Biography of Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola is one of the most critically acclaimed and groundbreaking film directors of all time, whose work changed the face of American cinema. He was born on April 7, 1939 in Detroit, Michigan to Carmine Coppola and his wife, Italia. He was the second of their two sons, 5 years younger than his brother, August. Younger sister Talia was born in 1946. Both of Coppola's grandfathers immigrated to the United States from Italy, and the family "cherished their Italian origins," although they also learned to embrace everything America had to offer. Carmine and Italia moved around within the borough of Queens in New York City. Francis was not a strong student and in 1949, he contracted polio, which left him bedridden for 9 months. During this time, young Francis kept himself amused by experimenting with an 8mm film projector, puppets, and his family's television set. He started making home movies and later, after he was able to walk again, charged his friends money to see them.

Following in the footsteps of his elder brother, Francis attended Hofstra University in New York (where he met aspiring actor James Caan). He studied theater, and his plays were well-received by his classmates. After graduating in 1960, Francis went on to attend UCLA's film school with the goal of becoming a director in Hollywood. He met producer Roger Corman when the legendary B-Movie producer called UCLA looking for eager students to assist him. After being Corman's gopher for several months, Corman allowed Francis to make a film called Dementia 13, which he and several of his classmates shot in Ireland over 9 days. During the shoot, Coppola fell in love with Eleanor Neil, to whom he is still married. In 1963, Eleanor gave birth to their first child, Gian-carlo ("Gio"). Another son, Roman, followed in 1965.

Coppola showed early talent as a screenwriter, and soon Seven Arts, a well-regarded independent production company, offered him a contract. When Seven Arts partnered with Warner Bros., Coppola immediately sprung into action. He self-financed the development of You're a Big Boy Now and negotiated with Warner-Seven Arts to back his efforts. The film, which served as Coppola's UCLA thesis, was an official selection at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival. Coppola was only 27 years old. Next, Coppola was offered a job directing Finian's Rainbow, a Fred Astaire musical. He was fond of the Broadway show, as was his father. However, the film was a box-office disappointment - and according to Fred Astaire, his worst film. However, it was on the set of Finian's Rainbow that Coppola met his future friend and business partner - a young man named George Lucas.

Coppola made his next film, Rain People (1969) starring Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Shirley Knight with support from Warner-Seven Arts. Later that year, Coppola, along with George Lucas and legendary sound editor Walter Murch, started American Zoetrope in San Francisco. The company was founded "with the utopian vision of creating personal, artistic films" (Jones 18). They got a $600,000 loan from Warner Bros., but their first film, THX 1138, directed by George Lucas, was a disaster. Warner Bros got nervous about their investment in Zoetrope and asked for their money back. It was in this state of financial desperation that Francis Ford Coppola agreed to meet with Peter Bart about directing The Godfather.

Mario Puzo had set up the project at Paramount while he was still working on The Godfather novel. By the time Coppola signed on to direct the project, Puzo's novel was a massive hit, doubling the pressure on the untested, relatively new director to deliver. While The Godfather was in production, Coppola won an Oscar for Patton (1971), which he had co-written in 1966. In addition, his daughter Sofia was born in 1971.

Despite being plagued by on-set and budgetary tensions, The Godfather became the first film to ever earn $1 million per day at the box office during its 3-month run. It won three Academy awards in 1972, including Best Picture, and made Francis Ford Coppola a star.

After the success of The Godfather, Coppola produced American Graffiti, directed by his friend George Lucas - which was also a resounding success. Meanwhile, Paramount wanted to capitalize on the success of The Godfather and commissioned Coppola to direct a sequel, giving him double the budget. The Godfather Part II won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture (the first sequel ever to do so) as well as Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. Coppola is one of the few directors to ever be nominated twice in the Best Director Category - in 1974, he was also nominated for his work on The Conversation.

