"The Godfather" is that rare motion picture that satisfies the visceral desire for sensational entertainment, the emotional need for affecting drama, and the intellectual drive for art. Born from a mass market potboiler about the Mafia by an author desperate to make a few bucks, the resulting film version is one of the great American films about family - brought to life with vivid direction and craftsmanship and some of the best actors ever to appear on screen.
Opening on March 15, 1972 to blockbuster business, the film became a landmark, inspiring two film sequels, imitations, book sequels, a computer game, parodies, and more cultural references than nearly any movie of the last half-century.
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan
In the post-WWII years criminal organizations (whether referred to as the Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, or just "underworld") stretched their tentacles into more and more areas of American life. Yet the movies' romantic vision of the Tommy Gun-toting gangster held a tremendous grip on the public, fueled by the tabloids' heralding of their violent ends.
Despite the book's success, the studio was wary of a film version: Paramount's previous movie about the Mafia, the 1968 Kirk Douglas drama "The Organization," was a box office bomb. The studio had also suffered big budget disasters in 1969 and 1970 (including "Darling Lili," "Paint Your Wagon" and "Waterloo"), and was averse to another risky, big budget adventure. Studio execs went forward only on assurances that it could be done cheaply.
Left: Ruddy with Marlon Brando on the set.
But could the film even be made? The Italian-American Civil Rights League protested that "The Godfather" would stereotype Italian-Americans, and in Spring 1970 held a rally at Madison Square Garden, raising $600,000 in a bid to prevent the film from going into production. Ruddy received threatening phone calls, and the window of his car was shot out.
The mob threat was quelled, but media reports that a "deal" had been made sent the stock price of Gulf + Western, Paramount's parent company, in a spin.
The League's influence was largely reduced before the film opened, for on June 28, 1971, Colombo was attending an Italian Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle when he was shot three times in the head. The mob boss was paralyzed, and lingered for years before dying in 1978. The assailant didn't leave Columbus Circle alive.
Francis Coppola (left), a graduate of Roger Corman's low-budget film studio and co-author of the screenplay for the 1970 George C. Scott bio "Patton," had only one big studio feature directing credit (the Fred Astaire musical "Finian's Rainbow," which bombed), but was promoted for the job by the number two executive at Paramount, Peter Bart. Initially turned off by the material, Coppola was convinced by family and friends (including George Lucas) to take the job, in order to make the money necessary to keep Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope, afloat.
Puzo and Coppola's final script of "The Godfather" pared down the source novel's plot to its essentials, while expanding on the familial ties that lent a greater sense of tragedy to the development of son Michael Corleone.
Brando was interested, and agreed to a videotaped tryout in character. Using shoe polish to darken his hair and some Kleenex in his cheeks, Brando "aged" two decades and became a figure exuding charisma and corruptive power. Shown anonymously among the auditions of other actors, studio execs were amazed at the performance - and further amazed to learn who it actually was. Brando got the part.
Left: Brando filming "The Godfather," with makeup by Dick Smith.
Coppola and Ruddy went through protracted negotiations to convince studio head Bob Evans to accept Pacino for the role - and then learned that Pacino's contract to appear in MGM's "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" would be a conflict. The two studios settled, and Pacino was signed less than three weeks before shooting began.
By not playing the character in "The Godfather," De Niro was free to take the role of the young Vito Corleone in the sequel, "The Godfather Part II" (a performance for which he won an Academy Award).
Though Caan's German-Jewish heritage was a far cry from Santino Corleone's Sicilian roots, he captured Sonny's explosive energy, propensity for violence, and self-destructiveness.
Duvall's best-known role up to that point was as Maj. Frank Burns in Robert Altman's "MASH."
To play Carlo, husband of Connie Corleone, Las Vegas emcee Gianni Russo demanded a screen test, in which he acted out the attack on Connie upon the studio president's secretary. Though not injured, her "beating" was realistic enough to win Russo the part.
When "The Godfather Part II" was being cast, Castellano's salary demands were deemed too high, so his character was "bumped off," replaced by the character Frankie Pentagelli (Michael V. Gazzo).
