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The release of The Godfather in 1972 was a cinematic milestone. The near three hour-long epic, a film treatment of Mario Puzo's New York Times-bestselling novel The Godfather, chronicling the saga of the Corleone family, received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and got Coppola the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, which he shared with Mario Puzo, as well as Golden Globe Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay. However, Coppola faced several difficulties while filming. He was not Paramount's first choice to direct the movie; Italian director Sergio Leone was initially offered the job but declined in order to direct his own gangster opus, Once Upon a Time in America. Robert Evans wanted the picture to be directed by an Italian American to make the film "ethnic to the core". Evans' chief assistant Peter Bart suggested Coppola, as a director of Italian ancestry who would work for a low sum and budget after the poor reception of his latest film The Rain People. Coppola initially turned down the job because he found Puzo's novel sleazy and sensationalist, describing it as "pretty cheap stuff". At the time, Coppola's studio American Zoetrope owed over $400,000 to Warner Bros. for budget overruns in the film THX 1138 and, when coupled with his poor financial standing, along with advice from friends and family, Coppola reversed his initial decision and took the job. Coppola was officially announced as director of the film on September 28, 1970. He agreed to receive $125,000 and six percent of the gross rentals. Coppola later found a deeper theme for the material and decided it should be not just be a film about organized crime, but also a family chronicle and a metaphor for capitalism in America. There was disagreement between Paramount and Coppola on casting; Coppola wanted to cast Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, though Paramount wanted either Ernest Borgnine or Danny Thomas. At one point, Coppola was told by the then-president of Paramount that "Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture." After pleading with the executives, Coppola was allowed to cast Brando only if he appeared in the film for much less money than his previous films, would perform a screen test, and put up a bond saying that he would not cause a delay in the production (as he had done on previous film sets). Coppola chose Brando over Ernest Borgnine on the basis of Brando's screen test, which also won over the Paramount leadership. Brando later won an Academy Award for his portrayal, which he refused to accept. Coppola would later recollect:
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In 1990, he released the third and final chapter of The Godfather series: The Godfather Part III. Coppola felt that the first two films had told the complete Corleone saga. Coppola intended Part III to be an epilogue to the first two films. In his audio commentary for Part II, he stated that only a dire financial situation caused by the failure of One from the Heart (1982) compelled him to take up Paramount's long-standing offer to make a third installment. Coppola and Puzo preferred the title The Death of Michael Corleone, but Paramount Pictures found that unacceptable. While not as critically acclaimed as the first two films, it was still commercially successful, earning $136 million against a $54 million budget. Some reviewers criticized the casting of Coppola's daughter Sofia, who stepped into the leading role of Mary Corleone, which was abandoned by Winona Ryder just as filming began. Despite this, The Godfather Part III went on to gather 7 Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. The film failed to win any of these awards, which made it the only film in the trilogy to do so.
Coppola, with his family, expanded his business ventures to include winemaking in California's Napa Valley, when in 1975, he purchased the former home and adjoining vineyard of Gustave Niebaum in Rutherford, California using proceeds from The Godfather. His winery produced its first vintage in 1977 with the help of his father, wife, and children stomping the grapes barefoot. Every year, the family has a harvest party to continue the tradition.
This is definitely not the end of the casting process, and much like we went through several months of Oppenheimer and Barbie casting news, we will probably be hearing a lot about top-notch actors joining Megalopolis in the coming months.
Pacino poses as Michael Corleone during a film photoshoot. The young actor rose to fame playing the Mafia son, but he wasn't Paramount's first choice for the role. The studio originally looked at more established actors, like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
Matt writes: Since last month marked the fortieth anniversary of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, RogerEbert.com presented a special edition of Thumbnails featuring priceless articles penned by Roger Ebert, including the one he wrote about his first experience at the Institute in July of 1981.
GROSS: My guest is Francis Ford Coppola. We'll talk about casting Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, and how Coppola had to fight with the studio to do it, after we take a short break. Something we won't have time for on today's broadcast is the part of the interview in which Coppola talked about working with composer Nino Rota on the music for "The Godfather." But we do have that for you as an extra on our podcast. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
So casting Marlon Brando was just such a really brilliant stroke - and stroke of luck as you were able to get him. And I want to play what Mario Puzo told me in 1996 when I interviewed him about casting Brando - about how Brando got cast in the movie. So can I play that for you? And then...
And finally I came down to the thing about the character - of that character was that, you know, you couldn't find anyone new, as we had done for all the other parts. Al Pacino was totally unknown. Johnny Cazale was, well - Bobby Duval was (unintelligible). So a lot of new people got big parts. But, like, a man who was supposed to be in his 60s couldn't be new and, like, had never been in anything before because what was he doing all those years? So finally, with my colleague in casting, Fred Roos, we said, well, who are the two greatest actors in the world? So we said, well, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando.
So that's one of the reasons why I was so unpopular. But they also hated my casting ideas. They hated Al Pacino for the role of Michael, and they hated Marlon Brando for the role of the Godfather. And I was told categorically by the president of Paramount - he says, Francis, as the president of Paramount Pictures, I tell you here and now Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture, and I forbid you to bring it up again.
COPPOLA: Absolutely. Well, the problem is that when - I had known Al a little bit before. So when I read "The Godfather" book as - I had him pictured in my mind. I saw him walking through Sicily with the two shepherds with their shotguns. And I couldn't get that out of my mind. I couldn't see Ryan O'Neal, who is what Paramount's first choice was. And I couldn't see Bob Redford.
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"I could see [Keitel] was very uncomfortable about conditions in the jungle," Coppola is quoted as saying in the book. "And I thought, Not only do I think he's wrong casting, but what's it going to be like for six months in these difficult conditions in the jungle for a city guy who's afraid of it? I just decided to make this tough decision."
Thankfully things worked out for Keitel after the recasting. He went on to build a legendary career, starring in movies like "Bad Lieutenant," "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction." He also earned an Oscar nomination for playing gangster Mickey Cohen in "Bugsy."
Notes begins with a quickfire insight into the casting of Brando (Kurtz was also offered to Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino) and Sheen (Willard was turned down by Steve McQueen, James Caan and Robert Redford, while Harvey Keitel was replaced after three days of filming). One can only wonder what Apocalypse Now would have been like with Nicholson as Kurtz and McQueen as Willard, but then movie history is littered with such casting what-ifs.
Williams says he never had aspirations to be an actor. But one day in the 1990s, Williams headed to the theater to see a movie with friends when he found himself in one of those classic Hollywood scenes. A casting director approached him in the theater and said he had the perfect look for a short film called The Ritual that was about to go with noted Hollywood filmmaker Gore Verbinski.