1 Don Vito in Hollywood
I am willing to sacrifice my best scene to make the film better … anything … I can always put it back. That’s the difference with life—you can’t put it back.
—FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA
WHEN FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA arrived at Marlon Brando’s home in late 1970 to shoot a “makeup test” for the actor’s role as aging Mafia chieftain Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, he had exactly one thing on his mind: how to conduct what amounted to a screen test without insulting the world famous Academy Award–winning actor. A legend at age forty-seven, the eccentric Brando had acquired a reputation for causing on-set difficulties and cost overruns, and with his recent films having tanked at the box office, no one at Paramount Pictures wanted a temperamental, box-office-poison has-been to play the role of “the godfather.” Time after time, Paramount Pictures executives had vehemently stated that Marlon Brando would never play the part. Never.
What those executives had not counted on, however, was the determination of Coppola himself. Along with his co-screenwriter Mario Puzo, whose 1969 novel had launched The Godfather tidal wave, Coppola had fixated on the idea of the brilliant, mercurial Brando in the title role, and nothing could persuade him to look elsewhere. Forget Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Frank Sinatra, Anthony Quinn, and every other Hollywood star who had expressed an interest in the role. For Francis Ford Coppola, budding auteur, only one actor could fulfill the complex requirements of the role. Now he just had to find a way to finesse the test, so that the most acclaimed film actor of the past thirty years did not realize that he was being screen-tested for the consideration of Paramount Pictures executives.
It was actually co-screenwriter Puzo who had originated the idea of casting Brando by sending the actor a handwritten letter couched in the most flattering of terms: “I think you’re the only actor who can play the Godfather with that quiet force and irony the part requires.” Don Vito Corleone would appear on-screen for only one-third of the movie, but Puzo inherently understood that an actor of Brando’s strength, one who could dominate scenes and cast a presence over the entire film, would prove crucial for sustaining mood and texture throughout.
The battle over Brando—upstarts Coppola and Puzo pitted against the collective corporate weight of Paramount Pictures and its parent company Gulf&Western—had dragged on for months. Even when Paramount studio head Stanley Jaffe reluctantly agreed to consider Brando for the role (this after he had already told Coppola: “As president of this company, I say that you are not allowed to even discuss the option of Brando anymore”) he set forth a trio of potential deal killers :
1. Brando would not receive any up-front salary.
2. Financial responsibility for any delays caused by the actor’s behavior would remain his alone.
3. Regardless of having won an Academy Award and starred in no fewer than twenty-six films, Brando would have to screen-test for the role.
It was with these daunting preexisting conditions in mind that director Coppola, who admitted to being “scared shitless” of Brando, now found himself driving up to the privacy-conscious actor’s home. The camouflaged entrance from the road, designed to deter overzealous fans, seemed almost symbolic of the torturous path toward production which lay ahead, and as the director arrived at Brando’s front door, one question loomed ever larger: how best to wrangle a screen test out of the film legend without inducing a temperamental explosion?
Having set up the filming with Brando by telling him that he simply wanted to test equipment and “get a take” on the character of Don Vito, Coppola was granted an unexpected gift when the actor himself allowed as how a brief video in makeup would help allay his fears over his suitability for the role of an elderly Italian man. (In later years, Brando would claim he knew all along that he was auditioning.) But—and it was a big but—a test ostensibly made for Brando’s own reassurance or to check the makeup he envisioned for the role did not necessarily resemble a screen test suitable to win over studio executives already searching for reasons to summarily reject the actor. With all of these problems running through his mind, the still relatively unknown Coppola stepped through the front door of the legend’s home and began work.
Cerebral yet highly intuitive, Coppola instinctively understood the necessity for underplaying all elements related to the “test.” Knowing the actor’s penchant for privacy and quiet, Coppola had brought along only a skeletal crew. Setting out a cigar and a few props of Italian food in order to inject a bit of proper ambience, the director silently watched as the kimono-clad Brando began stuffing tissues in his mouth to achieve the look and sound he envisioned for Don Vito. Conceptualizing the godfather as a “bulldog,” Brando used the tissues to accentuate both a thrusting jaw and a hoarse speaking voice capable of suggesting the effects of aging. Pulling back his long dark-blond hair and applying shoe polish to darken his hair and suggest a moustache, Brando began his metamorphosis into Don Vito Corleone. Rolling back the collar of the white shirt Coppola had brought along (said Brando: “You know those guys, the collar is always bent”) and speaking in the gravelly register he felt accurate for a mobster he decided had been shot in the throat, the actor began to move around his home, adjusting his body language, fingering props, and falling deeper into character. Coppola was hooked—or perhaps more accurately—instantly felt vindicated by his choice. Here, in the flesh, stood Don Vito Corleone, just as the director had visualized. Only bigger and better, already a recognizably complex human being.
