Throughout his eclectic, five-decade career, writer-director Francis Ford Coppola has veered from low-budget exploitation flicks to Oscar-winning studio films. Yet his work has been identifiably colored by his hallmarks - technical virtuosity, and classical dramatic themes that evoke tests of individualism and morality. The 71-year-old director of such classics as "The Godfather," "The Conversation," and "Apocalypse Now" is the latest recipient of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Irving G. Thalberg Award, given to "a creative producer whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production."
By CBSNews.com producer David Morgan
Born in 1939 in Detroit and raised in New York, Coppola was part of an artistic family: his father Carmine was a composer, his mother an actress. Like Martin Scorsese (who suffered asthma), Coppola's childhood affliction - in his case, polio - led to his spending a year at home, where television and creating puppet theaters stirred his interest in studying drama. A graduate of Hofstra, Coppola mastered in film at UCLA, and worked in a variety of capacities under B-movie producer Roger Corman (from writing new dialogue for Russian sci-fi films to washing his car).
Coppola's first significant feature film as director was the horror flick "Dementia 13" (1963), featuring Luana Anders (left). It was shot for $40,000 in nine days. He also directed "You're a Big Boy Now" (1966) with Elizabeth Hartman and Peter Katsner; the musical "Finian's Raindow" (1968) starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark; and "The Rain People" (1969), with Shirley Knight and Robert Duvall.
As a screenwriter Coppola collaborated on several studio films, including an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "This Property is Condemned" (1966) starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford; "Is Paris Burning?" (1966); the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby"; and "Patton" (1970), starring George C. Scott, for which Coppola shared the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In 1969, Coppola and another former film student, George Lucas, established an independent production company in San Francisco, American Zoetrope. Coppola produced Lucas' first feature in 1971, "THX 1138" (right), and Lucas' second, "American Graffiti" (1973).
In 1972, Coppola's film version of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" became a cultural touchstone, restored Marlon Brando's career to its former glory, and made new stars of actors Al Pacino, James Caan and John Cazale (pictured); Robert Duvall; and Diane Keaton.
Coppola was not the first choice to direct the adaptation of Mario Puzo's bestseller about a clan of Italian-Americans whose family business happens to be extortion, gambling, prostitution and murder, graced with violence and cannoli. Sergio Leone ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"), and Peter Bogdanovich ("The Last Picture Show") were offered the job first. And studio execs were hostile to the director's choice of Brando (just off a bomb called "Burn!") for the lead.
Once shooting began, some in the studio (dissatisfied with the pace of shooting and with the darkness of Gordon Willis' cinematography) wanted Coppola kicked off the film. An overture was made to director Elia Kazan (who'd directed Brando in three films). The film's original editor also maneuvered to try to have Coppola replaced with himself. But Brando (pictured here having makeup applied by Dick Smith) threatened to walk off the picture if Coppola were fired. Instead, producer Bob Evans fired the insurrectionist and "his coterie of production assistants."
Al Pacino was almost fired, as studio executives were not impressed by early rushes. They changed their tune after seeing the pivotal scene of Michael Corleone's transition: Shooting Sollozzo and McCluskey in the restaurant. The intensity of Pacino's performance is especially clear following a 2008 restoration of the film by preservationist Robert Harris (who saved David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia"). Harris and his team were able to salvage fading images from the camera negatives, color separations and interpositives that had been misprinted, mis-timed, scratched and torn over the years.
The film's box office success and critical acclaim was topped by Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (an offer Brando was able to refuse).
1974 represented two career high points for Coppola. The first was "The Conversation," starring Gene Hackman as an electronic surveillance expert. Directing his own original script, Coppola won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Also in 1974: "The Godfather Part II" told of the origin of Don Corleone (with Robert DeNiro recreating Marlon Brando's character) and a parallel story, set decades later, of threats facing Al Pacino as government and competing criminal organizations threaten the family business. With its predecessor, it is generally acclaimed as the greatest movie crime saga, and became the first sequel to win an Oscar for Best Picture.
A retelling of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, "Apocalypse Now" (1979) was originally to have been directed by George Lucas, who begged off in order to pursue "Star Wars." Coppola took over what became his most narratively and technically ambitious film plagued by production delays, upheavals in cast and cost over-runs.
"The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of 'Apocalypse Now' was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War," Coppola wrote. (Pictured: Martin Sheen)
Over the course of production, Coppola wrote, "The process of making the film became very much like the story of the film. I found that many of the ideas and images with which I was working as a film director began to coincide with the realities of my own life, and that I, like Captain Willard, was moving up a river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis."
Perhaps most jarring was the arrival on set of Marlon Brando, bald and overweight, demanding rewrites to the script. Coppola shot him in shadow.
Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore: "You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know,
that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like . . . victory."
(Script by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola)
The film shared the top prize at Cannes (with "The Tin Drum") and received 8 Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. The film won Oscars for its superlative cinematography by Vittorio Storraro and a landmark sound mix by Walter Murch (particularly immersive in 70mm 6-track Dolby Stereo).
In addition to Lucas' early features, Coppola as producer has helped shepherd the work of other established and up-and-coming directors, include (clockwise from top left) Akira Kurosawa ("Kagemusha"); Carroll Ballard ("The Black Stallion"); Barbet Schroder ("Barfly"); Paul Schrader ("Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters"); and Godfrey Reggio ("Koyaanisqatsi").
