Ask almost any cinephile what their favorite movie is and at least one of The Godfather movies usually pop up in the top 10. It’s a rare franchise where the sequel is not only brilliant, it’s almost superior to the incredible predecessor. The third one is another story altogether and certainly has its merits, but was doomed from the start. Any way you look at it, The Godfather trilogy represents cinematic genius, and they’re a must-have in any movie-buff’s collection.
The Godfather is such an iconic piece of American cinema that its influence is still felt in everyday culture 40+ years later. The term “Godfather” wasn’t even an expression until these films debuted, and how many times have we all heard that reference? The idea of a “Don” also wasn’t a thing until the book that inspired these films came along. The Godfather films are near-perfect, in addition to being extremely influential.
It’s hard to find a better performance than Marlon Brando as Don Vito in the first Godfather until you watch De Niro playing the very same character in its sequel. How often does that happen? Not to mention the tour de force that is Al Pacino in all three films, as well as the supporting cast that includes heavy weights like James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, and countless others.
The Godfather trilogy is a timeless piece of American cinema and well worth a revisit, so we decided to dig up some fun facts about The Godfather franchise that you may not know. We figure that’s an offer you can’t refuse.
The Word “Mafia” Is Never Used in the First Film
Despite the entire movie being about the exploits of an Italian family crime syndicate, this familiar label is never used. It’s never spoken because the Italian-American Civil Rights League requested that “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” be removed from the film’s script.
That, and the fact Coppola used actual Mafia members in the cast, crew, and as consultants… and those are the last guys you want to piss off.
Source: The Godfather Wiki
The Cat Wasn’t in the Original Script
Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is seen holding a cat on his lap while he sits in his office during his daughter’s wedding ceremony.
Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola found the stray cat while walking through the lot at Paramount studios. A cat was never mentioned in the script at all, but right before the scene, Coppola gave the cat to Brando to see how it would play out.
It played out wonderfully (Brando loved cats) creating one of the more memorable images from the Godfather films. The only problem the cat did create was when its purring muffled some of Brando’s lines, which then had to be redubbed.
Source: The Godfather Wiki
Marlon Brando Was Crowned “Mighty Moon King” on Set
Sure, the movie was tense, but the set seemed like a blast. Marlon Brando, James Caan, and Robert Duvall spent nearly the entire filming process trying to out-moon one-another. Butts were consistently exposed on set until Brando showed his backside in the middle of the huge wedding-reception scene.
The others admitted defeat even presenting Brando with a belt buckle emblazoned with “Mighty Moon King.”
Godfather Part II Was the First Film of Its Kind to Win Best Picture
The Godfather Part II was the first ever sequel to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It wouldn’t happen again until 2004 when Lord of the Rings: Return of the King took home the statue.Source: ABC News
That Was Coppola’s Spaghetti Sauce Recipe
The scene where Clemenza makes spaghetti sauce is in the novel, while the actual recipe is not. In the movie, Clemenza gives us the recipe as he cooks. The DVD commentary explained that the recipe came from Francis Ford Coppola himself.
He joked that in case the movie flopped, at least people would know how to make a great spaghetti sauce.
Source: The Urban Possum
There Were Zipper-Based Reshoots in Part II
The actors in the flashback scenes wore seemingly period appropriate pants with zippers. However, one of the musicians pointed out that the zipper had not been invented at that time, so some scenes had to be re-shot with button fly trousers. Source: IMDb
Oranges Signify Death
In the first film alone there are almost a dozen examples, including two during the iconic wedding scene. Clemenza drinks from a jug of wine with orange slices floating in it, while telling Paulie to “do his job.” Clemenza later takes Paulie out to be killed for not doing his job.
Then, when Sonny runs off to have sex with Lucy Mancini, there is a shot of his wife gesturing with her hands. In front of her is a dish of oranges. Sonny is of course killed later in the film.
Production designer Dean Tavoularis claims it was a coincidence, that the fruit was used to brighten up an otherwise darkly-shot film. But it occurs far too many times throughout the three movies for it not to have been done intentionally.
Source: The Godfather Wiki
Early Test Audiences Didn’t Like The Godfather Part II
Early test screenings of the film received very negative reactions from the audience. It didn’t help that the film was so anticipated that it was greenlit before the first installment was even released. Audiences found cutting back and forth between Michael and young Vito confusing and bothersome.
