Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW, which opened Aug. 15, 1979, almost didn’t star Marlon Brando.
Brando, cast as the rogue Green Beret Colonel Kurtz leading hit-and-run missions from Cambodia against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops, almost dropped out as filming began. He’d been advanced $1M but threatened to quit and keep the money — to which Coppola said he’d then go after Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, or Al Pacino. When Brando finally did show up late, he’d been drinking and was some 90 pounds overweight. He hadn’t read the screenplay or Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” on which the film is based.
After Brando did read the script by John Milius, Coppola & Michael Herr, he refused to do it. Brando and Coppola argued for days about the dialogue before Brando agreed to work in a somewhat ad-lib style and Coppola said he’d film him mostly in shadows. Coppola was stunned Brando had never read Conrad’s book and spent days on set reading it to him. Conrad’s Kurtz was tall and very thin, but Brando was just 5’7″ and obese. Coppola compensated by shooting Brando from angles that didn’t show his stomach.
Originally, APOCALYPSE was to have been directed by George Lucas from a screenplay by Milius that Lucas had helped develop. Coppola, as executive producer, tried to get it made at Warner Bros., which passed. Coppola then got busy directing THE GODFATHER for Paramount.
When Lucas & Coppola became A-List filmmakers and could get APOCALYPSE green-lighted, Lucas was busy directing the first STAR WARS. Milius didn’t want to direct APOCALYPSE, so Lucas agreed Coppola should do it. Milius’s 1969 screenplay was called THE PSYCHEDELIC SOLDIER, but he changed it to APOCALYPSE NOW after seeing a 1960’s hippies button that read “Nirvana Now.”
Coppola also faced casting challenges with the role of Captain Willard, whose secret orders are to find and kill Kurtz. Al Pacino passed because he anticipated a five-month jungle shoot. It turned out to take 16 months. Coppola cast Harvey Keitel, but after shooting for two weeks replaced him with Martin Sheen, who later suffered a heart attack during filming, which had to be kept secret to avoid having the American Zoetrope and United Artists production shut down.
Steve McQueen passed on Willard after having first agreed when Coppola offered him $3M. Realizing how long he’d be in the Philippine jungles, McQueen asked instead to play Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, with much less location work, but for the same $3M — a deal Coppola refused. The role then went to Robert Duvall, who ended up with a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his 11 minutes of screentime.
“They were gonna make me a major for this, and I wasn’t even in their f*****’ army anymore. Everybody wanted me to do it, him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up, not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade.” – Captain Willard