15 Surprising Facts About 'The Godfather'

'The Godfather' cast.
'The Godfather' cast. / United Archives/GettyImages

Leave the gun, take these facts about Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful adaptation of Mario Puzo’s gangster novel, which premiered in New York City 50 years ago (on March 15, 1972).

1. Francis Ford Coppola was at risk of being fired during production.

Francis Ford Coppola (who got the job because of his previous movie, The Rain People) wasn’t the first director Paramount Pictures had in mind for The Godfather. Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn, Richard Brooks, and Costa-Gavras all turned the job down. And after filming began, executives didn’t like the brooding, talky drama that Coppola was shooting.

The studio wanted a more salacious gangster movie, so it constantly threatened to fire Coppola (even going so far as to have stand-in directors waiting on set). Coppola was reportedly getting the ax until he shot the scene where Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey, which the executives saw and loved.

2. He fought to keep the story as a period drama.

As a cost-cutting measure, Paramount asked Coppola to modernize the script so the action took place in 1972 and to shoot the movie in Kansas City as a stand-in for the more expensive New York City. Coppola convinced them to keep the story in a post-World War II New York setting to maintain the integrity of the film.

3. Family dinner helped everyone get in character.

Coppola held improvisational rehearsal sessions that simply consisted of the main cast sitting down in character for a family meal. The actors couldn’t break character, which Coppola saw as a way for the cast to organically establish the family roles seen in the final film.

4. Coppola cast Diane Keaton because she was "eccentric."

Diane Keaton and Al Pacino in 'The Godfather'
Diane Keaton and Al Pacino in 'The Godfather' / United Archives/GettyImages

In order to bring some life to the "straight, boring character" of Kay Adams, Coppola went with Diane Keaton, who he described as "so eccentric and kind of weird in a way."

5. Paramount didn't want Marlon Brando for the role.

When Coppola initially mentioned Marlon Brando as a possibility for Vito Corleone, the head of Paramount, Charles Bluhdorn, told him that the actor would “never appear in a Paramount picture.” The studio pushed the director to cast Laurence Olivier as Vito, before eventually agreeing to pursue Brando after seeing the actor's screen test.

However, doing a screen test is not something Brando would normally agree to, so Coppola lured the famously cagey actor into what he called a “makeup test,” which in reality was the screen test the studio demanded. When Coppola showed the studio the footage, the executives didn't even recognize Brando under the makeup and were impressed enough to add him to the cast.

6. Pacino wasn't the first choice to play Michael, either.

The studio wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone, but Coppola always wanted Al Pacino. Other actors, like Martin Sheen and James Caan (who would go on to play Sonny), screen-tested for Michael.

7. Robert De Niro auditioned for Sonny.

Robert De Niro in 'The Godfather Part II'
Robert De Niro in 'The Godfather Part II' / United Archives/GettyImages

Robert De Niro auditioned for the role of Sonny, but Coppola eventually went with James Caan. De Niro would later appear as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II and win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.

8. Coppola let the wedding play out and shot it guerilla-style.

To add a sense of reality to the wedding scene (and because he only had two days to shoot it), Coppola had the cast freely act out and improvise in the background. He then shot specific vignettes amongst the action.

9. Coppola took advantage of mistakes.

Lenny Montana, who played Luca Brasi, was a professional wrestler before becoming an actor. He was so nervous delivering his lines to a legend like Brando during the scene in the Godfather’s study that he didn’t give one good take during an entire day’s shoot. Because he didn’t have time to reshoot the scene, Coppola added a new scene of Luca Brasi rehearsing his lines before seeing the Godfather to make Montana’s bad takes seem like Brasi was simply nervous to talk to the Godfather.

10. The Corleone Compound was a real location on Staten Island.

The residence was put up for sale in 2014 for just under $3 million. That’s a price we can probably refuse.

11. The Godfather's cat was a stray.

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather'
Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather' / United Archives/GettyImages

During his daily walks to the set, Coppola would often see a stray cat, and on the day of shooting the scenes in Vito’s study, Coppola took the cat and told Brando to improvise with it. The cat loved Brando so much that it sat in his lap during takes for the whole day.

12. The infamous horse's head was real.

The horse head in the movie producer’s bed wasn’t a prop. The production got a real horse’s head from a local dog food company.

13. The "take the cannoli" line was improvised.

The line in the script only had actor Richard Castellano as Clemenza say “Leave the gun” after the hit on the mobster who ratted on the Corleones. He was inspired to make the addition after Coppola inserted a line in which the character’s wife asks him to buy cannoli for dessert.

14. The movie was an instant hit.

'Godfather' director Francis Ford Coppola
'Godfather' director Francis Ford Coppola / George Rose/GettyImages

The Godfather reportedly cost Paramount around $6.2 million—and within its first month in theaters, it had already grossed $26 million. It went on to become the highest-grossing movie of 1972 and was briefly the biggest box-office hit in history.

15. The book was just as big of a success as the movie.

Paramount snatched up the movie rights to Mario Puzo's Godfather novel before it even hit shelves in 1969. It was a savvy move as the book spent over a year on the bestseller chart, with more than 9 million copies flying off shelves in its first two years.

A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.