Peter Bogdanovich would be remembered today for directing THE GODFATHER had Paramount Pictures had its way 50-some years ago.
The studio wanted Bogdanovich to direct the crime family drama that premiered in New York on March 14, 1972 and was based on Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel. But Bogdanovich, who’d made THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, passed for lack of interest in the Mafia. Paramount’s offer to direct was one that many top directors could & did refuse — including, Richard Brooks, Sidney J. Furie, Otto Preminger, Franklin J. Schaffner & François Truffaut. Sergio Leone, who also passed, had second thoughts later and made the 1984 gangster epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, which died at the boxoffice.
Production chief Robert Evans studied earlier Paramount gangster films, finding most didn’t do well and weren’t written or directed by Italian-Americans. On hiring Francis Ford Coppola, he said he wanted to “smell the spaghetti.” Coppola wasn’t a well-known director then. His 1966 feature debut, YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, was well-received, but he was writing & producing. He’d co-written PATTON, winning the best original screenplay Oscar, and he’d executive produced George Lucas’s first feature THX 1138.
Paramount wanted GODFATHER to be a low-budget gangster film with a contemporary setting, but Coppola rejected Puzo’s screenplay with that concept. That was one of many disputes between Coppola & Paramount. The studio tried hard to dump Coppola, charging he couldn’t stay on schedule & wasted money. Actually, he brought GODFATHER in ahead of schedule and under budget.
Paramount wanted to hire Elia Kazan, an Oscar winner in 1955 for directing ON THE WATERFRONT with Marlon Brando. They thought Kazan would work well with the famously difficult Brando. But Brando said he’d quit if Coppola left. Paramount didn’t know Brando was through with Kazan, who’d named names during his 1952 Hollywood Blacklist testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Orson Welles wanted to play Don Vito Corleone — even promising to knock off many pounds. But Coppola had Brando in mind from the start and didn’t feel Welles was right for the role.
Brando, of course, won the best actor Oscar. He skipped the event, sending Sacheen Littlefeather to accept if he was the winner. When Roger Moore & Liv Ullmann opened the sealed envelope, Littlefeather came up, refused the statuette, and charged Hollywood with mistreating Native Americans for years.
“The studio didn’t want Brando. I was told by the President of Paramount Pictures, ‘Francis…Marlon Brando will not appear in this movie and I forbid you, as President of Paramount, to bring up his name again.’” – Francis Ford Coppola