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The Unlikely Story of The Godfather: How The Greatest Film Ever Made Came to Be

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 15, 2023 3:01 am

The Unlikely Story of The Godfather: How The Greatest Film Ever Made Came to Be

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 15, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the director was a renegade filmmaker who'd never made a profitable picture. The producer was hired because he could stay below budget. The star had a reputation for being difficult. A formula for disaster? No, the makings of one of the greatest films of all time. Here to tell the story is Harlan Lebo, author of The Godfather Legacy.

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Get holiday ready right now at the Home Depot. How doers get more done. And we continue with our American stories. Up next, the story of The Godfather and its unlikely journey to the screen. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, was a renegade filmmaker who never made a profitable picture.

The producer, Al Ruddy, was hired because he could stay below budget. The star, Marlon Brando, had a reputation for being difficult. A formula for disaster?

Nope, not quite. It was the makings of one of the greatest films of all time. Here to tell the story is Harlan Lebo, author of The Godfather Legacy. The Godfather really is very much a family story. It's certainly not a family picture by any means in the traditional sense of a rated G film, but it is a movie about a family. There are many things about the mafia and violence in the film, but at the heart of the story are the struggles within a family, a very powerful man, his three sons and his daughter, and in particular, the struggles of Michael, his youngest son, who wanted to stay out of the family business, as they call it, but winds up, of course, at the end of The Godfather, the film and the book, both as powerful and as ruthless as his father could have ever imagined.

So it's very much a family picture. I mean, it's the same way as looking at Gone with the Wind. It's Gone with the Wind isn't a movie about the Civil War. It just has the Civil War as a backdrop.

It's about the struggles of a woman during the Civil War. But The Godfather is the same way. The whole issue of family and trust and love are very much a part of The Godfather. In fact, they're integral to The Godfather. Michael, the youngest son, played by Al Pacino, never would have done what he did, which is become part of the family business, if it was not for his love of his father. And that's a real torment for him. But it doesn't stop him from becoming the ruthless killer that he does become. You spend time with your family? Sure, I do.

Good. Because a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man. If you look at Hell's Kitchen or other parts of New York, for example, where they filmed The Godfather Part II, they were not good parts of New York then. But the city has changed and continues to change, and it's much nicer now. But Hell's Kitchen was the classic tenement section of New York City for many decades, and that's where Mario Puzo was from. He was young, he was poor, he eventually became a civil servant working in New York, and at the same time was a struggling fiction author through the 1960s. He wrote good books, but they didn't sell very well at all, until he decided to pick up an idea that he thought about all along the way and was mentioned just a bit in one of his other books, which is the experiences of a family involved in the underworld of New York. And that's when the idea for The Godfather came along.

The book itself was one of the great page-turning books. One summer that it came out, Puzo had decided to give writing one last shot. He maxed out all the credit cards. He also got a little money from Paramount Pictures, but this really was his last shot at writing. He sent off the manuscript, he came back from a vacation, and he came back to discover that not only had the book sold, but the paper was sold, and that the book was sold for about $400,000. And in 1970 money, that's a lot of money. So the book was a gigantic hit, number one on the bestseller list for months and months, and it was a natural fit, you would think, to be made into a film.

But that's where other problems started. The process of giving writers advances wasn't done very often, but it was done most of the time. And it was done in the past, but it was done most frequently by an executive named Peter Bart, who is still very active in the film business. Right now he is a columnist and has been for years writing some of the most intelligent work about the film business and entertainment in general.

