Al Pacino Looks Back at His Breakthrough Role in ‘The Godfather’ – The New York Times


‘The Godfather’ at 50
Fifty years later, the actor looks back on his breakthrough role: how he was cast, why he skipped the Oscars and what it all means to him now.
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. He won the role over Paramount’s objections.Credit…Paramount Pictures
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It’s hard to imagine “The Godfather” without Al Pacino. His understated performance as Michael Corleone, who became a respectable war hero despite his corrupt family, goes almost unnoticed for the first hour of the film — until at last he asserts himself, gradually taking control of the Corleone criminal operation and the film along with it.
But there would be no Al Pacino without “The Godfather,” either. The actor was a rising star of New York theater with just one movie role, in the 1971 drug drama “The Panic in Needle Park,” when Francis Ford Coppola fought for him, against the wishes of Paramount Pictures, to play the ruminative prince of his Mafia epic. A half-century’s worth of pivotal cinematic roles followed, including two more turns as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part II” and “Part III.”
“The Godfather” premiered in New York on March 15, 1972, and 50 years later, you can imagine all the reasons Pacino wouldn’t want to talk about it anymore. Maybe he’d be embarrassed or annoyed about how this one performance, from the outset of his movie career, still dominates his résumé, or perhaps he has said all there is to say about it.
But in a telephone interview last month, Pacino, now 81, was quite philosophical, even whimsical, about discussing the film. He remains an ardent admirer of the movie and of the lengths that Coppola and his co-stars went to support him, and he is still awe-struck about how it single-handedly gave him his career.
“I’m here because I did ‘The Godfather,’” Pacino said, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. “For an actor, that’s like winning the lottery. When it comes right down to it, I had nothing to do with the film but play the part.”
As Coppola recalled it, Pacino was who he saw in the role all along and a candidate worth going to the mattresses for, despite his lack of a track record.
“When I actually read the ‘Godfather’ book, I kept imagining him,” Coppola said in a separate interview. “And I didn’t have a second choice. It was, for me, always Al Pacino. That’s the reason why I was so tenacious about getting him to play Michael. That was my problem.”
But for the actor, delivering the performance of a lifetime brought its own burdens, as he would learn in the years that followed.
“It’s hard to explain in today’s world — to explain who I was at that time and the bolt of lightning that it was,” Pacino said. “I felt like, all of a sudden, some veil was lifted and all eyes were on me. Of course, they were on others in the film. But ‘The Godfather’ gave me a new identity that was hard for me to cope with.”
Pacino spoke further about getting hired for and making “The Godfather,” the weight of its legacy and why he never played another film character like Michael Corleone after it. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
When you get a call asking you to talk about “The Godfather,” is there some part of you that thinks, oh God, not again? Does it ever become tedious?
Well, no. You expect it. You expect to talk about what things worked and what things didn’t. You get a sense that somebody’s going to come at you. You just go: OK, been here, done this. But it’s cool. It beats talking to myself about it.
How did the role of Michael Corleone first come up?
At that time in my life, I didn’t have a choice. Francis wanted me. I had made the one film. And I wasn’t as interested in film to the extent that I became interested. My head was in another space. I felt out of place in the early films that I made. I remember saying to my friend Charlie [his mentor, the acting teacher Charlie Laughton]: Wow, they talk about it being real, but meanwhile it’s not. Because there are wires all over you. And also, you’ve got to do it again! [Laughs] You do it and they say, well, go again, do it again. It’s real and not real at the same time. Which takes some getting used to.
When did you and Coppola meet?
To give a little history to it, Francis was this filmmaker who had Zoetrope [his production company, American Zoetrope], and people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and [Martin] Scorsese and [Brian] De Palma were all part of a group. And I remember seeing a few of them when Francis asked me to come to San Francisco after he had seen me in a play on Broadway. Do you know that story? I’m telling old stories now. [Laughs]
That’s OK. It’s why we’re here.
He saw me onstage [in the 1969 Broadway run of “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?”] but I never met him. He had written “Patton” by that time, and he sent me a script for a wonderful love story he had written [which was never produced]. He wanted to see me. That meant I had to get on a plane and go to San Francisco, which is something I was not used to. I thought, is there any other way to go? I can’t tell this guy to come all the way back here, can I? So I said I’ll bite the bullet and I went. I spent five days with him. It really was special, this film. But we were rejected, of course. I was an unknown actor and he had made a couple of films, “You’re a Big Boy Now” and “The Rain People.” So I went back home and never heard from him again.
But you did, eventually. When was that?
“Panic in Needle Park” hadn’t come out yet. And I got a call from Francis Coppola — a name from the past. First, he says he’s going to be directing “The Godfather.” I thought, well, he might be going through a mini-breakdown or something. How did they give him “The Godfather”?
You didn’t think it was possible that he was making it?
I’ve got to tell you, it was a big deal already. It was a big book. When you’re an actor, you don’t even put your eyes on those things. They don’t exist for you. You’re in a certain place in your life where you’re not going to be accepted in those big films — not yet, at least. And he said, not only was he directing it, [breaking into laughter] but he wanted me to do it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh here. It just seemed so outrageous. Here I am, talking to somebody who I think is flipped out. I said, what train am I on? OK. Humor the guy. And he wanted me to do Michael. I thought, OK, I’ll go along with this. I said, yes, Francis, good. You know how they talk to you when you’re slipping? They say, “Yes! Of course! Yes!” But he wasn’t. It was the truth. And then I was given the part.