Another trivia note: Playing the Young Clemenza in the sequel's flashback scenes was Bruno Kirby, who played Castellano's son in the TV comedy series "The Super."
The story"I believe in America."
The film opens on the wedding day of the daughter of Don Vito Corleone. While many come to his New York home to pay their respects, some come seeking favors, such as the funeral director Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto). He asks that the men who beat and tried to rape his daughter be killed, after he failed to acquire justice from the judicial system.
Corleone agrees to exact a vengeance, but not death. "We're not murderers," he professes.
But the story of "The Godfather" is not concerned with underworld commerce - it is barely mentioned. Instead the plot follows the family's attempts to protect their honor when it is attacked or threatened (from outside and within), and how a father's best efforts to isolate and protect one son from the family business fail utterly.
When Hollywood studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) refuses to give a choice film role to Corleone's favorite, the producer discovers the dismembered head of his prized horse Khartoum.
Despite denials that he will not follow in the violent path of his father, Michael crosses the line, and becomes a hunted man.
DON CORLEONE: i knew that Santino was going to have to go through all this. And Fredo, well, Fredo was ... well ... But I never, I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by all those big shots. I don't apologize - that's my life. But i thought that, that when it was your time, that, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something. ... Just wasn't enough time, Michael, Wasn't enough time.
MICHAEL: We'll get there, Pop. We'll get there.
MICHAEL: My father's no different from any other powerful man. . . . Any man who's responsible for other people - like a senator or a president.
KAY: You know how naive you sound?
KAY: Senators and presidents don't have men killed.
MICHAEL: Oh, who's being naive, Kay? My father's way of doing things is over, it's finished. Even he knows that. I mean, in five years the Corleone family is gonna be completely legitimate. Trust me. That's all I can tell you about my business.
ProductionFilming began in March 1971, at locations in New York City, New Jersey, Long Island, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, before moving to Sicily. With the League offering no resistance, some of the "boys" hung out on the set to observe filming (James Caan picked up many pointers as he joined them for drinks). The League even helped convince a balking landowner to allow filming at the location used for the Corleone family compound.
A view of the the film crew shooting "The Godfather" on Fifth Avenue in New York City on Tuesday, March 24, 1971. Old cars used for the 1945 period setting can be seen as modern-day New York traffic moved past beyond camera range.
Credible talk that Elia Kazan (who'd directed Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Viva Zapata!" and "On the Waterfront") would be brought in were quelled by Brando himself, who told Coppola that he'd walk off the picture in solidarity if the studio fired him.
Coppola preemptively fired several staffers, including an editor who was wrangling to take over directing duties. And as the studio saw more and more dailies, they grew less concerned.
So while Sonny dies in a monumental hail of gunfire that rips him and his car to shreds - about 80 hits on Caan's body alone - no bullet hits are actually seen on his face. (Dick Smith applied some blood after the fact.)
Pacino and Clayburgh had met while appearing at the Charles Playhouse in Boston in 1966 and were a couple for several years. The two made their TV acting debuts together in a 1968 episode of the series "N.Y.P.D.," playing a young couple attacked by a gunman.
In 2010 Lily Rabe, the daughter of Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe, appeared on Broadway with Pacino in "The Merchant of Venice."
Coppola's masterful direction of the tragic story elevated what in another's hands would have been a gruesome tale of underworld figures. Audiences were moved by the familial ties that were tested or torn, while the film's examination of the corrupting influence of power and clashes of ethnicity presented a vivid depiction of an American Dream gone sour.
Maverick directors had already launched broadsides at traditional Hollywood filmmaking in the late 1960s and early '70s with such films as "Easy Rider," "MASH," and "The Last Picture Show." But "The Godfather" truly ushered in a new era of moviemaking - breaking rules of storytelling, cinematography and editing; unleashing a new generation of talented actors; and making auteur directors like Coppola the new kings of Hollywood.
The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three, including Best Picture.
Brando wished to protest Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans and the massacre at Wounded Knee, but felt his presence would overshadow his message, so he opted for a proxy.
