From Bestseller to Blockbuster, A Look Back at 'The Godfather'

Today in 1972, Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather, based on the mafia epic by Mario Puzo, premiered. Here's a look at how the book became a Hollywood classic.
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The Godfather Photo Getty Images

"The Godfather" cast (from left) including James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Cazale. (Photo: Getty Images)

“Behind every successful fortune—there is crime.” Mario Puzo, The Godfather (1969)

Mario Puzo grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. As a young writer he knocked around hardboiled men’s magazines, penning war stories. In his mid-40s, he wasn’t getting any younger, and with a wife and five kids to feed, and two flop novels behind him, he accepted a modest advance to write a third. It was based on stories he heard on the street. The author of the book most beloved by wiseguys had never met a gangster.

Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather (Photo: Evan Kafka/Getty Images)

Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather (Photo: Evan Kafka/Getty Images)

The Godfather proved a sensation, as a book and as a movie, released today in 1972. Puzo had no illusions about a novel that through the decades has sold more than 30 million copies. “I was 45 years old, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and loan sharks. It was really time to grow up and sell out,” he recalled.

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola was also in hock. He’d won an Oscar for co-writing 1970’s Best Picture winner, Patton, but the four features he’d directed, including the intimate drama The Rain People (1969), had a much lower profile in Hollywood. Unhappy with Tinseltown, he and fellow filmmaker George Lucas opened a more experimental outfit, American Zoetrope, in San Francisco in 1969. Coppola borrowed $300,000 from Warner Bros. for his dream studio, and Lucas made his directorial debut with its first film, the downbeat science fiction story THX 1138 (1971). When it tanked, Warner Bros. wanted its money back. At 32, Coppola was at a crossroads.

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola (Photo: Getty Images)

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola (Photo: Getty Images)

So, too, was Paramount Pictures production chief Robert Evans, with his hot property, The Godfather. The studio had inexpensively purchased Puzo’s unfinished manuscript in 1967 but as the finished book climbed the bestseller lists it had languished. Another Mafia-related movie Paramount had released, The Brotherhood (1968), with Kirk Douglas, had disappointed, and Evans was determined that The Godfather be “ethnic to the core,” that audiences should “smell the spaghetti sauce.” What better director than Sergio Leone, of “spaghetti Westerns” like the studio’s own Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)? But he passed, to develop (and develop, and develop) his own gangster saga, Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Evans relaxed his ethnicity requirements, asking, among others, Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Peter Yates (Bullitt), and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde). None bit. Coppola came cheap, and he signed on, for $125,000 and six percent of the gross rentals. Reluctantly—he hadn’t finished the book.

Great art The Godfather was not. Puzo’s prior novels had literary merit; The Godfather was full of lines like “Sonny’s heavy Cupid’s face grew red with anger” and “engorged member”-type sex scenes to make Jacqueline Susann, of Valley of the Dolls infamy, blush. Coppola was further concerned about Italian-American stereotyping. But he and Puzo shared a love of family, and that animated the writing, as the two worked, separately yet cordially, in co-authoring the screenplay. With Coppola using the novel as a blueprint, the worst parts of it fell away, as the story centered more solidly on the powerful, but aging Don Vito Corleone and his youngest, college-educated son, Michael, who is drawn into his criminal activities. Michael gains an empire, one that can never be fully legitimized, at the ultimate expense of his soul. Characterizations were strengthened, and sharpened; the power of blood ties was emphasized; the violence was made real. (The few references to “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” were removed, at the behest of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which then supported the script.) The classic lines emerged: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “It’s a Sicilian message: Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

The runaway success of the book protected the movie as its budget climbed from $2.5 million to $6 million. Paramount, which had lost millions on musical failures like Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Darling Lili (1970), wanted it brought up to date and shot on the backlot; Coppola was able to retain the period setting and film in New York and Sicily. While he won battles, the director always felt that he would lose The Godfather, as Paramount executives constantly second-guessed him and questioned his spending, particularly on screen tests. Puzo and Coppola favored Marlon Brando for Don Corleone; the studio said, not unjustly, that he was bad box office after a run of duds, and “difficult,” and argued for Ernest Borgnine, or Anthony Quinn, or Richard Conte (who did get a part, as Corleone family rival Don Barzini). Ryan O’Neal and James Caan were among those considered for Michael, with the latter actor briefly engaged for the role, until Coppola got his first choice, Al Pacino, by slotting Caan for Sonny instead. (The actor first cast as Sonny, Carmine Caridi, had roles in the two Godfather sequels.) Tough mugs like Richard Castellano and Abe Vigoda were brought on, adding color to their scenes. Keeping it in the family, Coppola cast his sister Talia Shire as Corleone daughter Connie, plus his composer father Carmine and daughter Sofia, as Connie’s infant son. 

The Godfather wouldn’t be The Godfather without Brando, and his potent casting drove its powerhouse grosses, making it the highest-grossing movie of all time until another bestseller-derived hit, Jaws (1975), came along. Then again, everything in the film works. Gordon Willis’ exquisitely dark cinematography in particular is attentive to every moment and happy accident, as when Coppola had him secretly film nervous ex-wrestler Lenny Montana as he rehearsed his lines before working with Brando (“may your first child be a masculine child”), adding unexpected dimension to the hulking Luca Brasi when he left the footage in. But it all started with Puzo, who would share with Coppola an Oscar for their screenplay, and win a second Oscar with Coppola for The Godfather Part II (1974). Both were Best Picture winners, Part II being the first sequel to win the top prize, and the two collaborated again on The Godfather Part III (1990). To quote Sonny, and the doomed Moe Green, and characters on The Sopranos who picked up their lingo, The Godfather had made its bones. Still, Puzo, who died in 1999, expressed regret about how it all began. “I wished like hell I’d written it better,” he said. “I wrote below my gifts in that book.”