But Peter believed very strongly that some writers needed a little help from now and then to keep going, as all struggling writers do. He had already supported other books that had done very well, like Love Story, which did very well for Paramount Pictures. So Peter Bart supported Puzo with a few bucks now and then, and they held on to the rights to make The Godfather the book into a film if it turned out to be a success. Well, of course, it turned out to be a huge success, which naturally led it into becoming a film project in 1971. No one did want to direct the film, even though The Godfather the book was a huge bestseller. It was thought at the time that a movie about the mafia would not be very successful, and primarily that's because of what Paramount wanted to do with it. They had supported Puzo as a writer, but they didn't want to support the film any more than any other relatively low-budget, shoot-em-up picture about crime. And as a result, there were no takers on directors for the film and very little interest in the project. That problem was compounded by the fact that the film called The Brotherhood had come out at about the same time, which had a huge budget, big stars, and it flopped because, again, it was just not well thought of as a topic to make movies about the mafia. Well, eventually, the movie was offered to Francis Coppola to direct, and Coppola was a young, just-getting-started director. He'd only had I think three films at that point, and had written another one. Much of the original book was a potboiler, so it was not a film I particularly wanted to do, but I had no money.

And my then-young assistant, George Lucas, said, Francis, you got to get a job, because the sheriff's going to come and put a chain on the door of American Zoetrope, because we haven't paid our bills. Do this movie. And so I ultimately took the job and wrote the screenplay.

I just took the novel and went through it and underlined everything that I thought that I could use. But part of the reason they went to Coppola was he seemed solid enough as a director, but he was also Italian-American, and that was crucial to the project at the time. And we could certainly talk about the problems within the Italian-American community in the 1960s and early 1970s with Hollywood, but the short version is that it was viewed within many Italian-American families that any time an Italian-American person appeared in the film, it was in a crime role. And there were no non-crime roles, legitimate characters who were Italian-American in films or on television.

Well, Paramount came around to the idea that one of the ways to solve that problem is to have an Italian-American director. They went to Coppola, they offered the project to him, and he turned it down too. He came around because of the same things we were talking about a few minutes ago. He finally did read the book all the way through.

He only read sort of the smutty parts up front before he declined. But then he realized the same thing that we did, which is that the movie is not about the mafia at its core. What it's about is a family and the problems of a particular family and the struggles of that family. That's the story at its core.

And if you focus on Michael, the problems of the youngest son, then it becomes even more interesting. So Coppola agreed to do the film with many conditions, and he was able to convince Paramount to buy in. Coppola did grow up in Detroit and a few other places as well. His father, Carmine, was a very talented musician and composer, but he always felt like he was waiting for his break to come, like he was waiting for that knock to come on the door.

And it never did, or at least it never did until his son helped him later. And Coppola realized that you just can't wait around for these things. You need to go out and make your own breaks. And he did make his own breaks.

And of course, here was a break that had been handed to him because of the talent he had developed and he turned it down and then finally did accept it. But he made very strong demands about how the film needed to be made. The primary demand, of course, was that it be filmed entirely on location in New York, which is a very expensive proposition. At that point, the studio wanted to make it either in studio or on the streets in Los Angeles, which would have been much cheaper. They had a very small budget in mind for the film.

And of course, by today's standards, the budget was very small, but by the standards then and the struggles within the motion picture industry in the early 1970s, it was a very small budget. Coppola got more. Keep in mind, The Godfather is a huge book and has many subplots. And he made the case that he was going to focus as much as he could on the trials and tribulations of the family. And he stood his ground. And there were many times where he had to stand his ground over the next few months. And you've been listening to Harlan Lebo, author of The Godfather Legacy, tell the story about how The Godfather came to be. Heck, even as a best selling piece of fiction, it barely happened. I mean, it was Mario Puzo's last shot. And what do you know, it becomes a hit. Coppola doesn't even want to do the film.

The only reason he's been picked is because he's Italian and he's probably cheap. And he says no the first time, but he needs the money. When we come back, more of the story of how The Godfather came to be with Harlan Lebo here on Our American Stories. Following last year's amazing turnout, the Black Effect Podcast Network and Nissan are helping HBCU scholars jumpstart their futures by throwing another Thrill of Possibility Summit. The Thrill of Possibility Summit is an opportunity to network with peers and professionals and gain career knowledge from leaders in the industries of science, technology, engineering, art, and math, also known as STEAM. To kick it off, Nissan is giving 50 HBCU scholars who major in STEAM disciplines the opportunity for an all-expenses-paid trip to Nashville, Tennessee, this year's summit location. This is a remarkable opportunity to be mentored by some of auto, tech, and podcasting's brightest minds, bringing together notable voices of the Black Effect Podcast Network featuring Charlamagne the God, John Hope Bryant, and Debbie Brown, all brought to you by Nissan. Success is a journey. You're in the driver's seat.

