Al Pacino had to jump through hoops – including at least six screen tests – before securing the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Marlon Brando was so into playing Vito Corleone that during an early reading for director Francis Ford Coppola, he answered a phone call in character. A pivotal baptism scene, set against an orgy of assassinations as Michael consolidated his power, didn’t work until a second edit and the addition of an organ track to weave it together. And one of the most stunning scenes in The Godfather, Part 2 was not in the script but came at the suggestion of Coppola’s sister Talia Shire (who played Michael’s sister Connie in the films).
Those were some of the livelier revelations to come out of a panel that concluded the Tribeca Film Festival this evening. The day began with an unlikely Saturday double-feature at Radio City Music Hall: Back-to-back screenings of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974), followed by a Q&A led by producer and director Taylor Hackford. The one-time-only reunion of the director and many of the original cast members included Coppola, Keaton, Pacino and Shire, along with James Caan (who played Sonny Corleone) and Robert Duvall (who played the consigliere Tom Hagen).
“I’d forgotten a lot about the making of the films,” Coppola said, especially the first sequel, which he had only seen recently and which followed a much riskier, less conventional narrative technique than the first film. “The story used a lot of my personal family stuff, and had my sister in it, so I found it very emotional.”
“I hadn’t watched it in 30 years,” Keaton said, addressing the director. “It’s so astonishing. Every choice you made, it’s so authentically good. And it had slow, long scenes. I was absolutely blown out of the ballpark, crying. And I was totally surprised because I didn’t expect it, OK? And on my f!cking computer! I’d never paid much attention to The Godfather, because I always felt like I was the most outsider, weird person, and why was I cast in it, and I had no voice in it.”
Coppola responded by recalling one of the most memorable moments in both films, between Keaton and Pacino. “You know the very important scene where you tell Al that it wasn’t a miscarriage, it was an abortion? That was Talia’s idea.” Coming right after having watched that scene on the huge Radio City Music Hall screen, the revelation registered like a small earthquake: Kay tells Michael she’s leaving him and drops the bombshell about her decision to terminate her pregnancy rather than bring another child into the Corleone clan. Gordon Willis’ camera is focused tightly on Pacino’s face, which fills the screen as his eyes grow wide with pain and fury and his lips stiffen in rage. It’s one of the few times in both films when Pacino allows Michael’s feelings to erupt, making the scene even more devastating.
Hackford started things off by placing the making of the film in context: Though Mario Puzo’s novel was a huge best-seller, the studios were convinced that Mafia films weren’t box office. Paramount, under Robert Evans, wanted to take advantage of the novel’s success by turning out something “cheap, dirty and fast.” But after several failed scripts, Paramount turned to Coppola and producer Albert Ruddy, who were establishing themselves as creative filmmakers known for coming in under budget.
“How many times did you test for this role?” Hackford asked Pacino, who was a rising stage star in New York but unknown in Hollywood in the early 1970s. “It seemed like I was always testing,” he replied.
“I remember calling him after he’d tested six times,” Coppola interjected, “to beg him to do just one more, and his girlfriend got on the phone and said, ‘what are you doing to him? You’re torturing him!'”
Brando, whose image loomed over the panel like, well, like a godfather, was 47 when he played Vito Corleone. Was it make-up, or Brando, Hackford asked. “I went over to his home and brought a lot of provolone cheese,” Coppola said. “He came out of his bedroom early in the morning, he was beautiful, he had long blonde hair and a Japanese robe on.
“Without a word spoken, he saw me there and saw the camera,” Coppola continued. “He took his hair, rolled it up, put shoe polish on it. He put a shirt on and started bending the tips of the collar up. He got some paper stuffed in his jaws, saying ‘he should be like a bulldog,’ and he started turning into the character. The phone rang and he picked it up,” and Coppola did a perfect mimic of Brando’s mumble, drawing laughs from the crowd. “He had totally turned into the character and I had it all on videotape. And that’s really what did the trick.”