For more than thirty years, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather has stood as the greatest film adaptation in movie history. On the film’s release in 1972, it righteously earned critical praise as well as an avalanche of Academy Awards. Of course, the story of a mob family moving into the modern era has persevered not because it’s an artistic masterpiece (which it is), but because it is also an engrossing, action-packed saga that’s an American tale to it’s very core, one of violence, ambition, and — above all — family. Here, for your consideration, are some things you may not know about The Godfather, Part I.
1. Brando’s Bulldog Look Wasn’t Made with a Mouthful of Cotton Balls
Contrary to popular legend, Marlon Brando did not put cotton balls in his mouth for his portrayal of the aging, yet intimidating Don Corleone. It’s true that he used cotton wool for his audition, but when the time came to film, Brando had a specially created mouthpiece designed by a dentist that gave him the right jowl-y look.
2. Brando, the Actor’s Actor, Used Cue Cards
Marlon Brando’s reputation for eccentricity (and incredible talent) was in full effect throughout the filming of The Godfather. For one thing, the actor didn’t actually memorize the majority of his lines. Instead, he forced Coppola to provide cue cards for him to read during scenes, sometimes carried by other actors. However, Brando also impressed his colleagues with his natural, almost effortless talent. In the hospital scene in which Michael pledges his loyalty to his ailing father, those tears are 100 percent real.
3. James Caan Was an Improv Artist
James Caan brought his own slice of originality to the character of oldest son (and toll booth target) Sonny Corleone. In the film’s opening moments, when he assaults the FBI photographer and then tosses cash at him, that’s all Caan. Later, when he attacks his sister’s abusive husband and beats him mercilessly in the street, it was Caan’s idea to pick up a trash can lid and start bashing the abuser with it.
4. A Touch of Auto History You Never Noticed
Here’s a detail you may never have noticed in The Godfather: most of the cars have wooden bumpers. During the war, bumpers were actually turned in by car owners and replaced with wooden bumpers. The chrome was used to support the war effort; once the war ended, it still took several years for wooden bumpers to be completely removed from circulation.
5. The Horse Head Was Real
And animal rights activists were super angry that Coppola would use it in a film. Even some members of the crew protested the use of a real horse head, but Coppola justified himself by saying, “There were many people killed in that movie, but everyone worries about the horse. It was the same on the set. When the head arrived, it upset many crew members who are animal lovers, who like little doggies. What they don’t know is that we got the head from a pet food manufacturer who slaughters two hundred horses a day just to feed those little doggies.”
6. George Lucas Had a Hand in Coppola’s Film
Iconic Star Wars director George Lucas was the one who actually crafted the mattress sequence, a montage of imagery that catalogues the war between the Five Families. Lucas used real crime scene footage (but fake newspaper headlines) to put the sequence together. Lucas did the work to pay Coppola back for funding American Graffiti.
7. It Was All About Realism
More than once during filming, Coppola used his actor’s real-life nerves to get the best performance possible. In the opening scene, when Don Corleone greets the towering Luca Brasi, actor Lenny Montana was so nervous about acting opposite Marlon Brando that he flubbed his lines, a take Coppola eventually used.
In addition, the young actor who played Enzo was so nervous that he was shaking uncontrollably while filming the interaction between Michael and the police outside the hospital. Coppola made use of that, too.
8. Orson Welles Wanted to Be Involved, But Was Turned Down
Legendary film director Orson Welles — the man best known for writing, directing, and starring in Citizen Kane — actively lobbied for the role of Don Vito Corleone. The famously rotund star even told Coppola that he’d be willing to lose a bunch of weight to take on the role. Coppola had to turn the man down, though, because he already had Brando in mind.
9. The Producers Wanted Coppola to Make it Longer
When it was finished, Coppola’s original cut clocked in at a little over two hours. When he showed the footage to his producers, Robert Evans made the rare decision to increase the length of the film. Evans told Coppola to add more scenes of the family, so the director returned with more than 50 minutes of new footage.
10. They Shot on Location in New York as Hollywood Wouldn’t Cut It
The Godfather was shot on location in New York, however, that wasn’t originally going to be the case. Producers wanted it shot entirely on back lots in Hollywood. Then, the film’s production designer threatened to add two stories to every building on the studio backlot to properly simulate the New York skyline, so the producers relented and allowed Coppola to shoot on location.
11. Robert Duvall Wasn’t a Fan of His Hairpiece
Robert Duvall gives one of the film’s defining performances as Vito Corelone’s chief advisor and consigliere, Tom Hagen. Of course, ever the stoic actor, the only thing that Duvall has ever said when discussing his quiet performance is that he wished they’d found a better hairpiece for him.
12. Warren Beatty Could Have Been Michael and More
Among the many people who were considered for the part of Michael Corleone before it was offered to Al Pacino (Martin Sheen, Rod Steiger, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, etc.), Warren Beatty was offered an exceptional deal. At one point, Paramount Pictures was ready to let Beatty direct, produce, and star in The Godfather, but he turned it down.
13. The Actors Liked to Moon Each Other
To create some levity on the intense set, Marlon Brando, James Caan, and Robert Duvall kept trying to out-moon one-another. They’d drop trou at inopportune moments and bare their buttocks in a game of oneupmanship. When Brando exposed his backside while shooting the wedding reception scene in front of over 500 extras, the other actors presented him with a belt buckle saying “Mighty Moon King.”
14. Guess How Much Al Pacino Made on the Film
Al Pacino made a mere $35,000 for starring in the iconic film. The same amount went to James Caan and Diane Keaton, but Robert Duvall got $1000 more. However, after starring in hits like Scarecrow and Serpico, Pacino managed to upgrade his salary to $600,000 for The Godfather: Part II, plus a 10 percent cut of the movie’s income.
15. A Lot of Fake Blood Was Used in Sonny Corleone’s Death Scene
The scene where Sonny is shot outside the Jones Beach Causeway toll booth was complicated. The special effects suit that James Caan wore was rigged with 127 pouches of fake blood.
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