5 Things We Learned From Tribeca’s ‘Godfather’ Reunion

5 Things We Learned From Tribeca’s ‘Godfather’ Reunion

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Sunday, 30 April 2017
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It may not have been as momentous as the heads of the five families meeting for a Mob-war peace treaty. But the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival’s Godfather event – which reunited director Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Talia Shire – gave festivalgoers the opportunity to see the key players of the Oscar-winning Mafia dramas talk about the original 1972 movie and its equally celebrated 1974 sequel before a sold-out crowd at Radio City Music Hall. (One assumes they were convinced to converse about these classics in honor of the first movie’s recent 45th anniversary, though maybe the festival simply made them an offer they couldn’t … well, you know.)

Following back-to-back screenings of the first two films, the panel’s participants and moderator Taylor Hackford shuffled out to a row of chairs, arranged in a setting that resembled the Don’s den (complete with a portrait of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone and a bust of a horse’s head), and quickly dove into an hour-plus discussion of their memories in making what’s become the touchstones for modern cinema du Cosa Nostra. Over the past four and a half decades, these movies that have been pored over and picked clean regarding their behind-the-scenes drama and backstage shenanigans. So you’d think there might not be anything more to say – the stories of how the studio just wanted an exploitative quickie, how Coppola had to fight to keep his job and how no one wanted to hire a box-office-poison Brando or a relatively unknown Pacino have been recounted in countless making-of docs, books and biographies.

But that didn’t mean there weren’t a couple of anecdotes and answers that perked up the ears of jaded Godfather scholars. Here were five things that caught our attention. (You can watch the whole panel here.)

1. Coppola had talked to Brando before The Godfather – about playing the lead in The Conversation
The filmmaker recalls reading the New York Times one Sunday morning while he was living in San Francisco and having an ad for Mario Puzo’s book – which featured the now-iconic image of marionette strings – catch his eye. “I thought it looked like an intellectual book about power,” he recalled. Then the first of two coincidences happened: Producers Al Ruddy and Gray Frederickson, who’d end up producing the adaptation “but weren’t associated with The Godfather yet,” happened to be in town shooting a film, and stopped by Coppola’s house to say hello.

Then came the second one: While the three men were shooting the breeze, the phone rang – and it was Brando on the line. Coppola had never spoken to the star or met him before, but he had submitted a script he’d been working on, called The Conversation, to the legendary actor. The future Don Corleone had personally rang up the director to say he was turning down the story of a surveillance expert (which would eventually be played by Gene Hackman, when Coppola made the movie in between the two Godfather films). But the odd coming-together of these three things at once, the filmmaker says, still amaze him to this day. 

2. Pacino and Diane Keaton got really drunk together after filming the wedding sequence
It was no secret that producer Robert Evans were not crazy about casting the Italian-American theater actor as Michael Corleone, and that he wanted an actor like Robert Redford to play the young Don-to-be. (“Listen, there are blond, blue-eyed Sicilians,” Coppola pointed out to the audience. “The French were there for 200 years.”) And Pacino had told the filmmaker that it was okay if it didn’t work out, because “don’t worry, we’ll work together on something else.” Even after he’d been filming for a while, the powers that be wanted someone else in the role (“I kept testing even after I got the part,” he says), and it wasn’t until Coppola bumped up the scene where Michael shoots Sollozzo in the restaurant in the production schedule – so the brass at Paramount could see that Al could nail this – that Pacino had truly secured his place.

Still, that didn’t stop Pacino from fretting that he was completely in over his head, and he recalled how early on in the shoot, he and Diane Keaton went back to their hotel and hit the sauce. “We got so loaded after that wedding sequence,” the actor says, “We were theater actors, and we were not used to film. The whole thing had sort of a surreal feel to it. So we got back and started drinking: ‘Where do we go from here, we’re done, it’s over! This is the worst film ever made!'” He eventually got over it, he admits. As for Keaton, she is still unsure why she was cast. “I heard it was because Francis thought I was eccentric,” she says.

3. The gentleman who played hitman Luca Brasi may have, shall we say, done real-life research for the part
There have been rumors over the years that Lenny Montana, the hulking former wrestler from Brooklyn who played Don Corleone’s muscle, may have been more than a little familiar with the world that was being portrayed in The Godfather. Coppola recalls asking Montana if he would be able to convincingly do the scene where Brasi sits on his bed, loads his gun with bullets and spins the chamber. The actor’s response, according to the director, was “Are you kiddin’ me?” Hackford asked the filmmaker if Lenny was, in fact, “the real deal.” The silent, exaggerated shrug that was Coppola reply got the biggest laugh of the night.

4. Talia Shire was the one who came up with idea that Kay would have had an abortion
When the panelists were asked about seeing the film again after all these years, Diane Keaton recalled recently watching the films again on her laptop, and really being blown away by Talia Shire’s performance as Connie Corleone. “She had me in tears watching what she did with the part,” Keaton admits, “and this was on a fucking computer!” Coppola then admitted that it was his sister Talia who came up with the idea that Kay’s “miscarriage” in Part II was actually a terminated pregnancy – a key revelation that she will no longer be complicit in “this Sicilian thing.” As for the director’s sibling, she had to beg her brother for an audition; he was opposed to casting her as Connie initially because the character was “the homely Italian sister” and he didn’t picture her that way. She kept insisting, he relented, and she got the part.

5. Marlon Brando had more impressive testicles than Robert Duvall
The Method acting legend’s penchant for pranks on the set of The Godfather has become the stuff of legend, and James Caan recalls how, during the funeral scene, he nearly got a hernia lifting the Don’s coffin; he later found out that Brando had filled the coffin with weights to make three times as heavy. (Caan’s imitation of Brando’s laugh, by the way, is priceless.) It was Duvall, however, who won the anecdote competition regarding His Marlon-ness. The cast kept trying to crack each other by engaging in an on-set mooning contest, and during the wedding scene, the older actor and Duvall decided to drop trou, despite the fact that Coppola reminded them “there are women and children present, Bobby!” After the two men had bared all, a woman approached the man playing consigliere Tom Hagen. “Mr. Duvall, you are fine,” he remembers, “but my god, did you see the balls on that Brando?!?”

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