One of the greatest and most influential films ever made, and the first installment in a legendary Hollywood gangster trilogy, The Godfather tells the story of Michael Corleone’s transformation from a quiet, thoughtful outsider into a ruthless, cold-blooded crime lord.
Featuring Al Pacino as Michael Corleone alongside Marlon Brando as his father, Don Vito, The Godfather is based on author Mario Puzo’s best-selling 1969 novel of the same name, and if you’ve never taken the time to watch it then you really have been sleeping with the fishes.
So allow us to make you an offer you simply cannot refuse, as we present not a horse’s head in your bed, but some fascinating facts about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 mafia-based masterpiece.
20. 12 directors turned down the chance to direct the film before it got to Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel The Godfather was published in 1969, but a film was already on the cards before that.
Studio Paramount Pictures had purchased the film rights two years before Puzo’s novel (then entitled Mafia) had been published.
This demonstrates the level of confidence that Paramount and producer Robert Evans had in the project.
Unfortunately, it proved harder than expected to find a director who shared their faith in the material.
The first director offered the job was Sergio Leone, who turned it down (but would later make his own gangster epic with Once Upon a Time in America).
A reported 12 directors in total passed on the project, including Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde).
19. Francis Ford Coppola didn’t like Mario Puzo’s novel
Today, Francis Ford Coppola is widely regarded one of the greatest directors ever, but this wasn’t the case back when he was offered The Godfather.
At that point, Coppola had only directed a handful of B-movies – although he was also an Oscar-winning screenwriter for 1970’s Patton.
Like the others who had passed on The Godfather before him, Coppola was at first unconvinced about the project.
The director was not impressed by Mario Puzo’s novel, which he dismissed as “pretty cheap stuff.”
Ultimately, the need to make a living overruled Coppola’s artistic anxieties, as the filmmaker was struggling financially at the time.
The rest is history: Coppola signed on to direct The Godfather for $125,000, and his name would forever be synonymous with the movie.
18. Paramount Pictures was dead set against Al Pacino playing Michael Corleone
Not unlike Coppola, Al Pacino is another figure who is considered a legend today, but was largely unknown before The Godfather.
Pacino had worked extensively in theatre, but his only film role of note up to that point had been in 1971’s little-seen The Panic in Needle Park.
Studio Paramount were initially opposed to Pacino’s casting as Michael Corleone because of his inexperience, as well as his comparative shortness (5’7″).
Instead, the studio hoped to lure a better-known actor, such as Robert Redford or Warren Beatty.
Other actors to audition for the role included Martin Sheen, Dustin Hoffman and even James Caan, who was eventually cast as Michael’s hot-headed brother Sonny.
17. Robert De Niro was almost cast as Paulie Gatto, but dropped out
In addition to Al Pacino, another little-known but hotly tipped young actor was up for The Godfather: Robert De Niro.
De Niro auditioned for the role of Sonny Corleone, but Francis Ford Coppola instead offered him the small supporting role of Paulie Gatto.
However, once Al Pacino was cast as Michael, De Niro made the decision to leave the film, leaving Johnny Martino to take over as Paulie.
Instead, De Niro appeared in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, taking on a role that Pacino had just abandoned in order to star in The Godfather.
Two years later, De Niro was cast as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II – and his performance won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Pacino and De Niro enjoyed a friendly rivalry for many years, before eventually acting alongside one another in Heat, Righteous Kill and The Irishman.
16. Marlon Brando threatened to quit to stop Paramount from firing Coppola
- Credit: Paramount Pictures
Francis Ford Coppola’s indecisiveness about who should be cast in The Godfather led to the production significantly falling behind schedule.
These delays didn’t come cheap, the hold-up reportedly costing studio Paramount around $40,000 a day.
This, coupled with a perceived lack of experience on Coppola’s part, made the studio lose faith in the director.
Because of this, executives at Paramount considered firing Coppola and having another director take over.
However, Coppola had one powerful figure in his corner: his esteemed, Oscar-winning leading man, Marlon Brando.
To help save the director’s job, Brando threatened to drop out of the movie if Coppola was fired.
15. A real horse’s head was used for the film’s most infamous scene
One of the most infamous and unforgettable scenes in The Godfather sees a severed racehorse’s head left in the bed of a movie studio boss, as a warning.
In rehearsals, actor John Marley rolled over to find himself in bed with a prop horse head.
However, when it came to shooting the scene, an actual (dead) horse’s head was placed in the bed.
Marley was not informed of this beforehand, so the horror in his face and his screams are at least partially genuine.
This move sparked some controversy, although the head came from a dog food factory (from a horse that would have been killed even if its head hadn’t been used in the film).
Several years later, Coppola would offend more animal rights activists by featuring genuine footage of a water buffalo being slaughtered in Apocalypse Now.
14. The word ‘mafia’ isn’t once mentioned in the film
It may be the most famous movie ever made about the mafia, but the word ‘mafia’ is never actually used in The Godfather.
Puzo and Coppola’s screenplay initially featured two uses of the word ‘mafia,’ but this was met with resistance.
