Released in 1972, Francis Coppola’s The Godfather follows the Corleone mafia family and centers on the rise of the patriarch’s unwilling son into his rightful position as a mafia boss. At the time, it was the highest-grossing film ever made and won three Oscars with seven other nominations. Since its release, it has been considered as one of the greatest films and the foundation for the gangster genre. See what happened behind the scenes of one of the most significant movies ever made and the work that went in to give it the reputation it has today. Can you guess what’s so special about the scene with the horse head?
Paramount Pictures Didn’t Want To Cast Marlon Brando
After the film’s release and massive success, it was revealed that Paramount Pictures didn’t initially want to cast Marlon Brando for the role of Vito Corleone. They even went so far as to suggest British actor Sir Larence Oliver to play the role of “The Godfather.”
A sneaky Francis Coppola managed to trick Marlon Brando into a screen test which impressed the studio and earned him the role. Undoubtedly, Paramount Pictures breathed a sigh of relief after they realized that no actor would have been better for the iconic role than Brando. From his voice to the way he carried himself, Coppola knew that Brando was The Godfather.
Yes, That Was A Real Horse Head
The scene with the horse head is one one of the most iconic of the gangster genre and has been adapted numerous times in popular culture. When producer Jack Woltz wakes up to a decapitated horse head in his bed after refusing a request from the Corleone family, it sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Unsurprisingly, the studio wanted Coppola to use a severed horse head, but he didn’t like the mock-up he was provided. So, he found a horse ready to be put down at a dog food factory and asked the owners if he could have the head. They agreed and later sent him the horse head on dry ice.
See why Marlon Brando rejected his Academy Award for Best Actor.
Numerous Actors Used Real Mobster Consultants
Actors James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino all spoke and hung around real-life mobsters to prepare for their roles. They observed their mannerisms, how they acted towards each other, to outsiders, and everything in between to make their characters as realistic as possible.
One of the main things that Caan noticed was how often they touched themselves. Whether they were adjusted their shirts and ties or fidgeting with their crotches — they were always touching themselves. Clearly, this paid off, and the approach was used by other directors and actors such as those who worked on Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas years later.
Mooning Was The Norm On Set
After the actors had become comfortable with one another, it wasn’t unusual to see James Caan and Robert Duvall mooning Marlon Brando before some of his more serious scenes. While it may have been humorous for those involved, surely, the rest of the cast and stagehands could have gone without seeing the actors’ rear ends on a regular basis.
Brando eventually got revenge on the two men and dropped his pants while filming the wedding scene. This time, it was more than just the people in the room that got a sight of it, as the set had tons of extras.
Al Pacino Wasn’t The First Pick For Michael Corleone
Unbelievably, Al Pacino wasn’t Paramount Picture’s original pick for the complicated character of Michael Corleone. Although his performance would prove to be one of the most important in the series and establish him as an incredible actor, he almost missed out on the opportunity.
The actors in front of him for the role included Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty. Interestingly enough, James Caan even tried out for the role along with Martin Sheen and various other actors. Luckily, Pacino got the part and ended up blowing Paramount Pictures away.
Marlon Brando Rejected His Oscar In A Questionable Fashion
On March 5, at the 1973 Academy Awards, Marlon Brando rejected his Oscar for Best Actor in the film The Godfather. Not only did he deny the award, but he did it in a way that shocked audiences around the world.
He sent Native American activist and Apache Indian Sacheen Littlefeather to represent him. She told the audience that he wasn’t accepting the award due to the mistreatment of Native Americans in the film industry. Although not everyone disagreed, it was certainly a shock to hear and many found it to be rather disrespectful to the industry.
“Leave The Gun, Take The Cannoli” Was Improvised
Francis Coppola may have co-written the screenplay for The Godfather. However, he did not take any credit for one of the movie’s most iconic lines: “leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
The line was said by Richard Castellano’s character Peter Clemenza after he returns to the car following Paulie’s execution. Not only is the humor dark, but it shows the lack of empathy that the men have. Taking the cannoli was more important than the fact that they just killed a man!
Coppola’s job wasn’t as secure as one would imagine.
“Mafia,” “Mob,” and “Cosa Botra” Are Not Said In The Film
Believe it or not, the words “mafia,” “mob,” or “Cosa Botra” are never said in the film. While this may be hard to do in a film about a mafia organization, they made a point to avoid these words. The words were taken out of the script to appease the Italian-American Civil Rights League who saw the use of such words to be reinforcing negative Italian stereotypes.
Although it may have been an inconvenience, it demonstrated the skill of everyone who worked on the movie since they successfully left out these crucial terms in a movie of such genre.
Coppola Almost Got The Axe
Like Brando and Pacino, Coppola also wasn’t the first pick for director by Paramount Pictures. They had a number of other directors selected for the role but ended up having to go with Coppola after they all turned down the job.
