To paraphrase Evans himself, as head of production at Paramount Pictures he took the company from No. 9 on the list of Hollywood's eight major studios and turned it into the power player it still is today.
And The Godfather might not be the classic it is without him: After watching the first cut, Evans told Coppola, per the producer's 1994 memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, "You shot a saga, and you turned in a trailer. Now give me a movie."
His critics called him crazy for wanting an even longer film, Coppola insisting that everyone else thought it was his best work. "What the f–k do I care what they think!" Evans remembered countering. "It stinks!" He promised the director he'd buy him a Mercedes once he was proved right.
"The day The Godfather passed $50 million," Evans recalled, "Francis bought a Mercedes 600, the most expensive on the market. The bill wasn't sent to Paramount, but personally to Robert Evans."
Evans stepped down from his executive role in 1974, but his decades-long run as a producer included titles ranging from Chinatown and Urban Cowboy to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. He died in October 2019 at the age of 89, just a few months after his production shingle and Paramount parted ways for good.
When Coppola first read Mario Puzo's The Godfather, the filmmaker was disappointed to find that the story was more of a "potboiler" and not the intellectual treatise on power that he envisioned.
But just as he felt Puzo—whose previous books he admired—had churned out some bestseller fodder to make money in this case, he admitted that he needed the paycheck, too, so he took the job.
Reservations aside, the film's story hews closely to the novel, minus the subplot involving—as Coppola put it on NPR's Fresh Air in 2016—the character Lucy Mancini's "private anatomy problems." Cutting that out, he said, "didn't harm the remaining part, which we all know."
But signing on to make the movie was only the beginning of a seemingly endless array of disagreements with the studio, over everything from the time period ("the script had hippies in it," he recalled to NPR) to the location ("they took me on a trip to look around at Italian neighborhoods in Kansas City") to every actor he wanted for the main roles.
When all was said and sparred over, though, The Godfather made more than $250 million at the worldwide box office (making it the highest-grossing release ever until Jaws came out in 1975) and is widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time. But though it was named Best Picture at the 1973 Academy Awards and Coppola and Puzo shared the Adapted Screenplay Oscar, Coppola lost Best Director to Cabaret helmer Bob Fosse (you can watch all that jazz unfold in the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon). He'd win for The Godfather: Part II in 1975.
Paramount optioned the rights to Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather two years before it was published. More than 21 million copies were sold and it spawned a series about the Corleones and their world, plus countless imitators. He also told the stories of other crime families in novels such as The Last Don and Omerta.
Puzo told NPR's Fresh Air in 1996 that adapting his own book "was a cinch because it was the first time I'd ever written a screenplay, so I didn't know what I was doing."
The son of Italian immigrants, he explained that the euphemistic language some of his characters used was based on what he knew of how actual mobsters talked. But Puzo came up with "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" himself. "I wrote memos on how we could plant that line because I was sure it would become a famous line," he said. "You know, I recognized the fact it would become one of those lines that people would always be using. So that was really sort of carefully constructed."
Coppola shared in The Godfather Notebook that Puzo told him that the title character was based in part on his own mother, "who was apparently a very practical woman given to pithy remarks."
Robert Evans credited a New York Times profile that Bart wrote about him early in his career for attracting the attention of Paramount's new owners, who a month later made Evans head of European production.
By 1967, he was running the studio and he brought Bart in as an executive and "right-hand man" because he was "not Hollywood," Evans explained in The Kid Stays in the Picture. Serving as Evans' de facto consigliere, Bart suggested Coppola to direct The Godfather and was the one who convinced the reluctant auteur to do it.
Ruddy's just the producer of The Godfather, no big deal, back when films didn't have a sports team's worth of names in that category. This movie had one, plus associate producer Gray Frederickson (who is not listed as a character in The Offer).
"The book wallowed at Paramount for three years," Ruddy, who won his second Oscar as a producer of 2005 Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby, remembered to Slash Film in 2020. "Everyone in town turned it down. [Director] Fred Zinnemann. Warren Beatty. Jack Nicholson. Everyone."
He recalled the studio's parent company Gulf + Western pressuring Evans to sell the rights, but Evans insisted the very future of Paramount hinged on getting The Godfather made. And he tapped Ruddy to make it happen.
"I got $150,000 and Francis got $150,000 and if we were going over [the allowed budget of] $6 million, we'd be taking it out of our own money," Ruddy said, noting that he successfully brought the picture in for about 5 cents less than $6 million.
But looking back at all the pieces that ended up forming the perfect whole, "God meant it to be," Ruddy said, "I swear to God."
Reminiscent of another savvy, ambitious character Temple is known for, here the English actress plays Bettye McCartt, who started in PR at 20th Century Fox and was Al Ruddy's assistant as production on The Godfather got underway.
