Sergio Leone — director of famed spaghetti westerns A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — was the first choice to direct the film. He passed on the opportunity in order to work on his own crime epic, Once Upon a Time in America.
The film was originally set in the 1970s, with a budget of $2.5 million. Studio Paramount Pictures was broke at the time and felt a period piece would be too expensive to shoot. When director Francis Ford Coppola was hired and developed his version of the script, he changed the setting (to the 1940s and 1950s) and the budget rose to $6.5 million.
Mob boss Joseph Colombo Sr., who felt he was being harassed by the feds, founded the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which led to the picketing of the New York City FBI headquarters in 1970 (a quarter of a million people showed up). The organization also attacked The Godfather and rallied to stop production. “It became clear very quickly that the Mafia — and they did not call themselves the Mafia — did not want our film made. We started getting threats,” a production assistant said in a 2009 interview. Colombo did manage to get the words “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” struck from the script. Eventually, mob members became a fixture on set (several were extras) and showed their support.
Al Pacino was still considered an unknown during the casting of the film, much to the consternation of the studio. Paramount considered numerous actors for the role of Michael Corleone, who undergoes a transformation from disinterested outsider to the ruthless head of the crime family. Stars originally vetted for the part included: Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Ryan O’Neal, David Carradine, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan (who played the hot-headed Sonny Corleone), and Warren Beatty.
The part of boozing, womanizing singer Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino) was loosely based on Frank Sinatra, which provoked the iconic performer’s ire. He attempted to sue the production and engaged in a public altercation with author Mario Puzo at a restaurant in Los Angeles in 1970.
Star Marlon Brando was considered box office poison by the time The Godfather rolled around. Still, author Mario Puzo and Coppola fought for him to be in the picture. Puzo’s letter to Brando read: “I wrote a book called The Godfather which has had some success and I think you’re the only actor who can play the part Godfather with that quiet force and irony (the book is an ironical comment on American society) the part requires.” However, the studio wanted Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn, Carlo Ponti, or Danny Thomas to play mob boss Vito Corleone.
Coppola shot a screen test with Brando at the actor’s home. Brando transformed himself for the camera by blackening his hair with shoe polish, stuffing his mouth with Kleenex, adopting off-kilter speech after inventing a backstory for the gangster (stating that the Don was shot in the throat at one time), rolling back his jacket collar, and calling himself a bulldog: “mean-looking, but warm underneath.”
Lenny Montana, who played doomed enforcer Luca Brasi, was extremely nervous while reciting his lines before his character’s scene with Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone. Coppola was charmed by Montana’s jitters and captured the moment on film. He used the footage for the scene where Montana’s character is practicing his introduction to the Don. When Montana stammers during the scene with Brando it’s a genuine flub that Coppola kept in the scene. Despite his nerves, Montana was a real tough guy — an ex-wrestler and former bodyguard for the real-life Colombo Crime Family.
Most people know that Marlon Brando refused to accept his Oscar for Best Actor, because the actor objected to the troubling depiction of American Indians by Hollywood. Not many know that Al Pacino also boycotted the Academy Awards ceremony, upset that he was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category since he had more screen time than Brando.
The crime family’s surname, “Corleone,” is an Italian word meaning “Lionheart.”
The Godfather is endlessly quotable. One of the darkly humorous lines recited by actor Richard S. Castellano was actually ad-libbed. The star added “Take the cannoli” to his famous “Leave the gun” line (as seen in the above video).
The cat in the opening scene that Marlon Brando is holding was a stray that used to hang around the studio lot. Reportedly, Coppola plopped the cat in the actor’s lap just as the cameras started rolling. The happy beast’s purring was so loud the scene had to be redubbed.
The horse head used in the film was real and came from a dog food company.
The literary sequel to The Godfather is titled, The Sicilian — also written by Mario Puzo. The novel was not used as the basis for the 1974 Godfather film sequel, but it does feature the character of Michael Corleone. A film adaptation was created in 1987 (starring Highlander actor Christopher Lambert), but due to copyright Corleone’s character was not included in the movie. It should be noted that initially, Coppola didn’t want to film a sequel: “It sounded like a tacky spin off, and I used to joke that the only way I’d do it was if they’d let me film Abbott and Costello Meet the Godfather — that would have been fun.”
The scene where Sonny (James Caan) beats up Carlo (Connie’s husband) took four days to shoot and featured over 700 extras. The garbage can lid maneuver was improvised by Caan. Also, the opening wedding celebrations took more than a week to film and featured over 750 extras.
Then unknown actor Robert De Niro auditioned for the roles of Michael, Sonny (his audition is viewable in the above video), Carlo, and Paulie. Coppola didn’t cast him until The Godfather Part II, as a young Vito Corleone.
The firings during the making of The Godfather are legendary. Coppola was almost fired the first week he started filming after Al Pacino was injured during the escape from the restaurant scene. This delayed production and pissed off the studio.
Orson Welles tried to snag the part of Don Vito Corleone, offering to lose weight to get the role. Coppola already had Brando in mind and had to turn him down — which was probably awkward for the director since he’s a big Welles fan.
Richard S. Castellano’s Peter Clemenza teaches Michael how to make a killer pasta sauce. He essentially recites the recipe during the film, but you can find detailed instructions for it online. Reportedly, Paramount wanted to release a line of sauce with the Godfather logo to promote the movie. They also considered opening a Godfather restaurant franchise that sold popular Italian cuisine.
The cars in the film outfitted with wooden bumpers were an attempt to create a realistic effect. There was a steel shortage following World War II, so many vehicles were sold this way.
Brando preferred to use cue cards instead of memorizing his lines. He felt it kept him fresh and spontaneous. However, critics often reasoned he did this because he was lazy or simply couldn’t memorize his dialogue.
There are about 61 scenes in the film that feature eating, drinking, and food.
The flat caps some of the men wear in the film, which were popular during the early 20th century (especially in Italy), are called “coppolas.”
There was a Godfather board game created in 1971. It was shaped like a violin case and had an illustration of a gun on the outside. “Think of the game as Go combined with some aspects of Monopoly, notably the money and the Chance and Community Chest cards.”
The final body count in The Godfather is 18 (including the poor horse).