Then, once they started filming, they didn’t like the direction he was going with the film and threatened to fire him on more than one occasion. They even had a backup director on hand and one point. However, he proved his worth after they saw the scene when Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey. They absolutely loved it — and it saved his job at the same time.
You’ll never guess what’s special about The Godfather’s cat.
The Film Was Almost Set In The 1970s
Originally, the film was going to be an updated version of the book and would have taken place in the 1970s. However, Coppola wanted to make a period piece which he knew would have a better outcome than if they would have updated the story.
Coppola butted heads with Paramount Pictures who pushed to have the film take place in 1972 in Kansas City instead of New York City. Coppola stressed that making the film in a post-World War II New York setting would help make the film seem more realistic and also stay true to its original style. Luckily, Coppola won this argument.
Character Dinners Were Common Practice
As a practice to establish organic character relations, Coppola would frequently host character dinners. Here, the actors were expected to sit down and have improvised dinner with one another without breaking character. These practices helped the actors get a feel for the personality of their characters.
Most of these dinners were designed for the family so that the family roles and inner-workings could seem as natural as possible. It also helped with on-screen improvisation so that they didn’t have to rely entirely on their lines if they felt their character would say something different.
There Was Going To Be An Intermission
Considering that the film clocks in at an astounding 175 minutes, there was a discussion about adding an intermission after Michael kills Solozza and McCluskey. This was to give the audience a small break before watching the rest of the movie.
The thought was that audiences would otherwise begin to lose interest or need to get up to go to the bathroom or get something. In the end, they decided to leave out an intermission for fear of ruining the momentum of the movie after such a crucial moment in the film.
The Godfather’s Cat Was A Stray
Almost as iconic as The Godfather is his cat that he so peacefully pets in the opening scene of the movie. Not very many people can appear as threatening and powerful while playing with a cat more than The Godfather. Even today, people still pet their cat and quote The Godfather, wishing they were Vito Corleone.
Little do people know is that the cat wasn’t in the actual screenplay. Coppola found it on set and asked for Brando to improvise it for the scenes in Vito’s study. It turns out that the cat liked him so much it stayed in his lap for the rest of the day.
Guess who else missed the Academy Awards.
Coppola Shot The Wedding Scene Free-Form
Because Coppola was only given two days to film the wedding scene, he wanted to make it as realistic as possible. To do so, he took a new approach to shooting such an endeavor. Instead of planning out all of his shots, he essentially threw a wedding and walked around filming people dancing, singing, eating and talking.
It’s as organic of a wedding scene as someone can get. The only parts that were planned and rehearsed were the dialogue and interactions between the main characters. While this might make a lot of sense to do, it isn’t the most traditional strategy of filming.
Sonny Corleone’s Death
The ambush at the tollbooth resulting in Sonny Corleone’s death was the most difficult special effects scene in the movie. To make it look like Sonny was shot by numerous Tommy guns, the suit James Caan wore was pre-loaded with 127 pouches of fake blood and more than 400 explosive squibs.
The scene took a total of three days to shoot and cost over $100,000, which was an absurd amount of money for any scene during that time. In the end, it was worth it as the scene is about as realistic as possible considering the lack of special effects during filming.
Al Pacino Also Missed The Academy Awards
Much like Marlon Brando who skipped the Academy Awards and refused his Oscar in the name of Native American rights, so did Pacino. However, he skipped the awards for a different reason.
Pacino had been nominated for Best Supporting Actor which he found to be insulting. He believed that he deserved to be in the running for Best Actor because he had more screen time in The Godfather than Marlon Brando did. It’s safe to say that it was an interesting year for the Academy with two major actors from The Godfather not making an appearance.
The Godfather’s Jaw
One of the most notable attributes about Vito Corleone is his jaw and the way that he talks. Not only is it unusual, but it forces the audience to listen closely which you better do if Don Vito is speaking to you. It also helped his character look that much more intimidating, even without his cat.
During his audition, Brando stuffed cotton balls into his mouth to create the appearance of the protruding jaw. During filming, he wore a custom-made dental appliance which is now on display at the New York Museum of the Moving Image.
A Crowd While Filming
While filming the scene for the assassination attempt on Don Corleone, a crowd began to gather around the street to watch the filming. They ended up having to shoot many takes because the crowd wouldn’t stop cheering at Brando’s performance.
While everyone else involved was becoming frustrated with the inability to finish the scene, Brando liked the attention. Apparently, once they finally wrapped up the scene, Brando even bowed to the crowd.
Baby Sophia Coppola
The baby in the baptism scene (along with the murders) is Coppola’s daughter Sophia. She was born in 1971 and had her film debut in The Godfather, going on to act in seven of her father’s film.
She even played the grown-up version of this baby in The Godfather II and Part III, where she plays a significant role. Today, she is an accomplished director, working on films such as The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled, and more.