It was later revealed that Littlefeather was an actress (born Marie Cruz) whose father's heritage was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui. Littlefeather had participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, and later acted in the films "The Trial of Billy Jack" and "Winterhawk."
Sherry: You're hurting, Vito, and you're covering up.
Vito Corleone: Alright, alright, you're right. It is hurting me. Numbers alone, I'm losing fifteen to twenty grand a week.
Therapist: Vito, you're still blocking. How do you feel about them shooting Santino fifty-six times?
Vito Corleone: Terrible. We had to go to the mattresses. Tessio sleeps with the fishes. Johnny is through in Hollywood. They blew up Michael's wife and a lovely car. The Tattaglias, Barzinis, and Boyardees all have contracts out on me, the Feds are watching me, Kefauver is investigating me, and the ASPCA is after me over this horse thing.
Garrett: Evading. Vito's evading.
In addition to Matthew Broderick, the cast included Bruno Kirby, who played the young Clemenza in "The Godfather Part II." Gianni Russo (Carlo) also made a cameo appearance.
The film tells two parallel stories: One is of the young Vito, his rise to power, and his personal vendetta against the Sicilian capo who killed his family; the second is of Michael and his efforts to fight off both government investigations into his empire and attacks by other criminal syndicates. Both stories enrich the characters of the original film, and together the two are viewed as the best gangster saga ever made.
When initially developing the sequel Coppola envisioned running both "I" and "II" together, with the new material wrapped around the original, but such a six-hour screening would be theatrically unfeasible. However, he revisited that notion when he re-cut the two films into a linear mini-series for network TV.
The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture - the first sequel ever to be so honored. Francis Coppola also won for Best Director and shared Best Screenplay with Puzo. His father, Carmine Coppola, shared the Best Original Score Oscar with Nino Rota.
Though a draft screenplay based on Puzo's story was first written in 1979 by Dean Riesner, almost none of that script carries through to the shooting script by Coppola and Puzo, in which the now-aged Michael Corleone seeks to legitimize his empire as the wolves surround him. Key to the story is Michael's search for redemption - and the suffering that both he and his loved ones undergo. As the director put it, Michael had to "pay for his sins." Paramount balked at the title - "The Death of Michael Corleone" - but the film went into production in New York and Rome in late 1989. Like Richard Castellano and "Part II," Robert Duvall did not appear owing to a salary dispute, so the character of Tom Hagen was killed off.
The director got a lot of stick for hiring Sofia (especially since many stars had campaigned for the part). And while the film received mixed to positive reviews, Sofia was singled out for bashing by critics.
CARDINAL LAMBERTO: Sometimes the desire to confess is overwhelming. And we must seize the moment.
MICHAEL: What is the point of confessing, if I don't repent?
LAMBERTO: I hear you are a practical man. What have you got to lose? Go on.
MICHAEL: I uh, I betrayed my wife.
LAMBERTO: Go on, my son.
MICHAEL: I betrayed myself. I killed men. And I ordered men to be killed.
LAMBERTO: Go on, my son, go on.
MICHAEL: Nah, it's useless.
LAMBERTO: Go on, my son.
MICHAEL: I killed - I ordered the death of my brother. He injured me. I killed my mother's son. I killed my father's son.
LAMBERTO: Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know that you don't believe that. You will not change.
In 2008 film preservationist Robert Harris (who saved David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia") led a team that was able to salvage fading images from the "Godfather"'s camera negatives to create a new 4K digital master, correcting color timings and bringing performances cloaked in Gordon Willis' sinister cinematography back to their full glory.
"The Godfather" (Official website)
The Godfather Wiki
"The Godfather Book" by Peter Cowie (Faber & Faber)
"The Godfather Legacy" by Harlan Lebo (Fireside Books)
"The Godfather Family Album" by Steve Schapiro, edited by Paul Duncan (Taschen)
"The Annotated Godfather Screenplay" by Jenny M. Jones (Black Dog & Leventhal)
Oscar honors Francis Ford Coppola
Oscar honors makeup master Dick Smith
By CBSNews.com senior editor David Morgan