Coppola managed to make The Conversation in between the two Godfather films. Starring Gene Hackman, it was released in 1974. Although Coppola had started developing the idea in 1966, his recent successes allowed him the opportunity to finally put the film into motion. The Conversation, which deals with technology and espionage, was released while America was reeling from the Watergate scandal, although Coppola denies any connection. Besides its three Academy Award nominations, the film won the Palme d'Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. In 1975, Coppola bought a vineyard in Napa Valley, California, which he still runs.

Coppola's tremendous success certainly did not hamper the ambitious young man's hunger for a challenge. His next film, Apocalypse Now, would be the most difficult (and some would argue, the most brilliant) film of his career. It is based on a screenplay by George Lucas and John Milius about the Vietnam War. It shares moral and thematic elements with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which had never been successfully adapted to the screen. (Note: Orson Welles had worked on a film version of Heart of Darkness for years, but was unable to crack it). Apocalypse Now took Coppola three years to complete, during which he had to contend with a cataclysmic typhoon, his main actor having a heart attack, negotiations with Filipino army helicopters, and the near dissolution of his marriage. However, despite all the troubles, Apocalypse Now was a massive success. Coppola won his second Palme d'Or for the film, which grossed $78 million at the box office.

Coppola decided then to re-open Zoetrope and try once again to make a musical - One from the Heart. It was an ambitious flop, thus ending Coppola's box-office streak. His next two films, adaptations of S.E. Hinton's novels The Outsiders (1982) and Rumble Fish (1983), though critically acclaimed, did not have the same financial success as Coppola's previous outings. Robert Evans then hired Coppola to direct The Cotton Club from a screenplay by Mario Puzo, hoping that the Godfather dream team would prove to be a winning formula, but he was wrong. The film was a disaster. Coppola was forced to take on commissions in order to keep the lights on at Zoetrope - like Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). After production was finished, tragedy struck the Coppola family - 22-year-old Gio died in a boating accident. Meanwhile, Gardens of Stone (1987) and Tucker: The Man and his Dream were highly personal, albeit unsuccessful, projects for Coppola, ending the decade on a low note.

In 1990, Coppola agreed to direct a third installment of The Godfather series, which he firmly describes as an epilogue rather than an official part of a trilogy. Fans of the previous films came back in droves to watch the conclusion of Michael Corleone's meteoric rise and fall. Despite mixed reviews (and scathing criticism of Sofia Coppola's performance as Mary Corleone), the film made nearly $140 million worldwide. After that, Coppola made Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), also a success, Jack (1996), starring Robin Williams, and The Rainmaker (1997), based on the bestselling novel by John Grisham. Bankable once more, Coppola re-cut and re-released Apocalypse Now as Apocalypse Now Redux. After a 10-year hiatus, he produced and directed three films, Youth without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011) - small, intimate pieces that did not have much of an impact financially or critically.

Despite periods of fluctuating success, Francis Ford Coppola remains an icon of cinema, though he has mostly passed the cinematic torch to a younger generation. His daughter, Sofia, and nephew, Nicolas Cage, have gone on to Oscar-winning careers, and his son, Roman, is a successful screenwriter and director. Francis Ford Coppola still runs Zoetrope Virtual Studio for filmmakers, as well as Cafe Zoetrope, inside the Sentinel Building where American Zoetrope has its offices. He also owns the Inglebrook Winery and lifestyle brand Francis Ford Coppola Presents. In 1997, he started a literary magazine called Zoetrope: All-Story, for which he is still the founding editor and publisher.


Study Guides on Works by Francis Ford Coppola

Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 tour de force epic about the Vietnam War, is a rare film where the infamously perilous shoot rivaled the onscreen drama. At his Cannes press conference, after unveiling the (yet unfinished) cut, Coppola...

Mario Puzo's The Godfather was published in 1969. Robert Evans, the head of production at Paramount Pictures, had expressed interest in optioning the book before Puzo had even finished writing it (although Peter Bart, then Evans' vice president in...