5 Highlights from ‘The Godfather’ 45th Anniversary Reunion

By  · Published on May 4th, 2017

A legendary line-up of speakers retold iconic behind-the-scenes stories and shared mutual, little-known memories.

The 2017 edition of Tribeca Film Festival came to a close on Saturday with an epic affair, which was kicked off with one of the greatest opening lines spoken in any American film ever: “I believe in America.”

The historic event that wrapped up the festival’s massively-scaled and star-studded 16th year was the back-to-back screenings of The Godfather andThe Godfather Part II, followed by a panel discussion moderated by filmmaker Taylor Hackford. After a 7+- hour screening marathon with one intermission, writer-director Francis Ford Coppola took the stage, joined by his cast-members Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Talia Shire. Even Marlon Brando was there in spirit, with his portrait positioned over the living room-like setting where the conversation took place. To the cinephiles that filled the sold-out event in New York City’s 6000-seater Radio City Music Hall, Saturday’s 45th anniversary screening and panel discussion was an offer that couldn’t be refused.

“I found it a very emotional experience. I forgot a lot about the making of it,” said Francis Ford Coppola, who viewed the two films for the first time in many years. “This film could be made today, but it wouldn’t get a go ahead from a studio. The first film was made for about $6.5 million; the second was made for $11 or $12 million. They would never get a green light today,” he stated, briefly touching upon the dire state of the industry today. Diane Keaton, who said she watched the films on a computer quite recently, built on Coppola’s sentiments. “I hadn’t seen it in about 30 years. I couldn’t get over it,” she said. “It was so astonishing, Francis. It was so beautiful,” she continued. “And everybody is so great in it. Every choice you made was so authentically brilliant. I just kept crying, and that damn Talia. I am not kidding…. Everything was astonishing to me and I didn’t expect it.” Still puzzled about the fact that she got the part, Keaton said, “I read recently that Francis gave me the part because he thought I was eccentric. He wasn’t wrong.”

On my end, rediscovering these two monumental classics together on a massive screen was nothing short of miraculous. I concluded once more that the baptism sequence at the end of the first film, during which Michael Corleone dually acquires his title as “The Godfather, is bone-chillingly flawless with layers of sounds (an organ, a baby’s cries and gun shots) adding up to one of the prime examples of intercutting in cinema. I also remembered how much of a go-to gold standard The Godfather has been for many filmmakers. To my astonishment, I only needed to look back at the previous night’s 25th Year Anniversary reunion screening of Reservoir Dogsat Tribeca. Can anyone deny that Quentin Tarantino’s opening scene set around a diner table carries visible stylistic traces of the scene in The Godfather, where Vito Corleone meets with the heads of the five families, with the camera circling around them?

In more ways than one, it was an unparalleled night in New York. Sure, many of the The Godfather stories, from troubles in casting to an almost-fired Al Pacino, are written about extensively. But it was still a treat to hear it from the very people who lived them.

Here are 5 highlights:

1. The cat in the opening scene was the studio cat…it wasn’t Brando’s.

Yes, this is the “I believe in America” scene that opens The Godfather, where an undertaker approaches Vito Corleone (Brando) on the day of his daughter’s wedding to ask him for a favor. Vito patiently listens with a comfortable, purring cat on his lap. Coppola said one doesn’t talk to Marlon Brando about acting stuff, but just gives cues, such as “louder” or “not so loud”. “He is the kind of actor who wants to hear where the camera frame is going to be and he proceeds,” Coppola said. “Or you could [give] props to him. So I put that cat in his hand. That was the studio cat and [it took] only one take. I picked it up and put it [on his lap.] Brando had a wonderful way with children and animals. He was very comfortable with them and they were comfortable with him.” Hackford added, based on what he read on this story, that all Paramount people could hear while watching the dailies of the scene was the cat purring. “You believe it’s Brando’s cat,” he noted.

2. The casting process was a battle, during which Al Pacino was almost fired.

For starters, the studio execs were never convinced with Coppola in the director’s chair, and there was an instance where he heard he would lose his post. Similarly, they weren’t sold on Brando. Coppola recalls, “They said to me, if Marlon will do it for nothing, and if he’ll put up a million-dollar bond that he won’t cause trouble during production, you can have him.” And he said yes. But with Pacino, who was a non-established actor mostly known for his stage work by then, the process was more complex. But Coppola was adamant to cast him; he just kept seeing his face for the role and wouldn’t back down. Pacino did many screen tests, and even during the early days of shooting, he was on thin ice with the studio. But Coppola’s foresight came to the rescue during the time Pacino wasn’t necessarily nailing the role. “You did one of the most wonderful things and said, “I prepared some of the takes you’ve done, and they’re at Paramount.” You remember?,” said Pacino, turning over to Coppola. “I looked at it in this room by myself, sitting and thinking, “This isn’t very good, whatever it is.” In my mind with Michael, I was going for the end of the movie, which makes him somewhat enigmatic. But early on, he is someone you don’t pay attention to too much. But when the transition comes, you’d go “wow — where did that come from?” That was my hope. But I knew I was on the wrong track. And then [Coppola] did the most brilliant thing anyone could do and he actually changed the schedule. He took the [Virgil] Sollozzo scene where Michael shoots him and the Captain, and he put it upfront. It wasn’t scheduled for that day. But the studio was done with me; I was gone. And he showed them the Sollozzo scene and they kept me. Without Francis, where would I be?”

3. Robert De Niro approached playing young Vito scientifically.

“To get someone to play the Brando role as a young man was daunting,” Coppola said within regards to the casting process of The Godfather Part II. “But I didn’t think of it as Brando. I thought [Bobby] could play the Vito Corleone character the way Brando created him. He could be the younger Vito without ever going through Brando. He isn’t necessarily a Brando-lookalike. But he could capture what Vito Corleone would have been like as a young man.” De Niro, who indicated he was honored that Coppola asked him to take on the part, recalled going to The Paramount Studios in the Gulf and Western Building at Columbus Circle with Associate Producer Gray Frederickson. “I went to the screening room, took a tape recorder and filmed the scenes Brando was in. I played them over and over for myself as I was working on it. But it was great. I looked at it in a scientific way. I had to find spots where I could do stuff to imitate what he was doing and I enjoyed it.” De Niro’s method clearly paid off. As Hackford reminded the audience, “The Godfather is the only time in history where two actors won the Academy Award for playing the same character in two different films.”

4. We owe one of the best scenes of The Godfather Part II to Talia Shire.

As the sister of Coppola, Talia Shire’s casting as Connie was a touchy subject. She actually had to beg for an audition from her brother who was opposed to her casting. For the longest time, Coppola couldn’t see Shire as the “homely Italian girl” described in the book (which he had quibbles with); he pictured someone entirely different. But she auditioned and did get the part eventually (as well as a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Part II). As it was revealed in passing during the panel, it was Shire who came up with the idea of Kay’s terminated pregnancy, which was supposed to be a miscarriage. It is a key scene in the second film that establishes Kay’s determination and bravery against Michael, and it is in there all thanks to Talia Shire.

5. There is more to The Godfather wedding scene than what we see on screen.

There are of course set stories, as there are in any film. But what Duvall recalls is unlike any other. “During the wedding scene, we were all mooning each other. And Brando took it quite seriously,” he playfully said. “He gave it a world championship belt. So he went for his belt and I went for my belt. But Coppola warned them: “There are women and children here, you can’t do that.” But they did. “And when we mooned,” Duvall continued, “some woman turned to me and said “Mr. Duvall, you’re fine.” Then she turned to her friend and said “but did you catch those balls on that Brando?””

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.