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It is impossible today to imagine another actor playing Don Vito Corleone. But Marlon Brando was seen as a washed-out, temperamental diva by Paramount Picture costumes.
“They wanted anyone but Brando,” says Mark Seal, author of Leave the gun, take the cannoli: The epic story of the creation of the Godfather. In fact, he says, studio executives were deeply opposed to director Francis Ford Coppola’s hand-picked entire cast. “They wanted Ernest Borgnine or Carlo Ponti, Sophia Loren’s husband. Danny Thomas wanted to buy the project from Paramount and star in it himself.”
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Other names circulating to play the Godfather ranged from Charles Bronson to Burt Lancaster to Orson Welles, who tried to convince Mario Puzo that he was perfect for the role. “The author of The Godfather wrote a letter to Brando saying, “You are the only actor who can play this role with the quiet intensity it deserves or demands,” Seal adds.
It’s always fun to imagine Orson Welles, the author who made Citizen Kane at the tender age of 25, vibrating on The Godfathertakes place with Coppola, who was 29 when filming began. Coppola was determined to direct Al Pacino and Diane Keaton in what would become their first major film roles, as well as more established film actors Robert Duvall and James Caan (who was originally considered by Paramount for Michael Corleone).
During his research, Seal found the studio’s original cast list. Potential candidates for Michael included the most bankable stars of the day, including Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal and Jack Nicholson. “Martin Sheen was considered,” Seal says. “Frank Langella. Nobody wanted Al Pacino, except Coppola. Coppola said that every time he thought of those scenes in Sicily, he saw Al Pacino’s face flash before his mind.”
But at the time, Pacino was primarily known as a New York stage actor. He was too dark and at 5’6″, the studio thought, too short – shorter than Diane Keaton, who ended up playing his love, Kay. (Paramount feared she was too quirky and pushed Karen Black , Tuesday Weld, Blythe Danner and Michelle Phillips instead.)
“It was the hottest movie of its time, even though Paramount at first didn’t know — and no one expected it to be — that touchstone,” says Seal. “But at the same time, so many people wanted to play all those roles because Mario Puzo’s novel was moving up the bestseller list.”
In some ways, Seal adds, this novel was the real star. But that didn’t stop Paramount from spending around $400,000 on screen tests in New York and Los Angeles to see who would be best for the roles — though the studio ended up going back to Coppola’s original choices. For the price of four corned beef sandwiches James Caan once cracked, Paramount could have perfectly pitched his movie from the start.