McCartt later became a top talent agent and manager, with clients over the years before her death in 2013 at 81 including Tom Selleck, George Clooney, Billy D. Williams and Brian Austin Green.
Brando, a famously Method actor back when Method really meant something, was only 47 when he transformed into iconic family patriarch and crime boss "Don" Vito Corleone—another casting choice Paramount was against because, as Coppola remembered to NPR, the screen legend "was supposedly difficult to work with, sort of irresponsible, would cause big delays."
Coppola had written his surveillance thriller The Conversation with Brando in mind, but the mercurial performer turned it down (the role went to Gene Hackman a few years later). Puzo took credit for suggesting Brando for the titular role in The Godfather, though he admitted that Coppola was the one who finally got the adamantly opposed studio to say yes.
Coppola told NPR that Paramount agreed he could hire Brando if the Oscar winner worked for free, did a screen test and put up $1 million of his own money as insurance that he wouldn't topple the whole production. The director decided he'd first get Brando to agree to the test and figure out the rest from there, securing the meeting by asking the star if he'd like to "do a little experiment and kind of improv and see what playing an Italian might be like."
The Offer better include Coppola's recollection of showing up at Brando's house with sausages and provolone cheese and the legend coming to the door in a kimono, his long blonde hair loose and flowing.
One of Coppola's biggest battles was the fight to cast Pacino, who was a Tony winner but relatively unknown in Hollywood, as eerily calm, collected Ivy League grad-turned-mafia don Michael Corleone.
"When I actually read the Godfather book, I kept imagining him," Coppola told the New York Times in March. "And I didn't have a second choice. It was, for me, always Al Pacino. That's the reason why I was so tenacious about getting him to play Michael. That was my problem."
Evans was diametrically opposed to the idea, wanting "anyone but," he recalled in his memoir. But once Brando had gone to bat for Pacino, Evans gave in, on one condition: that James Caan play Michael's big brother Sonny.
When Coppola called him to tell him he had the part, Pacino thought the director was full of it. "It just seemed so outrageous," the actor told the Times. "Here I am, talking to somebody who I think is flipped out."
Caan had previously worked with Coppola on his 1969 film The Rain People and he was fresh from tearing audience's hearts out in the TV movie Brian's Song when he played the fiery Sonny Corleone.
Never mind that Coppola had already hired Carmine Carridi to play Sonny, but Evans insisted.
"One of the things that made The Godfather successful, besides brilliant directing and writing and wonderful actors…was that everyone really enjoyed making it, and that comes off on the screen," Caan reflected to the New York Post in an interview celebrating the film's 50th anniversary. "And I think the audience can tell that we were having a good time doing what we were doing up there."
The production designer crafted the unforgettable look of The Godfather, earning the first of his five Oscar nominations and starting a decades-long professional relationship with Coppola. Tavoularis went on to work on both Godfather sequels (winning an Academy Award for Part II), Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and more, as well as the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan and Angel Eyes starring Jennifer Lopez.
Mafia boss though he was, Joe Colombo was also fiercely protective of his heritage and started the Italian-American Civil Rights League to push back against what he believed were unfair characterizations of his community in pop culture and the media.
Concerned that The Godfather was going to perpetuate those stereotypes, he successfully pressured the producers to not use the terms "mafia" or "Cosa Nostra" (the Sicilian mafia) in the film.
Colombo was shot and paralyzed during his organization's second annual Unity Day rally in New York's Columbus Circle on June 28, 1971. He remained in poor health and largely confined to his home in Brooklyn until he died on May 22, 1978, at the age of 54.
Ol' Blue Eyes inspired the character of Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino in The Godfather), who pleads with Don Corleone to convince the studio boss who's blackballing him to give him the movie role he's sure will revive his career. All it takes is a perfectly civil dinner and the parting gift of a horse head left in the exec's bed.
Sinatra was known to be on good terms with various underworld figures, including Joe Colombo, at one point headlining a benefit concert for the mobster's Italian-American Civil Rights League. Legend has it his mob connections helped secure his Oscar-winning role in 1953's From Here to Eternity, which helped establish him as an actor who could handle more than musicals.
Love Story star Ali MacGraw was Robert Evans' third of seven wives, married to him from 1969 until she fell in love with Steve McQueen making 1972's The Getaway (a film Evans encouraged her to do, while she was reluctant to be away from their then year-old son Joshua).
MacGraw and McQueen were married from July 1973 until August 1978—but she attended the 2002 ceremony when Evans received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, remaining friends with him for the rest of his life.
"I'm an incredible romantic," MacGraw told Vanity Fair in 2010. "It runs me."
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