Robert De Niro Wanted In On The Action
During the casting process for The Godfather, it was clear that the young and relatively unknown Robert De Niro wanted in on the project. He auditioned for numerous roles including the part of Sonny with no success.
Not long after, De Niro received his first big role in Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets. It was after he became known through that film that he earned the role of young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. It wouldn’t be long after that De Niro would become the face of the gangster genre starring in Casino, Goodfellas, and other classics.
Puzo Made Up Slang For The Script
Mario Puzo may have written one of the greatest screenplays about Italian-Americans ever made, but that doesn’t mean he understood the culture. The author and screenwriter didn’t speak Italian, and as a result, made up slang to use in the movie. The word most often used these days that Puzo gets credit for is “Don.”
In The Godfather a “Don” is considered a mob boss. While this word isn’t technically made up by Puzo, it was re-appropriated. A closer and more accurate translation of the word is “Uncle,” although now everyone uses for something much scarier!
The Actor Who Played Brasi Was Starstruck On Set
Another iconic scene in the film happens when Luca Brasi pays respects to Vito Corleone. Brasi appears nervous of out of sorts when the meeting happens, a reaction that wasn’t acting by Lenny Montana. Montana was so nervous about acting with Marlon Brando, he couldn’t avoid the nerves on his first take.
Coppola decided that he liked the reaction of Montana messing up his lines, and kept it in the film. He said the emotion portrayed by Montana was perfect for how his character would have actually reacted to Vito.
Sergio Leone Was Supposed To Direct
You already know there was drama on set with Francis Ford Coppola. You also know he wasn’t the studio’s first choice to direct the film. But did you know who was? When Mario Puzo originally wrote the script, he wrote it as a modernization of his novel with Sergio Leone behind the lens.
Leone rejected the idea of directing because he refused to glorify the mob. Puzo’s bad luck continued when Coppola didn’t want to glorify the mob either. Coppola was given the job though, and convinced everyone that period piece about American capitalism would work better.
Oranges Mean Death
One way to know if someone is about to get the ace in The Godfather is to look for oranges. The fruit represents death in the movie, and almost every character who is scened in frame with the citrus gets sent to their grave. Coppola isn’t the only filmmaker who has ever used color tricks like this in movies.
M. Night Shyamalan famously used the color red in The Sixth Sense to indicate the presence of a ghost. If you watch closely, there’s red somewhere is every scene Bruce Willis’ character is in, hinting at the shocking twist.
The Movie Almost Had A Different Logo
Francis Ford Coppola had to fight with Paramount Pictures to keep the now-iconic logo with its stark puppet, featuring author Mario Puzo’s name. Paramount wanted to replace that logo but Coppola resisted. The original logo was created by the famous graphic designer S. Neil Fujita, who was also responsible for the In Cold Blood book jacket.
Puzo originally published the book in 1969. Including the name was important to Coppola because Puzo had co-written the script with him.
There’s A Real ‘Beverly House’
It turns out that the scene with Mr. Woltz discovering a horse head in his bed was shot in a real house. “The Beverly House” is located in Beverly Hills, California, and was put on the market in 2014. The price? A staggering $135 million.
The compound has 19 bedrooms, a two-story library, a family room/terrace with room for 400 guests, a nightclub, and a wine cellar. JFK honeymooned in the house, which was once owned by William Randolph Hearst.
The Key To Great Spaghetti
If there is one Italian stereotype that will never be broken; it’s the cultures love for spaghetti. If you’ve ever struggled to make the perfect spaghetti sauce, look no further than The Godfather. The scene where Clemenza recites the sauce recipe while cooking the dish was a Coppola family secret until the film was released.
Now that you know, it’s time to try it for yourself. The good thing about spaghetti sauce is the ingredients are cheap to buy, so even if you’re on a budget, you can make something that tastes like a five-star meal!
Brando Pulled One Really Heavy Prank
It’s no secret that by the time Marlon Brando shot The Godfather, he wasn’t exactly skinny. Knowing it would already be a struggle for his co-stars to pull him up the stairs in one scene, Brando decided it would funny to make it nearly impossible.
Before filming the scene, Brando stuffed his body with additional weights. The struggle you see on the faces of the actors during the scene is totally genuine. We don’t know if Brando ever apologized, but we’re betting he didn’t. After all, no one loved a good prank more than Brando!
Improvisation Made The Film
So many of the details that make The Godfather such an enduring classic are the result of clever and bold improvisation from the talented actors. One memorable scene is when Sonny Corleone, played by James Caan, tosses a photographer from the FBI down onto the ground.
This physical element was completely improvised by Caan, and the response in the extra’s face shows how surprised he was by the gesture. Caan also ad-libbed the part where he threw money at the photog.