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Visit ebay.com for terms. And we continue with our American stories and with Harlan Lebow, author of The Godfather Legacy, the untold story of the making of the classic Godfather trilogy. Let's pick up where we last left off. The Godfather is a movie about violence and about in some ways about love and about family. But it's one of the best American films ever made or one of the best films ever made about power, how power can be used and how power can corrupt.

And those are the elements that Coppola went for. And in all fairness, the movie was very, of course, very popular at the time. But even more important, it is a lasting treasure of American cinema. If you ask practically anyone the kinds of films they like or the films of their favorite films, The Godfather is almost always one of the films that everybody everybody really loves.

It really was quite universal. The issues of love and family and conflict are so clear in the film. I mean, let's face it, there's a lot of violence in The Godfather. Of course, there is. That is part of the story.

It's part of the culture. It tells the story in many ways of the family itself. But the problems within the family, in particular, of course, Al Pacino playing Michael and his struggles to stay away from the family business all fall apart. And that's the intriguing part of the story right up to the very end. What you do with the headstrong, violent oldest son, that sort of takes care of itself about halfway through the movie when he's killed. But then always that the story of Fredo, the middle son, and what happened to him or what didn't happen to him, how he was sort of left by the side of the road in many respects, that gets picked up again in much more detail in Godfather Part 2. Mike, you don't come to Las Vegas and talk to a man like Mo Green like that. Fredo, you're my older brother and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again.

Ever. But it was a real problem filming The Godfather. The film was shot primarily in the spring and summer of 1971. And they were filming in 19, what was supposed to be 1946, 47 and 48.

Well, that doesn't seem all that long before it was only 23 years earlier, but it was a long time in the history of New York and the city really looked nothing like it did in 1946. And constant attention to detail and fixing the streets and putting up posters or big trucks to block things that would otherwise be seen on screen was a constant challenge when making the film. One of the great pleasures of watching The Godfather is watching the detail of the film, just adding extra details. Dean Tavullaris, the production designer, there's one scene on the streets of a tenement area where James Caan's character, Sunny, the oldest son, beats up his brother-in-law because his brother-in-law has attacked Sunny's sister, the youngest in the family.

Look around at what's going on in that scene, just at the decor and the posters of political campaigns and posters that are falling down and tattered away that have posters underneath them or the cars or the shepherd's crook light poles. All that detail was a constant challenge, but well worth it because The Godfather looks incredibly good and incredibly realistic. Actually, when you look at it now, I believe Brando's character is only in the three-hour Godfather about 43 minutes, something like that.

But his aura is over every frame of the film, and he had exactly what it took to make that character of Don Vito Corleone come alive. Oh, Godfather, I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do. You can act like a man! What's the matter with you? Is this how you turn down a Hollywood binocular that cries like a woman? What can I do? What can I do?

What is that nonsense? Deliculous. I want you to rest well in the month from now. This Hollywood big shot's gonna give you what you want. It's too late. They start shooting in a week.

I'm gonna make them an offer they can't refuse. Well, now we're looking at it in retrospect a lot of years later. Then, Brando was viewed by some as not bankable, so most of his films just before The Godfather had not done very well at all. He was also viewed as impossible to work with by some people who probably unfairly said that he was really very tough on the set and was difficult for directors. For many things, many reasons, he was not anyone's choice to be the Don except for Coppola, who went for him, who met with Marlon Brando, and Brando certainly wanted the part and created his own character right in front of Coppola's eyes as he envisioned the Don being. The president of Paramount told me in these words, he says, Francis, as president of Paramount Pictures, I am telling you that Marlon Brando will not be in this movie. I said, we have to be like ninjas. We have to go to Mr. Brando's house, don't make any noise, and we'll just sort of photograph him experimenting to be an Italian.