In the early '80s Coppola's interest in the writing of teen fiction author S.E. Hinton led him to direct two films with youthful casts, including "The Outsiders." (Pictured: Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise.)
Coppola also filmed Hinton's "Rumble Fish" (left, with William Smith, Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke).
With his studio Zoetrope, Coppola's set out to recreate the Golden Age of Hollywood studio system, signing actors to contracts and shooting films on stage sets instead of on location. The musical "One from the Heart" (1982) starring Nastassja Kinski, Frederic Forrest, Teri Garr and Raul Julia, was a costly flop.
With financial failures came the necessity to work as a director-for-hire. In a 1995 interview with the American Academy of Achievement, Coppola said, "I have to be honest, that I associate my motion picture career more with being unhappy, and being scared, or being troubled, or being under the gun, and not at all with anything pleasant." (Left: Coppola on the set of "Apocalypse Now.")
With the financial collapse of Zoetrope as a production studio, Coppola spent much of the '80s and '90s directing studio properties like "The Cotton Club"; "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986) with Kathleen Turner; and "Gardens of Stone" (left, with James Caan and Angelica Huston).
Coppola also shot a 3-D film for a Disney theme park, "Captain EO," starring Michael Jackson.
More suited to his sensibilities was "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (1988), with Jeff Bridges as an iconoclastic car designer/entrepreneur going up against Detroit's Big Three.
Coppola readily used members of his extended family in his films. His sister Talia Shire played Connie Corleone Rizzi in the "Godfather" trilogy; his nephew Nicholas Coppola (stage name Nicolas Cage) appeared in "Rumble Fish," "The Cotton Club" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" (seen here with Jim Carrey). Coppola's sons Gian-Carlo and Roman appeared in "The Godfather" as Robert Duvall's sons. Coppola also used his father Carmine Coppola and then-brother-in-law David Shire as composers.
His daughter Sofia Coppola (who would later become the Oscar-winning writer-director of "Lost in Translation") appeared in several of her father's films, including as the baby during the christening scene of "The Godfather." Most famously, Sofia acted in "The Godfather Part III" (1990), recruited by her father to take over for an ailing Winona Ryder. Here she is seen with Andy Garcia.
Coppola returned to the Corleone Family saga with a rumination on redemption, with operatic stagings of violence. Coppola had hedged for years against Paramount's entreaties to do yet another sequel, but the director must have felt like Al Pacino's Michael Corleone: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" Though the film's critical reception suffered in comparison to the original two films, it still earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Andy Garcia (pictured, with Al Pacino).
In May 1990 Coppola was back on the streets of New York filming the assassination of Joey Zasa (Joe Montegna) in "The Godfather Part III." From top left: Cinematographer Gordon Willis prepares the scene. Bottom left: Makeup and special effects artists install explosive squibs in Montegna's coat, which is decorated with blood and ketchup (stray bullets had decimated a nearby hot dog stand). Middle three: The scene is slated, and as "bullets" pierce Montegna, he slumps to the ground. Right: Like a satisfied mafia don standing over the body of his victim, Coppola surveys the scene.
Coppola achieved another great commercial success with "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992), a lavish retelling of the vampire chestnut, starring Gary Oldham, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder and, as a hapless victim-turned-vampire, Sadie Frost.
Francis Ford Coppola and Winona Ryder on the set of "Bram Stoker's Dracula."
After directing the John Grisham drama "The Rainmaker," and the Robin Williams comedy "Jack," Coppola retreated to more personal films. After spending years unsuccessfully trying to set up a dream project about a utopian society, "Megalopolis," he directed "Youth Without Youth" (2007), an allegory about second chances set in Europe on the eve of World War II. (Picture: Tim Roth and Alexandra Maria Lara.)
Coppola self-financed the production, shooting on the sly in Romania with a limited crew.
"Tetro" (2009), about estrangements in an Argentinian-Italian family, was filmed in Buenos Aires, Patagonia, and Madrid, Spain. It was also Coppola's first original screenplay since "The Conversation."
"Tetro" featured Alden Ehrenreich, Sofia Gala and Vincent Gallo.
Coppola has long been a technical innovator; he was the first director to edit film on video during shooting, with a precursor of electronic nonlinear editing now common today. He shot on digital video for the first time with "Youth Without Youth" and "Tetro."
In the case of "Tetro," the film's main story was presented in widescreen black-and white, with flashbacks in standard format and color, incorporating extensive mixing of digital imagery.
"Sometimes the things that you are in trouble for or fired for when you are young are the same things that you're given lifetime achievement awards for when you're older," the director wrote last year. "My goal is to learn how to make films and perhaps to be able to expand the language of cinema. And have more grandchildren (and some great-grandchildren)."
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award recipient Francis Ford Coppola and writer-director Sofia Coppola attend the 2010 Governors Awards, in the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland, Hollywood, Calif., Saturday, November 13, 2010.
George Lucas presents the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to recipient Francis Ford Coppola during the 2010 Governors Awards in the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood, Calif., Saturday, November 13, 2010.
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award recipient Francis Ford Coppola at the 2010 Governors Awards Saturday, November 13, 2010.
Honorary Award recipient Eli Wallach, Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award recipient Francis Ford Coppola, and Honorary Award recipient Kevin Brownlow at the 2010 Governors Awards in the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood, Calif., Saturday, November 13, 2010. The evening's fourth honorary award recipient, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, declined to attend.