God’s Point Of View Was Included, According To Coppola
Gordon Willis did the cinematography work on The Godfather. He stuck to traditional shots and insisted that each scene be taken from a character’s point of view, meaning that the camera was usually three to four feet off the ground and with a flat angle.
How did Francis Ford Coppola manage the aerial view during the scene with Don Vito Corleone’s shooting, then? He explained to Willis that the shot was “God’s point of view.”
Was Johnny Fontane Inspired By Frank Sinatra?
The legendary crooner Frank Sinatra seems to be a clear inspiration for the Godfather character Johnny Fontane, played by Al Martino. Many people believe that Sinatra himself had mob ties, with one popular story claiming he got his part inFrom Here To Eternity because of nefarious connections.
Sinatra he was briefly considered for the role of Vito Corleone, even having talks with Francis Ford Coppola about the possibility. Fontane is the character that the Godfather tells that he’d “make an offer he can’t refuse.” Both Puzo and Sinatra have vehemently denied that Fontane’s character is based on Sinatra.
One Of The Actors Was A Real Mobster
Gianni Russo, the actor who played Carlo Rizzi, wasn’t an actor before filming started. Before The Godfather, Russo was a mob associate to Frank Costello. He wanted a role in the film and used his mafia connections to secure them.
Brando was upset that he would be working with someone so inexperienced, but was convinced after Russo threatened him. Brando had no idea who Russo was, and thought he was putting on a performance. Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.
All The Cars Bumpers Are Made Of Wood
During the time period the film is set, America was involved in World War II. Cars at the time were stripped of their metal bumpers, which were replaced with wood. This obviously wasn’t the safest practice, the but military’s need for metal outweighed the safety of its citizens.
While this is a lesser known fact about the war, Coppola and his crew were aware of it. To keep the film as authentic as possible, the crew refitted every car used with wooden bumpers. Good thing there were no unplanned accidents on set!
Brando Didn’t Memorize His Lines
While shooting The Godfather, Marlon Brando refused to memorize his lines. He felt it was counterintuitive to his style of method acting. To accommodate his ridiculous demands, the crew had to hide cue cards off camera that Brando could read off of.
Hiding the cue cards could be tricky. They would be held by an extra, hidden behind props, held by actors, and even hidden out of view on actors wardrobe. The Godfather wasn’t the only film Brando made this demand either. He acted this way for every movie he starred in!
Anthony Corleone Was The Young Actor’s Real Name
Okay, not the Corleone part, but the name of Michael’s son in the film was Anthony, which was also the name of the young actor playing him. In the script, the character’s name wasn’t Anthony, but while filming, the boy would only respond to his real name, forcing the actors to use it.
This means that out of everyone one set, from legendary actors to mobsters turned actors, the one person with the most power was a three-year-old boy. Does that make you smile as much as us?
Brando Loved More Than Just Spicy Meatballs!
Marlon Brando was a bit of a binge eater on set. He ate so much that he needed food to be just offscreen so he could indulge in between takes. One of his favorite foods on set was spicy squid. The legendary actor discovered the dish while filming a scene in Little Italy and demanded to have it near him at all times.
Hilariously enough, the scene where Vito is leaning over the dead body of his son, Brando was reportedly holding a container of spicy squid in one hand just out of view!
Corleone, Italy Was Too Over-Developed For Filming
When Michael goes into hiding after assassinating Virgil Sollozzo and police Captain Mark McCluskey, he supposedly travels to Corleone, Sicily. However, the real-life city was too heavily developed for filming to happen there.
Instead, the crew headed to Savoca, a town just outside Taormina. Today, you can visit sites from The Godfather’s filming by taking a filming location coach tour. The tours take approximately four hours and stop at iconic sites from the movie, inclding the church where Michael was married.
Robert Duvall Didn’t Like His Hairpiece
Actor Robert Duvall played Thomas Hagen in The Godfather, and he famously had a complaint about the character’s makeup when asked about his performance in the movie. Duvall said that he wished “they would have made a better hairpiece” for Hagen (seen above left).
He’s proud of his work though, telling The New York Times, “I was fortunate to be in the two big film epics of the last part of the 20th century: Godfather and Lonesome Dove on television.”
One Of Mario Puzo’s Favorite Lines Got Dropped
The Godfather author wrote one line that he was especially proud of. “A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” This line was meant for Vito Corleone to speak.
However, Marlon Brando didn’t think it fit and was a bit too “preachy.” Unfortunately for Puzo, his favorite line was dropped from the film as a result.
A Film For Foodies
Every film set is going to need a lot of food to feed the cast and crew. But The Godfather went a step further and incorporated tons of eating and drinking in the film. Diehard fans actually counted the scenes that included food and drink.
The grand tally is 61 scenes that either depict people indulging in food and drink or just show food sitting out untouched. There are websites dedicated to these scenes and many of them even contain recipes for the film’s most iconic dishes.