So we went, we arrived very early in the morning, and no one said a word. And he came out, he had long blonde hair. He was only 47. He was quite a handsome young man. And as he came out, he, in a beautiful Japanese robe, I remember, he came out and he took his long hair and he kind of put it up behind his head and pinned it in. He got some shoe polish and he started to make it black and kind of do that. And then he put a white shirt on. And I remember he took the white shirt and he was taking his collar, interesting about little seeds of a character, and he started to bend the end of the collar. And he said, those Italian guys, collar is always bent. And he even said, oh, maybe his voice should be very hoarse because he shot in the story in the throat. He was talking like this.

Like that, not saying anything. And meanwhile, we were photographing this. So he even took some Kleenex and he put it into his mouth and said, you know, and he said, those guys look like bulldogs.

And it was a miracle because the character was growing out of this. I took this tape. I decided to go to New York and show it to the chairman and the owner of Paramount who was named Charlie Bluthorn, who was an interesting person. And he had a company called Gulf and Western. It was the first conglomerate.

And one of the companies he owned was Paramount. I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse. Charlie Bluthorn comes out and he recognized me. Oh, Francis, what can I do? I said, well, look at this. And I turned on the tape recorder and there is Marlon Brando with this long blonde hair, rolling it up. And Charlie Bluthorn said, no, no, absolutely not. Marlon Brando. And as he watched and saw this transformation, he said, that's incredible.

That's incredible. And as at that moment, I knew that I had Brando in the part. And of course, Brando to this day is thought of for that role. And Coppola was right. And Coppola had to fight for practically every character, but the key characters he had to fight for was first Marlon Brando and then later Al Pacino.

And we've been listening to author Harlan Lebo tell one heck of a story about the greatest film ever made in American history, that is. That's The Godfather. And a lot of film critics put The Godfather 2 right there with it.

And that never happens with sequels. And so much of it had to do with Francis Ford Coppola's artistic nature, him seeing and understanding the core of the story, which was that it was not a mob film. It was a film about power, violence, love, and family at the center. And my goodness, having to create a film in the streets of New York in 1971 and make it look like it was 1947 or 48, it was pulled off by a master. And then there's that talk of the scene with Marlon Brando and him showing it to this titan, this head of Gulf and Western and saying, no, Brando. And then seeing the magic of Brando owning the character almost instantly. Remarkable storytelling.

When we come back, more of the story of how The Godfather came to be here on Our American Stories. Following last year's amazing turnout, the Black Effect Podcast Network and Nissan are helping HBCU scholars jumpstart their futures by throwing another Thrill of Possibility Summit. The Thrill of Possibility Summit is an opportunity to network with peers and professionals and gain career knowledge from leaders in the industries of science, technology, engineering, art, and math, also known as STEAM. To kick it off, Nissan is giving 50 HBCU scholars who major in STEAM disciplines the opportunity for an all-expenses-paid trip to Nashville, Tennessee, this year's summit location. This is a remarkable opportunity to be mentored by some of auto, tech, and podcasting's brightest minds, bringing together notable voices of the Black Effect Podcast Network, featuring Charlamagne the God, John Hope Bryant, and Debbie Brown, all brought to you by Nissan. Success is a journey. You're in the driver's seat.

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Requires credit qualification and 36-month phone financing agreement. Hey, this is Tanya Raad from the Scrubbing In with Becca Tilly and Tanya Raad Podcast. You'll know real when you get it. It'll say eBay Authenticity Guarantee, and you'll feel it. Maybe it's a head-turning handbag, a watch that says it all, jewelry that makes you look like the gem.

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Not just any experts, specialized experts. Real people who love this stuff with real hands-on authentication experience. So when you see that shiny blue check mark that says Authenticity Guarantee, shop with confidence. Every inch, stitch, sole, and logo is verified authentic through a detailed inspection. That's how you know that eBay's got your back. Because when you finally step into those sneakers, put on that watch, get your real gold glow up, swing that handbag over your shoulder, or step out in that streetwear, you'll realize that feeling is unlike any other. With eBay Authenticity Guarantee, you can trust that feeling of real is always in reach. And sure, your next purchase is the real deal. Visit ebay.com for terms. And we continue with our American stories and with Harlan Lebo, author of The Godfather Legacy.

