When Francis Ford Coppola first read Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, there was one face in his head: that of a young actor from the Bronx named Al Pacino.
An alumnus of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, Pacino began his career on the stage, winning an Obie award in 1968 and a Tony in 1969. Coppola saw Pacino in his Tony-clinching performance, and sent him the script for a romance film he was working on. He flew Pacino out to San Francisco and the pair spent five days together, shooting pool at American Zoetrope, the upstart production company Coppola shared with George Lucas. But the picture didn’t work out and Pacino returned to New York, eventually taking his first film lead in the low-budget addiction drama The Panic In Needle Park.
Before that film’s release, Pacino got another call from Coppola, saying he was about to direct The Godfather, and that he wanted Pacino for the lead. To Pacino, this seemed patently absurd — it was far too early in both of their careers to make a picture on this scale. But he humoured him: ‘I thought, okay, I’ll go along with this. I said, yes, Francis, good. You know how they talk to you when you’re slipping? They say, “Yes! Of course! Yes!” But he wasn’t. It was the truth. And then I was given the part.’
Coppola persuaded Puzo by showing him a reel from The Panic In Needle Park, but the executives at Paramount were harder to convince. They wanted a name, someone who could sell a movie. Someone like Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson or Ryan O’Neal – someone tall and classically handsome and totally at odds with how the character is described in the book.
And so came screen test after screen test, and each time Coppola stubbornly snuck in Pacino amongst all the established big names. Eventually the director got his way, not only with the role of Michael Corleone, but with his choices for the entire cast.
The tests cost $400,000 out of the film’s total budget of $6m, and they ate into Coppola’s preparation time, leaving him without scouted locations or a finished script when filming began. He rewrote scenes overnight and insisted on hours of daily rehearsals, causing problems on the tightly wound set. While he was excellent with his actors, Coppola had sketchy technical skills, and cinematographer Gordon Willis often stepped in to ensure marks were hit and schedules kept.
Coppola was rescued from a seemingly certain sacking when he won an Oscar for writing Patton a few weeks into the production. Pacino, meanwhile, was saved by the rushes — Coppola did him a favour by insisting on bringing forward the filming of the shooting of Sollozzo in the restaurant. When Pacino saw the result, he panicked. In the scene he appeared nervous, shifty-eyed and unfocused. But this was exactly what Coppola had wanted for Michael’s moment of transformation.
Pacino detailed their working relationship to Playboy in 1979: ‘With Francis… those were his performances, he made them. And he knew it. He’d say, “I created you — you’re my Frankenstein monster.”’ And Coppola, the black sheep of a boisterous Italian clan, had a lot in common with Michael: ‘I never saw the likes of him…For a man that emotionally powerful to be able to detach the way he does… like Michael Corleone. That’s why Francis understood that character.’
This article originally appeared in Total TV Guide on