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 charge of creative affairs, claims that Puzo first met with him, and not Evans). However, there was still widespread trepidation amongst the studio executives because of the novel's content. Since their previous mafia film, The Brotherhood, had been a major disappointment, Paramount was nervous about putting too much money into The Godfather, even after Puzo's book achieved bestseller status.
Evans and Bart hired Al Ruddy to produce the film. Ruddy was a New Yorker who was "known for being able to get a movie made, cheaply and quickly" (Seal). Ruddy approached several established directors, like Peter Yates and Costa-Gavras, both of whom turned the opportunity down. Ruddy was sold on Canadian helmer Sidney J. Furie, before Peter Bart introduced the idea of Francis Ford Coppola. By this time, it had become clear to Paramount that Italian-American lobbying groups were going to protest the project, hoping to end the stereotypical portrayal of Italians that had long since been associated with "mafia" films. Taking into account the film's limited budget and his feeling that the project needed an Italian director to suppress political backlash and deliver compelling authenticity, Peter Bart suggested offering the job to 31-year old Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola, however, was not initially excited by the project, but he was in dire need of a job. Coppola and George Lucas's new production company, American Zoetrope, was struggling after a pair of flops and Warner Brothers was requesting that the filmmakers return the studio's substantial financial support. Hesitantly, Coppola met with Bart, and later told his father, Carmine, "I was at Paramount all day yesterday... and they want me to direct this hunk of trash. I don't want to do it. I want to do art films". His father encouraged him to take the job and make some money so he could finance his own work (Cowie 63). After doing some initial research, Coppola got excited about making The Godfather as "a family chronicle, a metaphor for capitalism in America" (Seal). Coppola and Puzo started writing the screenplay together.
As The Godfather started on the road to fruition, the backlash from the Italian-American community that Bart had feared started to become a reality. "The largest [protest] was organized by the Italian American Civil Rights League, headed by Joe Colombo, himself a reputed mobster. In 1970, the league held a rally in Madison Square Garden that raised nearly $600,000 to stop production of The Godfather" (De Stefano 101). The LAPD warned Al Ruddy that he was being tailed, and his office received threatening notes. Ultimately, Joe Colombo agreed to stop his campaign against the film as long as the word "mafia" was not used at all. Al Ruddy agreed and the threats ceased - resulting in "a strange camaraderie between the moviemakers and the mob" (Seal). During filming in New York, many Italian-American residents of Little Italy wanted to do whatever they could to help the filmmakers, and were enthusiastic to appear as extras as well. They were excited by Coppola's desire for authenticity and eventually embraced the film as well.
Meanwhile, it turned out that Coppola, despite being a newcomer, was hardly as pliable as Paramount had hoped. He wanted the film to be set in the 1940s, like the book, while the studio wanted to shift the adaptation to a present-day representation. Coppola wanted to film in New York City for the sake of authenticity, but the studio pressed him to consider other cities where unions were less of a problem - even suggesting a studio backlot. Paramount hated Coppola's casting choices, but he refused to back down. Collaborators described Coppola as "disorganized, indecisive, and scattered" (Jones 19). Crew members started to question his sanity and his ability. He fought with everyone from the studio brass to his cinematographer, Gordon Willis. After seeing the dark, shadowy rushes from the shoot, Paramount considered replacing Coppola in the middle of production, but Marlon Brando, in a show of loyalty, threatened to walk off the film if that happened.
According to Peter Bart, there were actually five moments during the process of making The Godfather when Coppola was in danger of losing his job: "over casting Brando; when Paramount saw the first rushes; when Coppola insisted on shooting scenes on location in Sicily; when he went over budget; and during the editing process" (Jones 21). Coppola's first cut came in at close to three hours, and Robert Evans relayed the message from Paramount that they would take editing control out of Coppola's hands unless he cut out a half hour. Coppola complied. To his credit, Evans was furious with the shortened version, and fought with the studio to release the longer cut. During the difficult editing process, Coppola was "despondent about The Godfather's prospects. 'I was sure people would feel I had taken this exciting, bestseller novel and transformed it into a dark, ponderous, boring movie with a lot of actors who were known to be my personal friends (excluding Brando)'" (Cowie 79). However, Coppola - despite his age and relative inexperience - refused to compromise his vision - and it paid off handsomely in the end.
The Godfather opened in 5 theaters in New York City on March 15, 1972. It made nearly $2 million in five days. There were lines around the block, and theaters had to schedule screenings every hour from 9 am to midnight in order to accommodate the demand. It became a cultural phenomenon. "The Los Angeles Times printed a how-to guide entitled "Life-styles for Waiting in Line to See The Godfather" (Jones 246). Paramount made $85.7 million on the film's original release, the first movie in American film history to gross an average of $1 million per day. Vincent Canby from the New York Times wrote in his review, "Francis Ford Coppola has made one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment" (Jones 246). The Godfather was nominated for 10 Academy Awards - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (for each Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Al Pacino), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Costume Design, and Best Actor (Marlon Brando). It won 3 Oscars; for Brando, Screenplay, and Best Picture.
Despite the difficulties surrounding the production of The Godfather, it remains one of the world's most beloved films. Besides making nearly $330 million on a film that cost $6.5 million to produce, The Godfather changed the way Italian-Americans, and immigrants in general, have been portrayed in popular culture. Author Tom Santopietro goes so far as to call The Godfather "a turning point in American cultural consciousness". Many films, books, and television shows have taken influence from The Godfather films, most notably the HBO series The Sopranos, one of the most critically acclaimed television shows of all time. The Godfather films launched acting greats Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, and Robert De Niro, made a star out of Robert Duvall, and resurrected Marlon Brando's flailing career. Francis Ford Coppola, meanwhile, established himself as one of the most daring, visionary filmmakers of his generation.