The Godfather: Why ‘troublesome’ Marlon Brando played Don Corleone over Laurence Olivier

The Godfather remastered trailer from Paramount Pictures

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When casting the patriarch of Mario Puzo’s iconic mafia novel, Francis Ford Coppola knew he had to get the right star to lead his movie adaptation. In a new 50th anniversary interview, the director remembered: “We knew he had to have some sort of charisma because everyone rotated around The Godfather. His sons adored him. He was powerful with the other Mafia leaders, so we tried and it’s difficult.”

Speaking in this month’s Empire magazine, Coppola said: “You can’t find someone new to play a 65-year-old man, But I came down to thinking, we need one of the true greatest actors in the world. Who are the two greatest actors in the world? One is Laurence Olivier, and one is Marlon Brando. Laurence Olivier was the right age and looked a lot like a Mafia leader, but he was English. The other was Marlon Brando, who was not really that old, he was 47, and he was also not Italian. But Laurence Olivier just turned us down, he was not well. So that left Marlon Brando. I, of course, was just enamoured, I thought he could do anything.”

However, it still wasn’t that simple, with Paramount Pictures being initially opposed to his casting in The Godfather.

Coppola continued: “But I was told I couldn’t consider him because he was not good for box office: his last picture had been a flop and he was troublesome.”

In the end, Paramount set three conditions for Brando’s casting as Don Corleone. Firstly, he’d take a fee that was less than he was used to at $50,000 ($333,495 today). Secondly, the star would take financial responsibility for any production delays due to his behaviour. And thirdly, he would agree to a screen test, which the director had another name for.

The filmmaker remembered: “Nonetheless, I persisted, and I went and did this little test with him, I didn’t say it was a test to him, I said, ‘Let’s improvise,” and I was astonished with ability and intelligence. I think to this day, Marlon Brando is one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. Aside from acting, just the things he talks about: life and humanity.”

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Coppola added: “I must say, Brando was wonderful to work with. He was the kind of person you didn’t talk to about acting. I used to communicate with him with props. If I put a prop near him, he would make use of it. He contributed so much, even in the idea of the orange peel. That scene is something, I didn’t even know what he was doing.”

In the end, Brando’s portray of the Don beat Olivier’s performance in Sleuth to the Best Actor Oscar at the 1973 Academy Awards. However, he declined the gong, sending civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to collect it on his behalf in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. Her speech was met with a mixture of applause and boos at the time.

The Godfather returns to cinemas on February 25, 2022, and the Empire issue is out now.

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