The Italian-American Civil Rights League lobbied for such references to be removed when it came time to shoot the film.
It was argued that the term ‘mafia’ reinforced harmful stereotypes about the Italian-American community.
Perhaps ironically, the Italian-American Civil Rights League was led by a certain Joseph Colombo.
Outside of his civil rights work, Colombo was also the head of one of the Five Families of the American Mafia in New York City.
13. It was the first of just five movies John Cazale made before his death
Alongside Al Pacino’s Michael, James Caan’s Sonny, Talia Shire’s Connie and Robert Duvall’s adoptive son Tom Hagen, the last Corleone child is Fredo, played by John Cazale.
Cazale would reprise the role of the deeply flawed second-born Corleone child to even greater effect in The Godfather Part II.
Sadly, outside of these two appearances as Fredo, Cazale would make only three other films before his death from cancer in 1978.
While the loss of this talented actor aged just 42 was undeniably tragic, Cazale left behind a truly exemplary body of work. Every single film in which he appeared is an acknowledged all-time classic.
In between the Godfather movies, he reunited with Francis Ford Coppola on The Conversation, then co-starred with Pacino again on Dog Day Afternoon.
Cazale’s final appearance came in The Deer Hunter, which was released posthumously. At the time of his death, Cazale’s long-term partner Meryl Streep was with him.
12. Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Oscar in protest at Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans
After the critical and commercial success of The Godfather, it didn’t come as too big a surprise when Marlon Brando was named Best Actor at the Academy Awards on 27th March 1973.
However, on top of giving a legendary performance, Brando made another legendary move by refusing his Academy Award.
Brando did not attend the awards show, and in his stead he asked actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to go on stage and decline the Oscar.
As Littlefeather explained in a brief statement, Brando’s refusal was in protest at Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans in films and television, and to help draw attention to the then-ongoing standoff at Wounded Knee.
Brando was the second, and to date last actor to refuse the Best Actor Oscar; just two years earlier, George C. Scott declined the award for Patton (which, coincidentally, was written by Francis Ford Coppola).
Scott snubbed the Oscars because he considered the awards show “a two-hour meat parade.”
11. It was the highest-grossing film ever made
The Godfather was massively acclaimed on release, and was quickly declared one of the greatest films ever made.
However, you might not have known that for a few years, it was also the biggest box office hit in cinema history.
On release in 1972, The Godfather came in at number one at the US box office for a staggering 23 weeks in a row. It then went back to the top for three further weeks afterwards.
By the end of its theatrical run, The Godfather had made somewhere between $246-287 million in ticket sales.
This made it the biggest box office hit ever – until its record was beaten by Jaws in 1975.
Of course, these figures seem like small change compared to the biggest box office hits of today, with Avatar and Avengers: Endgame earning upwards of $2.79 billion each.
10. Frank Sinatra was furious that Johnny Fontane was allegedly based on him
A key character in The Godfather is Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), a singer whose success is deeply rooted in his ‘family’ connections.
Even before the movie was released, it was widely speculated that the character of Johnny was modelled on Frank Sinatra, who had long been rumoured to have mob ties.
Sinatra himself got wind of this, and when he met The Godfather author Mario Puzo, the legendary performer didn’t hold back his contempt.
Puzo wrote in a 1972 magazine article that Sinatra angrily asked, “Who told you to put that in the book, your publisher?”
Puzo said that Sinatra proceeded to “shout abuse,” and remarked “that if it wasn’t that I was so much older than he, he would beat the hell out of me.”
Puzo never confirmed that Sinatra was the basis for Johnny Fontane, although Coppola acknowledges the influence on The Godfather DVD commentary.
9. Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier were both considered to play Vito Corleone
Marlon Brando’s performance as Don Vito Corleone is now so iconic, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
However, as hard as it might be to believe, studio Paramount were at first sceptical about casting Brando.
Although he’d won an Oscar for 1954’s On the Waterfront and had been nominated on four other occasions, Brando’s star was falling by the early 70s.
For Coppola, Brando was always the number one choice, but the director also considered legendary British actor Sir Laurence Olivier.
Studio Paramount, meanwhile, were pushing for Ernest Borgnine, also an Oscar winner for 1955’s Marty, and who’d not long since appeared in The Dirty Dozen and The Wild Bunch.
Other names on the list of potential Vito Corleone actors included Orson Welles, George C. Scott, Anthony Quinn and Richard Conte.
8. Paramount made Brando do the film for a lower salary because of his difficult reputation
Studio executives at Paramount Pictures were wary of casting Marlon Brando in The Godfather for a number of reasons.
As well as having doubts about the actor’s value as a box office draw, the studio were also worried about Brando’s track record of being difficult.
While revered as a serious method actor, Brando was also notorious for being demanding and argumentative, and this had led to problems on some of his earlier films.
For this reason, Paramount would only agree to Brando’s casting as Don Vito Corleone on some very specific conditions.
Firstly, they would only give Brando a smaller-than-usual salary upfront; secondly, they insisted the actor himself put up an insurance bond that meant he would be liable if he caused any delays in production.
