayed them,” he says with a laugh. “Paulie Gatto, if you read the book, is a stick-up artist. He liked money. He was thinking about stealing the wedding purse! The guy is thinking about money all the time. He is a real good bodyguard for the Godfather, but Sollozzo found that Fredo [John Cazale] wasn’t going to be able to protect the dad, so he got to Paulie Gatto.”

The situation was cut and dried, but that didn’t make it any easier for Martino to play. “I hated that,” he stresses. “I hated being the part of the traitor, but he had that thing for money. I talked to actual mob people about it, and they hated that part. My father was even upset over it!”

Martino also recalls the scene that Caan was angry did not make it into the final cut, as he was on set, but not onscreen at the time. “They were discussing Paulie Gatto and whether he or Clemenza was the traitor. There were many scenes cut, but I was lucky: They didn’t cut any of my scenes. And every one of my scenes was one take.”