In 1972, The Godfather made its debut and was instantly hailed as one of the best movies ever made. The Godfather is beloved by critics and audiences alike for many reasons, but primarily because of the masterful direction by a young Francis Ford Coppola and legendary performances from Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. Yet, behind the scenes of The Godfather, the movie came close to falling apart. Scare tactics and troubled casting made production "nightmarish."
While there was a high cost to making one of the greatest gangster movies, much joy and humor also abounded. Stories from the making of The Godfather include a lot of pranks and unusual characters. In the end, a dedicated cast and crew came together to tell the story of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone and the Corleone family.
When word got out about The Godfather being adapted into a movie, head of the New York syndicate, Joseph Colombo Sr., led a campaign both in and out of the media to shut down production over the use of the word "mafia." He, with the backing from the Italian American Civil Rights League, rallied Italian Americans against The Godfather and allegedly pursued producer Albert Ruddy. Throughout the production, Ruddy was so concerned about retaliation from the family that he switched cars with his staff regularly.
The scare tactics came to a head for Ruddy when someone blew out the windows of his car one night. After Colombo's pressure made its way up to studio head Robert Evans, he insisted Ruddy meet with Colombo to make a deal.
Colombo eventually agreed to bless the movie on two conditions: the script had to delete all usage of the term in question, and the producers needed to donate the proceeds from the world premiere to Colombo's civil rights organization. Ruddy agreed to both, though the money was never delivered.
Johnny Fontane was the lounge-singer-turned-actor so involved with the Corleones that they left a severed horse's head in a producer's bed, scoring him a role in an upcoming film. In real life, Fontane was played by an actor of similar circumstance. Al Martino got involved with the Italian syndicate after recording a No. 1 hit "Here in My Heart" in 1952 when members strong-armed his manager to "sell" Martino's contract. Martino himself had to flee the United States to escape them, but he returned after brokering a deal with the head of the Philadelphia syndicate, Angelo Bruno.
By the 1970s, Martino had so much support from the family he was able to secure a part in the movie. With the influence of Don Russell Bufalino, producer Albert Ruddy gave Martino the role of Fontane. However, after Francis Ford Coppola joined the production, Coppola cast Vic Damone instead, unaware of the deal between Ruddy and Martino. Damone later backed out of the film due to Bufalino's influence.
When filming began, Martino got the part, but much of his character was written out of the final film due to pressure from an unhappy Frank Sinatra, who sued to end the film's production because of Fontane's resemblance to him or perhaps for the fact he disliked Martino's acting.
Though today Al Pacino is beloved for his role as Michael Corleone, Paramount Pictures head Robert Evans thought he was a terrible choice. "A runt will not play Michael," Evans said to Francis Ford Coppola. While Pacino was Coppola's choice for Michael early on, Evans and other producers refused to accept him. They believed he was too short.
Even when Pacino finally got the part, the studio kept trying to find a replacement and force him to continue doing screen tests. He tested for the role so many times his girlfriend called Coppola and complained they were wronging him.
Coppola and Evans eventually brokered a deal when Coppola agreed to fire his first choice for Sonny, Carmine Caridi, and cast James Caan instead. In exchange, Evans relented to cast Pacino as Michael.
Paramount and The Godfather's producers did not have a lot of confidence in Francis Ford Coppola at first, thanks to Coppola's lack of experience and the many troubles they encountered during production. They consistently pressured the young director and created what Coppola later called "a nightmarish experience." Coppola was intensely worried about providing for his three young children and doubted the movie's chances for success. He claimed he was "always on the verge of being fired."
Coppola had so little faith in the movie he wasn't even in the United States during the premiere, and his wife had to call to tell him about The Godfather's incredible success.