A fascinating article from the March 2009 issue of Vanity Fair describes how The Godfather got made, even though the producers, the real-life Mafia, Frank Sinatra, and Paramount executives all fought against it.
The studio executives wanted Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn, Carlo Ponti, or Danny Thomas to play Don Corleone. Anyone but Brando, who, at 47, was perceived as poison. His recent pictures had been flops, and he was overweight, depressed, and notorious for causing overruns and making outrageous demands. WILL NOT FINANCE BRANDO IN TITLE ROLE, the suits in New York cabled the filmmakers. DO NOT RESPOND. CASE CLOSED.
But Coppola fought hard for him, and finally the executives agreed to consider Brando on three conditions: he would have to work for no money up front (Coppola later got him $50,000); put up a bond for any overruns caused by him; and-most shocking of all-submit to a screen test. Wisely, Coppola didn’t call it that when he contacted Brando. Saying that he just wanted to shoot a little footage, he arrived at the actor’s home one morning with some props and a camera.
Brando emerged from his bedroom in a kimono, with his long blond hair in a ponytail. As Coppola watched through the camera lens, Brando began a startling transformation, which he had worked out earlier in front of a mirror. In Coppola’s words, “You see him roll up his hair in a bun and blacken it with shoe polish, talking all the time about what he’s doing. You see him rolling up Kleenex and stuffing it into his mouth. He’d decided that the Godfather had been shot in the throat at one time, so he starts to speak funny. Then he takes a jacket and rolls back the collar the way these Mafia guys do.” Brando explained, “It’s the face of a bulldog: mean-looking but warm underneath.”
Coppola took the test to Bluhdorn. “When he saw it was Brando, he backed away and said, ‘No! No!’” But then he watched Brando become another person and said, “That’s amazing.” Coppola recalls, “Once he was sold on the idea, all of the other executives went along.”