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The Godfather Celebrates 45th Anniversary: 5 Fascinating Facts Behind the Making of the Greatest American Epic

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Paramount Pictures/REX/Shutterstock

The Godfather, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest movies of all time, is turning 45, and the Tribeca Film Festival is saying saluti on Saturday with a back-to-back special anniversary screening of the film and its sequel, The Godfather Part II — as well as a reunion event.

Celebrating the milestone, the film’s director Francis Ford Coppola and members of its cast, including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire, will hold a conversation moderated by filmmaker Taylor Hackford after the screenings.

Released on March 15, 1972, The Godfatherwith its multi-generational portrait of the fictional Corleone crime family — has since been woven into the fabric of American pop culture. But even diehard fans are still learning new tidbits about the Oscar-winning gangster epic four-and-a-half decades after its release.

Below are five little-known facts about The Godfather ahead of its milestone celebration:

1. Leave the gun, take the kitty.

In the film’s iconic opening, Vito Corleone is introduced sitting in his office shrouded in shadow, wearing his trademark black tuxedo with a red rose boutonnière and holding a gray cat in his lap.

The cat, reminiscent of Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s menacing feline in From Russia with Love (later parodied as Mr. Bigglesworth in Austin Powers), has become ubiquitous with Corleone’s image. But as Coppola later explained, the cat was not always part of the plan.

“The cat in Marlon’s hands was not planned for,” director Francis Ford Coppola later said, according to Time. “I saw the cat running around the studio, and took it and put it in his hands without a word.”

Not only was the cat’s appearance unplanned, its incessant purring nearly ruined the scene. When the sound crew listened back to the tape, Brando’s dialogue was almost impossible to understand over the purring, and there was even talk of using subtitles. Fortunately, they were able to adjust the sound levels, but the cat’s purrs can still be heard in the scene.

2. George Lucas convinced Coppola to direct.

George Lucas (L) and Francis Ford Coppola.
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty

George Lucas is known as the creator of Star Wars, but he also played a role in another beloved franchise.

When Paramount bought the rights to The Godfather from novelist Mario Puzo, no one, including the author, had any inkling the movie, let alone the book, would be a smash hit. But as the book’s popularity grew, the studio increased the budget for the film, and every respectable director in Hollywood was offered the job.

At the time, gangster movies were not popular with the big-time directors, many of whom objected on the basis that glorifying the Mafia would be immoral. So by the time Coppola was offered the job, almost every major director in town had turned it down. And at first, Coppola was no different.

According to the book Francis Ford Coppola Interviews, the director couldn’t even finish Puzo’s novel, calling the violence and sex it depicted “pretty cheap stuff.” Fortunately, Coppola was broke and desperate. His independent film company, American Zoetrope, was $600,000 in debt to Warner Bros., and his partner, Lucas, pressured him to take the gig. “Go ahead, Francis,” Lucas said, according to Vanity Fair. “We really need the money. What have you got to lose?”

So when he was offered the job again a few months later, he accepted and worked with Puzo to adapt the screenplay. “Then I got into what the book is really about: the story of the family, this father and his sons, and questions of power and succession, and I thought it was a terrific story if you could cut out all the other [lurid] stuff,” he later said in an interview.

3. Al Pacino’s role gave his barber a heart attack, literally.

Al Pacino and Michael Corleone.
Paramount Pictures/REX/Shutterstock

From the beginning, Coppola knew exactly who would play the film’s four lead roles, but the studio had other ideas. In order to convince the suits he had the right actors for the job, the director did a series of unofficial screen tests with Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, James Caan and even Marlon Brando (although Brando was not aware he was being tested).

Three of them — Duvall, Pacino and Caan — flew to Coppola’s home in San Francisco to read lines, and the director’s wife Eleanor helped the actors get into character by giving them slicked-back gangster haircuts.

“My wife, Ellie, helped cut their hair, although later, when the studio felt Al Pacino was too scruffy, we brought him to a real barber and told him to give him a haircut like a college student,” Coppola later remembered, according to Vanity Fair.

“When the barber heard it was for the guy who might play Michael in The Godfather, he literally had a heart attack, and they had to carry him to the hospital.”

While it’s unclear how the barber fared afterward, his efforts were not in vain. Pacino ended up with the part, but the battle for the role didn’t end at his haircut.

4. Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson almost played Michael Corleone.

Jack Nicholson (L) and Warren Beatty.
Richard Nairin/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Pacino as Michael Corleone, but the film’s executive producers hated him for the part, arguing that he was too short to play the war hero-turned-mob boss. “A runt will not play Michael,” as one executive put it to Coppola, according to Vanity Fair.

Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Ryan O’Neal, David Carradine, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were all reportedly considered.

“There’s a story there,” Beatty later told Vanity Fair. “I was offered The Godfather before Marlon was in it. I was offered The Godfather when Danny Thomas was the leading candidate for the Godfather. And I passed. Jack [Nicholson] passed, also.”

Beatty also said he was offered a chance to produce and direct the film. “Charlie Bluhdorn was a fan of Bonnie and Clyde and sent me the book … I read it. Sort of. And I said, ‘Charlie, not another gangster movie!’ ”

5. Marlon Brando planned the Don’s death.

 

From the Don’s bulldog jowls, to his hoarse voice and mannerisms, Brando played a large role in crafting the Godfather’s image. It was the actor’s idea to stuff tissues in his cheeks to give the character his famous underbite, and it was his idea to speak in a raspy voice, because he imagined the Don was shot in the throat when he was younger.

In an interview with Playboy, Coppola revealed that even the Godfather’s death was Brando’s brainchild. “I told him at one point that I didn’t know how to shoot his final scene, just before he dies. What could we do to make his playing with his grandson believable?” the director explained.

“[Brando] said, ‘Here’s how I play with kids,’ and took an orange peel, cut it into pieces that looked like fangs and slipped them into his mouth.”

He continued, “I thought, ‘What a ridiculous idea. Then suddenly I saw it: Of course! The godfather dies as a monster! Once I’d seen him with orange peel fangs, I knew I could never shoot it any other way.”