Coppola’s solution was a trick: he told Brando that he wanted to film him for a makeup test, which doubled secretly as a screen test for the Paramount brass to watch. According to legend, Brando pulled back his hair, dabbed a little shoe polish on his upper lip for a mustache, plugged wads of tissues into his cheeks to create jowls, and literally transformed into the Godfather.
“They shot that video of Brando, where he stuffs the Kleenex in his cheeks and becomes Don Corleone,” reports Seal. “But what I didn’t know is that Coppola took that tape immediately to New York and showed it to Charlie Bluhdorn, who was the head of Gulf and Western, Paramount’s parent company, and when he said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s incredible,’ then everybody else fell in line. The other interesting thing is that tape has just vanished from the face of the earth–nobody knows where it is.”
In the end, Coppola got the exact cast he wanted, although the stress of getting there took a toll on the already beleaguered director. And yet, in some alternate universe perhaps, there’s a Godfather with either Ernest Borgnine, Danny Thomas (!), or perhaps Anthony Quinn as Vito, Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford as Michael, a fellow named Carmine Caridi (who thought he had the part) as Sonny Corleone, and Jennifer O’Neill or Karen Black as Kay Adams. But would that version have become as iconic as the one we have?
“I don’t know,” muses Seal. “I don’t think it would work as well, because Coppola just envisioned so many aspects of this thing. It was just perfect casting. You can’t imagine anybody but James Caan as Sonny, or Robert Duvall as Tom–just the way he speaks to John Marley. And John Marley too, as the producer, Jack Woltz. I mean, who could do a scene with the horse’s head in a bed the way that he did it? Or Diane Keaton as Kay–the way she looks when that door closes at the end.”
The Battle Over Francis Ford Coppola
Like Brando, Coppola was hesitant to direct The Godfather at first. After directing two flops in a row (Finian’s Rainbow and The Rain People), he retreated to San Francisco with his friend George Lucas and started American Zoetrope, a studio aimed at creating artistic, experimental films with iconoclastic filmmakers that avoided the Hollywood formula and mindset. But the company very quickly ran into financial problems and Coppola’s dream artistic haven was in danger of crashing down.
“He had moved to San Francisco to get away from the big budget blockbuster mentality,” says Seal. “The reason that he did [The Godfather] was, like Puzo, he needed the money, and it was only when his assistant George Lucas, future director of Star Warssaid, ‘Francis, the sheriff’s at the door, do The Godfather and then we can do the kind of films we want to make.’”