Let's pick up where we last left off. And Al Pacino, it's so hard for us to think of it now. Al Pacino, the superstar, the legend of Hollywood. But in 1971, he was like many other struggling actors in New York with no work. You know, he would wait tables, he would put pamphlets on cars, just trying to make ends meet while he got acting jobs. And did very well on the stage when he did, but a lot of other people did too. He'd made a couple of movies, including a superb role as a junkie in Panic in Needle Park.

But he's small. He's not traditionally handsome. And there were some of the studio who thought Robert Redford could play Michael, but Coppola knew better. And he tested endlessly for the part of Michael, throwing Pacino's screen tests in as often as he could. But once Pacino got into costume, once he was on set, once his measured reserved performance started to come out, I think people finally realized immediately that he was perfect for the role. And I was thinking, why would Francis want me to play that part? I much prefer Sonny, the one that's more robust, more, there's more to play there.

There's more fun there. How do you play Michael? I thought, but he sees me as Michael. I thought, gee, he's seeing something.

I don't see. Keep in mind that, that Al Pacino's character, Michael Corleone is struggling about what to do with his life. He's just out of the army. He knows he does not want to be part of the, of the family business, family business in quotes, but he also feels a duty to his father and feels that he needs to take care of the people who are responsible for having his father shot and severely wounded, which he does. He murders a police captain and a drug dealer at a restaurant in the Bronx. I think Pacino was probably getting a little behind himself at that point. The studio certainly thought that those scenes were fabulous, which they are. If you look at Pacino in those scenes, that undercurrent of rage and fear in those scenes, as he's preparing for the two murders is unmistakable and unforgettable. But what really sold the studio were some of the first scenes that he shot, which he shot, which were on the streets of New York with Diane Keaton, his girlfriend, Kay, as they were walking away from Radio City Music Hall. And he discovers that his father has been shot when he sees it on the headline of a newspaper.

And that simmering concern and how he presents himself on screen in beautiful color closeups by cinematographer, Gordon Willis with his, his very dark eyes and penetrating stare. That's what sold the studio. They were with him from the start. There was no question at that point.

In fact, it's really sad. You can see after you've seen the movie once, you see him walking on a street and you realize before he walked past this new stand, he was the carefree kid he was trying to become. And when he passes the new stand and Kay has seen the headlines, you know, that it's all on the way down. Send Fredo off to do this. Send Fredo off to do that. Let Fredo take care of some Mickey Mouse nightclub somewhere.

Send Fredo to pick somebody up at the airport. I'm your older brother, Mike, and I was left over. It ain't the way I wanted it. I can handle things. I'm smart. Not like everybody says. Like dumb.

I'm smart and I want respect. John Cazale was a wonderful character actor. He played the part of Fredo, the misunderstood middle son, as perfectly as it could possibly have been played, creating all kinds of conflict, not as much in Godfather Part 1, but became integral to the story in Godfather Part 2. John Cazale was in five classic films of the 1970s. Besides The Godfather Part 1 and Part 2, he was in Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter, and The Conversation, five of the best films ever made. So that's quite a legacy for a man whose life ended way too quickly. Marlon Brando was not a lazy actor, although some probably would have said he was.

He was definitely a method actor, and he felt very strongly that for his style of acting, studying the script as little as possible and making it as spontaneous as possible was important for his roles. So for many of his parts, for all of his career after a certain point, he almost always had cue cards just off camera. And logistics of a movie set being what they are, sometimes the cue card can be right in front of you, and sometimes it's right on the lap of the person that you're talking to. So they had cue cards everywhere, some of them big, some of them poster size, some of them just little note size sitting on a counter. It's too bad because those cue cards are worth a fortune now.

