Forty years ago this week, a film debuted which would ultimately become recognized as perhaps the best American film ever--and certainly the most impactful movie series ever.
The Godfather, based on the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo, was released in 1972 and featured a cast which included Marlon Brando, James Caan, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and John Cazale. The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Paramount Pictures, and Robert Evans--then head of the studio--wanted an Italian American to direct the film which chronicled the life of the Corleone family. Sergio Leone turned down the director's role as did Peter Bogdanovich. Coppola initially didn't want to direct the film given fears that it would glorify violence and reflect poorly on his Sicilian and Italian heritage. He ultimately was convinced to do so and later claimed that the studio wanted him because he was young and could be "pushed around."
Coppola and Paramount clashed throughout the making of the film. Making matters worse, the studio was in financial trouble and desperately needed a big hit, thus making the pressure on Coppola even more intense.
Even though the film features some of the most lauded actors of our time, the casting decisions made by Coppola were unpopular at the time. Paramount initially refused to cast Brando in the lead part but relented once Coppola got the star to appear for less salary than his previous films. The studio also wanted either Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal to play the role of Michael Corleone but Coppola wanted an unknown who looked the part. He found that actor in Al Pacino even though the studio also auditioned stars like Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Warren Beatty.
Duvall eventually got the role of Tom Hagen, with names like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman considered for that character. Others who unsuccessfully auditioned were Sylvester Stallone (Carlo Rizzi), Anthony Perkins (Sonny Corleone) and Mia Farrow (Kay.)
The Godfather won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Writing (Screenplay) and Best Actor (Brando); the film was also nominated for eight other Academy Awards. And, the American Film Institute has ranked it second only to Citizen Kane among their list of greatest American motion pictures ever.
Many films were made, prior to The Godfather, about gangsters but Coppola's magnum opus paved the way for future films like Goodfellas and the TV series, The Sopranos. While the trilogy has a crime family as its core characters, it is at its foundation a study on familial relationships with an ensemble cast which will never be replicated again.