When the completed test was replayed, even Brando himself, often his own harshest critic, was pleased with the results, feeling that he had successfully captured the look of the aging mafioso—“mean-looking, but warm underneath.” Now Coppola had to convince the Paramount studio executives to acquiesce to his artistic vision. With nary a hit to his credit—previous directorial efforts Dementia 13, You’re a Big Boy Now, Finian’s Rainbow, and The Rain People had all flopped in the one area that mattered to studios, the box office—Coppola faced a decidedly uphill task. What he had going for him, however, was a bulldog tenacity at least the equal of Don Vito’s own, a nearly frightening intensity of belief in his own correctness, and for all of his cerebral nature, a certain street cunning and directorial intuition that allowed him to unveil the screen tests in precisely the fashion that showcased Brando to maximum effect.
When the time came to show the “makeup test” to studio head Stanley Jaffe and production chief Robert Evans, Coppola and the film’s producer, Al Ruddy (who came to call the test “the miracle on Mulholland”), cannily placed Brando’s test in the middle of others, thereby heightening its impact. Duly pleased as Evans and Jaffe were—Evans reportedly asked, “He looks Italian—fine. But who is he?”—it was the reaction of the formidable Austrian-born Gulf&Western chairman Charles Bluhdorn that assured Brando’s casting. After sitting through the test, Bluhdorn bluntly barked: “Who are ve vatching? Who is dis old guinea?” When told it was Brando, an amused and impressed Bluhdorn signed off on the casting. In Coppola’s slightly different yet equally compelling version of that same screening, Bluhdorn “backed away” when he saw it was Brando, but after watching the actor’s metamorphosis into Don Corleone, grunted “that’s amazing” and approved the casting.
Brando in place, further casting continued, and shooting finally began on March 8, 1971. Such was the anticipation of Brando’s performance that in the blitz of publicity undertaken before the film’s March 1972 release, Paramount heightened the stakes even further by purposely withholding photographs of the actor in costume and makeup. The studio knew they had a surefire object of audience interest on their hands: here was the world’s most famous actor playing a murderous mobster already familiar to millions of readers worldwide. What they didn’t know was how the audience would actually react once they sat through the three-hour film.
Upon the film’s release, the answer came instantly, in the form of nearly unanimous rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Coppola and company had created the rarest of species, a truly adult blockbuster film; such was the power of Brando’s portrayal that, when combined with the golden-hued cinematography, era-evocative production design, and haunting music, viewers across the nation completely capitulated. They didn’t just like the film, they embraced it with a fervor that spoke of a desire to enter the very world of the Corleones—to become guests themselves at Connie Corleone’s wedding reception. Suddenly, mobsters or not, Italians were no longer caricatures worthy of derision. They were figures fit for admiration.
Within days of the film’s release, comedians, talk-show hosts, and even politicians were not just talking about the film—they were imitating Brando. Jaws thrust forward, voices lowered to bullfrog register, and incessantly repeating the words “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” until it grew into an instantly recognizable catchphrase, citizens nationwide were already channeling their own version of Don Corleone. Poking fun out of both affection and approval, audiences surrendered to their own visceral reaction; here was a character they found frightening, admirable, and—dare they admit it—reflective of their own innermost fears and desires. In the figure of a Mafia don, Italian-Americans had suddenly gone mainstream.
With this one film, notions of ethnicity in America had been upended in rather spectacular fashion. Mobsters these characters may have been, but in their proud self-assertion, celebration of ethnicity, and love of family lay complex, readily identifiable human beings. For the very first time, Italian-Americans were not just embracing their own story but telling it on their own terms. In the wake of The Godfather’s release, it seemed as if the popular Italian-American aphorism might just be true—there did indeed now seem to exist two types of people in the world: Italians and those who wanted to be Italian.
The lasting effect of The Godfather ran even deeper, however, because in detailing the saga of the Corleones, author and screenwriter Puzo was examining nothing less than the state of America. His vision filled with an understanding of the fundamental contradictions inherent in all human beings, Puzo’s singular achievement lay in his ability to celebrate the virtues of the Italian family while never losing sight of the tragedy lying at the heart of The Godfather and America alike. What Puzo and screenwriter/director Coppola delivered—brilliantly—was nothing less than a disquisition on the madness, glory, and failure of the American dream. In exploring that dream in distinctly Italian-American terms, they succeeded in delivering nothing less than the Italianization of American culture.
Even to those who never particularly cared to be Italian. Especially to those who had never cared to be Italian.
Copyright © 2012 by Tom Santopietro
Tom Santopietro is the author of The Importance of Being Barbra, Considering Doris Day (A NY Times Editor’s Choice) and Sinatra in Hollywood. He has worked for the past twenty years in New York theater as a manager of more than two dozen Broadway shows.