I'd love to have some. This is the scene when Marlon Brando's character dies. He's in the family tomato patch with his grandson, Anthony. That's actually his real name, also Anthony. And the scene was scripted for Brando's character to die, but a lot of it was left for Brando to work out and interacting with Anthony. Anthony wasn't young, wasn't old enough to really act for himself. And one of the things that Brando did was something from his own childhood.

He took an orange, he ate part of it, and then like many of us, he put the rind in his teeth and it made it look like a funny face, and he actually cut teeth into it. And it really scared Anthony. It genuinely scared him.

If you see him on screen, he's actually scared by this. But it plays so beautifully as this tender, intimate scene between grandfather and grandson. And it's a wonderful contrast to what happens a few seconds later, which is that Brando's character, the Don, passes away, falls into the tomato plants and dies. It's absolutely wonderfully shot. And by the way, just a little unsung hero of this film was Gordon Willis, a cinematographer who shot every frame of the film as if it was literally a frame from a photograph or a painting. It is so physically beautiful, the whole film.

It's wonderful. Incredible as it may seem now, movies were not marketed the same way they are today. The idea then, and for way too long, was you would build up interest in a film by having road shows for it in a select number of theaters, as opposed to showing it in hundreds and hundreds of theaters, or thousands of theaters, all on one big weekend. And that's what happened with The Godfather as well, where they opened it in several theaters, or well, many theaters in major cities across the country, but not in thousands of theaters.

And it was an instantaneous, around the block, for hours and hours a day sensation. Absolute gigantic hit in the summer of 1972. Later becoming the biggest box office attraction of all time. Made more money than any other film up to that time. But it was huge.

And then, of course, when it opened wide, it opened wide and very successfully. This was a huge boost for everyone involved. All of the younger characters, the people who played the sons, James Caan, Al Pacino, and then an adopted son, played by Robert Duvall, all became legitimate stars immediately.

They were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Brando's career got a huge boost. Talia Shire's career at playing Connie, the youngest in the family, also got a huge boost and went on to do all the Rocky films, among other things.

This was a giant success story for everyone. Being an Italian American, I knew my own family, who were a family of musicians and tool and die makers, but living in New York. And so I knew what the family life was like. I was very much anxious to draw upon my own family in terms of how we lived and what it was like in the house and what we ate and what the day-to-day feel of an Italian family was. I used as much of my own memory of my family to give it a kind of authenticity and that was my approach.

It was the story of a family and it was kind of Shakespearean and that there was a great king and he had three sons and each of the sons had a part of the talent of the old man, but none really all of it. The youngest had the cunning and the second had the sweetness and the older had the rage and the violence. I don't know if we're all fascinated by gangsters as much as we're fascinated by men of action. These were deliberate ruthless men. They are unsavory, horrible people and murderers, yet there's something attractive or compelling about them that really fascinates everyone.

It's part of American culture. And particularly the stories about some of these other actors. Al Pacino, a staggering performance and launches this amazing career. John Cazale, who plays Fredo, the actor's actor. We've done a piece on John Cazale. Go to alamericanstories.com and you can listen to a real beauty. And then of course there's Gordon Willis, the cinematographer and Nino Rota, that soundtrack. It was all just spectacular. And there is Coppola discussing and describing his Italian heritage and how he brought that authenticity to the screen.

The unlikely story of The Godfather and how it became the greatest film of all time here on Our American Stories. Small Business Saturday is November 25th. So let's go shop small with American Express. Because when the sign lights up, the doors open. To be a home for your hobbies. To make progress on your projects. Open to grab that last second present for you-know-who or for a whole new look.

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That's more than just a present. The 2023 NFL season is here. Nothing compares to witnessing it live in person.

The roar of the crowd, the adrenaline, the rush of high-fiving random strangers. Don't miss your chance to be part of the epic showdowns classic rivalries and primetime games under the lights. Tickets to all regular season games are on sale now. Take your seat. Visit nfl.com slash tickets to purchase your tickets today.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-15 04:24:45 / 2023-11-15 04:39:38 / 15

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