Francis Ford Coppola had not yet made a major splash in the movie industry when he took on the big-screen adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, which had spent 67 consecutive weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. The 29-year-old Coppola, who had a distinct vision, recalled that he would not let let Paramount interfere:
I had two kids and one about to be born. I had absolutely no money. I was making what had become a more important film than it was when I got the opportunity because the book had continued to become more and more important. And I had no power, and yet I had real opinions on how it should be done. And I was always just trying to bluff the studio to let me, you know, do it my way. And it was just the most frightening and depressing experience I think I've ever had.
Paramount, which wanted a big name for the role of don-in-waiting Michael Corleone, suggested 1970s stars Ryan O'Neal or Robert Redford. Coppola, however, had spotted an unknown actor by the name of Al Pacino on the Broadway stage.
The auteur went rogue and cast the green Pacino. When Paramount executives caught dailies of his performance, they demanded on three separate occasions that Coppola fire Pacino. The director refused.
Casting Corleone patriarch Don Vito was equally difficult. Co-screenwriters Puzo and Coppola wanted Marlon Brando for the role. However, by the early 1970s, the once-renowned method actor had lost much of his luster. Brando had garnered a reputation for being difficult and unprepared. The last thing Paramount wanted was a has-been diva delaying an already complicated production.
Once again, Coppola insisted. Brando wanted the part, and even agreed to a screen test and contract stipulations that he would not slow production.
Brando's screen test showed Paramount why he was an acclaimed Oscar-winning actor. He created his now-legendary Don Vito character by sticking tissue paper in his mouth and speaking in a raspy voice. The studio loved it and gave Brando the part.
The Godfather won three Academy Awards in 1973. Brando won the Oscar for best actor and ultimately created one of the most memorable screen characters in cinema history. Pacino showed his range by going from a mild-mannered war hero who wanted nothing to do with his family's business to a ruthless gangster drunk with power.
Additionally, The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II won the Academy Award for best picture. The dramas are widely considered among the best films ever made.