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It’s impossible today to imagine any other actor playing Don Vito Corleone. But Marlon Brando was seen as a washed-up, temperamental diva by Paramount Picture’s suits.
“They wanted anybody but Brando,” says Mark Seal, author of Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather. In fact, he says, studio executives were deeply opposed to the entire cast handpicked by director Francis Ford Coppola. “They wanted Ernest Borgnine or Carlo Ponti, the husband of Sophia Loren. Danny Thomas wanted to buy the project from Paramount and star in it himself.”
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Other names floating around to play the Godfather ranged from Charles Bronson to Burt Lancaster to Orson Welles, who tried to convince Mario Puzo he was perfect for the role. “The author of The Godfather had written a letter to Brando saying, ‘You’re the only actor who could play this role with the quiet intensity that it deserves or requires,'” Seal adds.
It’s still fun to imagine Orson Welles, the auteur who directed Citizen Kane at the tender age of 25, vibing on The Godfather‘s set with Coppola, who was 29 when filming started. Coppola was dead set on directing Al Pacino and Diane Keaton in what would become their first major film roles, as well as the more established screen actors Robert Duvall and James Caan (who was originally considered by Paramount for Michael Corleone).
Over the course of his research, Seal found the studio’s original casting list. Potential candidates for Michael included the era’s most bankable stars, 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 for Coppola. Coppola said every time he thought about those scenes in Sicily, he saw the face of Al Pacino flash before his mind.”
But back then, Pacino was primarily known as a New York theater actor. He was too obscure and at 5’6″, the studio thought, too short – shorter than Diane Keaton, who ended up playing his love interest, Kay. (Paramount worried she was too offbeat, and pushed Karen Black, Tuesday Weld, Blythe Danner and Michelle Phillips instead.)
“This was the hottest movie of its day, even though Paramount at the beginning didn’t know — and nobody expected it to be — this touchstone,” Seal explains. “But at the same time, so many people wanted to play all these roles because Mario Puzo’s novel was racing up the bestseller list.”
In some ways, Seal adds, that novel was the real star. But that did not 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 – even 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 cast their movie right from the very beginning.