Brando agreed – although as he also took a cut of the film’s profits, he would up making around $2 million for his performance, a large sum for an actor at that time.
7. Diane Keaton didn’t watch the film for 30 years
Diane Keaton (later an Oscar winner for Annie Hall) takes the key supporting role of Michael Corleone’s girlfriend Kay Adams in The Godfather.
On top of playing one of the only non-Italian characters in the movie, Keaton was genuinely one of the few figures on set without Italian heritage.
Because of this, Kay comes off as something of an outcast in the movie – and Keaton has said she felt that way herself during production.
Speaking at a 2017 reunion screening, Keaton admitted she hadn’t seen the film in over 30 years.
The actress recalled, “I never did pay that much attention to The Godfather because I always thought I was the most outsider, weird person in the movie, and, ‘Why was I cast in it?’ and I had no voice. But then I had a couple of good scenes with Al.”
However, Keaton admitted that when she finally watched the film again, “I couldn’t handle it, it was so astonishing, it was so beautiful, and everybody is so great in it.”
6. Coppola added more violence to keep the studio happy
The Godfather was made only a few years after the MPAA ratings (most notably the R and X) had been introduced.
Under this new system, filmmakers could showcase considerably more extreme content than had previously been allowed.
Because of this, viewers were flocking to see more violent and bloody spectacles on the big screen.
Knowing that violence would sell more tickets, executives at Paramount pressured the makers of The Godfather to add more intense action.
In order to placate the studio, Coppola added some more violent moments – although by modern standards some of these may seem rather tame.
The director has highlighted the moment when Connie starts breaking crockery on learning of her husband’s infidelity as a scene that was added to make the film more violent.
5. Pacino still considers Michael Corleone his most difficult role
Michael Corleone was only the second role that Al Pacino portrayed on film (not counting his cameo in 1969’s Me, Natalie).
Even though he’s taken almost 60 screen roles since, the iconic actor still considers The Godfather his greatest challenge.
Pacino told The Guardian in 2015, “Michael Corleone in The Godfather was and still is the most difficult role I’ve played.”
The actor explained, “I didn’t see him as a gangster; I felt his power was his enigmatic quality. Unfortunately the studio couldn’t see that at first and were thinking of firing me.”
Of course this didn’t happen, and the role made Pacino a superstar. It also earned him his first Academy Award nomination, although Pacino snubbed the ceremony as he felt it was unfair for him to be listed in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Pacino would get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Godfather Part II, making him one of only six actors to be Oscar-nominated twice for the same role.
4. Coppola insisted they keep the ‘puppet strings’ logo from the book cover
Mention the title of The Godfather, and chances are you immediately picture the iconic title card with the graphic of a hand holding up a puppet’s strings.
As well as appearing on all the film’s opening titles, this logo was used on the two sequels and all marketing related to the franchise.
This logo was not designed by the art department on the movie; it originated on the cover art of Mario Puzo’s novel.
Graphic designer S. Neil Fujita provided the logo, featured on the jacket of the book’s first edition in 1969.
Initially, Paramount Pictures had no intention of using this logo in the marketing for The Godfather.
However, Francis Ford Coppola insisted that they use the logo, and put Mario Puzo’s name before the title, as a sign of respect toward the author.
3. Seven members of Francis Ford Coppola’s family appear in the film
Francis Ford Coppola’s movies have always been something of a family affair, and this was famously the case on The Godfather.
A grand total of seven members of the writer-director’s family make appearances on camera in the film.
Most notably, Coppola cast his sister Talia Shire (later best known as Adrian in the Rocky movies) in the role of Connie Corleone.
The director also cast his mother, wife and two sons as extras, and his newborn daughter Sofia as Connie and Carlo’s baby.
Controversially, the director would later cast Sofia again (despite her inexperience as an actress) in the role of Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III.
Sofia Coppola has since abandoned acting but gone on to great success as a writer-director, most famously with Lost in Translation.
2. The American Film Institute ranked it as the second-greatest American film of all time
The Godfather is one of the few films which audiences and critics alike tend to be in total agreement about.
The film was met with almost unanimously positive reviews on release, and if anything its reputation has only grown with time.
The American Film Institute has declared The Godfather to be the second greatest film in American history.
The top spot on the AFI’s list is taken by Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane.
Rounding out the AFI’s top five are Casablanca, Raging Bull and Singin’ in the Rain.
The Godfather also scores highly at Rotten Tomatoes, with a 97% critics rating and 98% audience rating.
1. Francis Ford Coppola’s father provided some of the film’s music
As well as putting some of his closest relatives on camera in The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola also utilised the talents of his family behind the scenes.
The director enlisted his father, Carmine Coppola, to provide some of the music for the film.
Carmine Coppola was a classically trained musician who had worked extensively as an orchestra conductor.
While the main score for The Godfather was composed by Nino Rota, Coppola Sr. provided additional music for the wedding sequence.
Carmine Coppola would go on to provide music for more of his son’s films, including The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now. His last work was on 1990’s The Godfather Part III; he passed away only a few months after the film was released.