Francis Ford Coppola and his editors decided to decrease the frequency of the transitions in order to make the parallel stories easier to follow. They were still editing the film up until the week of its release.
Lee Strasberg Was Didn’t Join the Godfather Part II Cast Easily
Lee Strasberg came out of retirement to play Hyman Roth after being specifically requested by Al Pacino. He was unwilling at first, but agreed to do it after a 45-minute meeting with Coppola’s father, Carmine Coppola.
He then became ill during shooting, but instead of delaying production, they rewrote his character to be an ailing old man. Source: IMDb
Don Vito’s Bulldog Appearance Was Very Important to Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando wanted Don Corleone to look just “like a bulldog,” so he stuffed his cheeks with cotton wool for the audition. During the actual production he wore a mouthpiece made by a dentist (it’s on display in the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York).
Brando spent three hours in makeup every day being fitted with the steel-bar dentures that sat below and in front of his lower teeth, with blobs of resin at either end to give him that iconic jawline. Source: ShortList
The Godfather Part II Used Subtleties to Accurately Represent Older Vito
It all started with the mustache. There was much debate over whether Robert De Niro should grow a mustache for the scenes where young Vito is a few years older. De Niro couldn’t decide, and in the end just tossed a coin. For the scenes where Vito returns to Sicily, he even gained weight and wore a smaller version of the dental appliance Marlon Brando wore in the first film!
Coppola Almost Didn’t Direct the Second Film
Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola (after having nearly been fired several times from the first film) was given a Mercedes-Benz limo from Paramount as a reward for the record success of The Godfather and an incentive to direct a sequel.
He agreed after several conditions were met: that the sequel be interconnected with the first film with the intention of later showing them together; that he be allowed to direct his own script of The Conversation; that he be allowed to direct a production for the San Francisco Opera; and that he be allowed to write the screenplay for The Great Gatsby.Source: IMDb
That Horse Head in the First Film Was a Little Too Real
John Marley would “wake up” to find a fake horse’s head in bed with him during rehearsals. But then when the cameras rolled, without him knowing, a real horses head from a dog-food factory was put into bed with him.
His screams were very real. Animal rights groups (unsuccessfully) protested the inclusion of the scene. Source: ShortList
The Real Mafia Tried to Shut Down the Film Several Times
Getting the production shut down was spearheaded by the Italian-American Civil Rights League who began with peaceful protest (including a rally at New York’s Madison Square Garden that raised $500,000 to halt production).
It quickly escalated to full-on intimidation. Not all that surprising considering the League was headed by a real-life mobster and former contract killer Joseph Colombo. Source: ShortList
Mario Puzo Invented Iconic Slang That’s Still Used Today
“Mario Puzo had invented the term ‘The Godfather’ for the novel. It didn’t exist,” said author of The Godfather Effect, Tom Santopietro. According to Francis Ford Coppola, the term “Don Corleone” is also wrong. In Italian, addressing someone as “Don” is the same as addressing them as “uncle” in English. Correct usage would be “Don Michael” or “Don Vito”.
Coppola says that Mario Puzo, who couldn’t speak Italian, made up the idea of using “Don” with a person’s last name and it stuck. Now it’s everyday slang, larger than even The Godfather films.
De Niro Learned Italian for The Godfather Part II
Robert De Niro lived in Sicily and learned the Italian dialect in order to prepare for his role as Vito Corleone. Nearly all of De Niro’s dialogue in the film was in Sicilian. Source: ABC News
Marlon Brando Made Sure Burt Reynolds Wouldn’t Be Cast in the First Film
Brando agreed to play Vito Corleone on the condition that Burt Reynolds, who was being considered for Sonny, would NOT get the role (which went to James Caan).
Brando thought of Burt Reynolds as more of a TV star. Source: ShortList
George Lucas Contributed the Mattress Sequence
George Lucas put together the “Mattress Sequence” as a thank you to Francis Ford Coppola for helping him fund American Graffiti. It’s a montage of crime scene photos and headlines, so Lucas used photos from real crime scenes.
During the sequence, Francis Ford Coppola’s father Carmine Coppola is the piano player. Source: ShortList
Al Pacino Allegedly Became a Little Money Hungry After Part I
Al Pacino was offered $5 million upfront for The Godfather Part III, but he wanted $7 million, plus profits from gross to reprise his role as Michael Corleone. Coppola refused and threatened to rewrite the script by starting off with Michael’s funeral sequence instead of the film’s introduction.
Pacino agreed to the $5 million offer.Source: IMDb
Winona Ryder Left the Cast for Edward Scissorhands
Sofia Coppola (daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, and now a director herself), plays Michael Corleone’s daughter. Coincidentally she played his niece as an infant in The Godfather Part I.
Winona Ryder was originally cast, but left the project so that she could be in Edward Scissorhands. Source: IMDb
Martin Scorsese Was Considered to Direct Part II
Originally, Coppola didn’t want to direct a sequel because of the way Paramount treated him during the filming of the original. In the commentary for “The Godfather DVD Collection,” Coppola revealed he recommended Martin Scorsese to direct the film. After he was rejected, Coppola ended up taking over. Source: Digital Resource
Writer/Director Francis Ford Coppola Wasn’t Satisfied with Part III
Coppola admitted that he was still unhappy with the final film because of the lack of time on working with the script.
He apparently wanted $6 million for his writer/producer/director fees, and six months work on the scriptwriting. The studio then gave him only $1 million and six weeks to work on the script so they could meet the Christmas 1990 release.
Coppola also regretted that the character of Tom Hagen had to be written out of the script because the studio refused to meet Robert Duvall’s financial demands; according to Coppola, with Hagen gone, an essential character and counterpart for Michael Corleone was missing from the movie. Source: IMDb
There Was Almost a Very Different, Equally Iconic, Don Vito
There are always plenty of “they were almost cast as” stories, but one of the craziest comes from the casting of The Godfather Part I. Orson Welles lobbied hard to get the part of Don Vito Corleone, even offering to lose a good deal of weight to get the role.
Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola, a huge Welles fan, had to turn him down because his mind was set on Brando.
Robert Duvall Was Asked to Reprise His Role in Part III
The studio asked Robert Duvall to reprise his role of Tom Hagen. He promptly turned it down. He didn’t feel that payment was fair compared to what costars Al Pacino and Diane Keaton were getting ($5 million and $1.5 million, respectively). The character was subsequently written out.
Duvall later defended his actions on the grounds that the only reason why anyone wanted to make another Godfather picture after so many years was to make money. He wasn’t wrong.
James Caan’s Cameo in Part II Was as Lucrative as Entire Whole Role in Part I
Remember that tiny scene at the end of The Godfather where everyone from the first film (except Brando) appears?
James Caan asked that he be paid the same amount of money to play Sonny Corleone in that flashback as he was paid to do the entirety of The Godfather. And he was. Source: IMDb
Each Film Begins with a Celebration
Every one of the Godfather movies begins with a lavish celebration.
In the first film it’s Connie’s wedding; in The Godfather Part II it’s Anthony’s first communion; in the third, the family celebrates Michael’s award from Pope Paul VI.Source: IMDb
Not Many Actors Win Oscars for Films in Other Languages
Robert De Niro is one of only five actors (the others are Sophia Loren, Roberto Benigni, Benicio Del Toro, and Marion Cotillard) to win an Academy Award for a role primarily in a language other than English. Virtually all of his dialogue in The Godfather Part II is in Italian. Source: IMDb
Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro Share a Piece of Oscar History
Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro are the only two actors to ever win separate Oscars for playing the same character. Brando won Best Actor for The Godfather while De Niro won Best Supporting Actor in The Godfather Part II.
Source: ABC News
Actors Were Paid Much Less Back Then
For the first Godfather Al Pacino made just $35,000 for his starring role (the same as James Caan and Diane Keaton, and $1,000 less than Robert Duvall).
However, after having made Scarecrow and Serpico after The Godfather, Pacino got a substantial bump up to (just) $600,000 for The Godfather Part II, as well as a 10% cut of the movie’s adjusted-gross income. Source: ShortList
Francis Ford Coppola Made The Godfather Part III to Combat Debt
Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather Part III as a way to deal with part of his personal and studio finance problems.
Paramount approved the film with a $56 million budget under strict conditions that he was given $1 million to write, produce, and direct. The final cut of the film had to be less than 140 minutes and any additional expenses would not be covered by the studio. They also gave him only a year to write, direct, and edit the film.