Paramount was famously opposed to the idea of your playing the role.
Well, they rejected his entire cast! [Laughs] They rejected Brando. They rejected Jimmy Caan and Bob Duvall. There was conflict.
I recently watched some of your “Godfather” screen tests and you seemed to have this hangdog look on your face as you are asked to go through it again and again.
Yeah. I always had that look. [Laughs] It was a facade that got me through these auditions. Because great actors were auditioning for this thing. But here’s the secret: For whatever reason, he wanted me and I knew that. You could feel that. And there’s nothing like that, when a director wants you. It’s the best thing an actor could have, really.
But you were not exactly a nobody. You had already won a Tony Award.
Oh, on the island of Manhattan, things were happening for me. I had done “The Indian Wants the Bronx.” I was young. I got the Obie Award and then I won a Tony. Then I got fired from a play. [Laughs]
What play?
I got fired from some play. They let me go. Let’s put it that way. You happen to be the lead, but we’re letting you go. That’s how bad you are in this performance. So I was known in certain quarters. I wasn’t looking for work in that sense — I was engaging myself in things.
When you got into the filming of “The Godfather,” working alongside people like Caan and Duvall, who had quite a lot more moviemaking experience, and Brando, who you admired a great deal, how did you hold your own?
I thought about the role. I just couldn’t articulate it at the time. I could articulate it today. I was thinking that this is a character that could be very effective if he comes out of nowhere. That was my vision for it. I couldn’t, naturally, mention it to anyone because I didn’t know how to say it. But I could think it. And I felt it was mapped out for me when I read the script.
How so?
He’s not showing up a lot. He’s there but not quite showing up. I guess a lot of it was just building up to that one speech where he says I’m going to go get those guys [the drug kingpin Sollozzo and the corrupt police officer Capt. McCluskey], and they all start laughing at him.
Meaning, Michael was being underestimated and that was something you could connect to and use to your advantage?
Exactly. But I will tell you, they couldn’t have been more comforting, all of them. I was young, I was unknown, and they were so comforting. There was a love there. They understood it, Brando especially. But the others, too. They were becoming those older brothers and advisers that they play in the film. Those kinds of emotions and colors in them came out, both in the performance but also in life. They mesh.
Was there ever a moment during the making of “The Godfather” that you realized it was going to be as great as it is?
You remember the funeral scene for Marlon, when they put him down? It was over for the evening, the sun was going down. So, naturally, I’m happy ’cause I get to go home and have some drinks. I was on the way to my camper, saying, well, I was pretty good today. I had no lines, no obligations, that was fine. Every day without lines is a good day. So I’m going back to my camper. And there, sitting on a tombstone, is Francis Ford Coppola, weeping like a baby. Profusely crying. And I went up to him and I said, Francis, what’s wrong? What happened? He says, “They won’t give me another shot.” Meaning, they wouldn’t allow him to film another setup. And I thought: OK. I guess I’m in a good film here. Because he had this kind of passion and there it is.
Have you rewatched the film recently?
No. I might have seen it two, three years ago. It’s the kind of movie when you start watching it, you keep watching it.
Do you get self-conscious about watching your own films?
No. I enjoy watching films I’ve been in. Sometimes I show them. I say, “Hey, come this way! Here it is! Hey, it’s me, yes! Take a look at this!” Well, I don’t go that far. But I would if I could. I think “The Godfather” plays no matter what. But you’re surprised when you realize how many people never saw it.
You’re encountering people who are aware of “The Godfather” as a cultural phenomenon but haven’t actually watched it?
They’ve heard about it. You get that. “Oh, I heard — were you in that? That was a film, wasn’t it?” Yes. So was “Citizen Kane,” by the way — I was in that, too. Why not? They don’t know.
Is there anything about your performance that you wish you could change now?
Maybe I’ve been spared. It’s like when I once lost my wallet in my early 20s. I had no money, but what I had, I had in my wallet and I lost it. I said, Al, you simply have to forget this. Put it out of your mind, OK? You know what will happen to you if you keep thinking about it. So, what I do is, I don’t think about it.
Who from the movie doesn’t get enough credit for their contribution?
John Cazale, in general, was one of the great actors of our time — that time, any time. I learned so much from him. I had done a lot of theater and three films with him. He was inspiring, he just was. And he didn’t get credit for any of it. He was in five films, all Oscar-nominated films, and he was great in all of them. He was particularly great in “Godfather II” and I don’t think he got that kind of recognition.
There is an intense quietness to how you play Michael in “The Godfather” that I don’t think I ever saw again in your other film performances, even the later times you played him. Was that a part of yourself that went away or was it just the nature of the character that called for it?
I’d like to think it was the nature of that particular person and that interpretation. I can’t think of any other characters that I did that could have used that kind of framework. I was a young actor — on “Part III,” I was no longer young, but that’s not my fault. [Laughs]
But compared to other characters you’re also closely associated with, like Tony Montana in “Scarface” ——
Well, that character, Tony Montana, was written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma, who wanted the heightened reality. Brian wanted to do an opera. All I wanted to do was imitate Paul Muni. [Laughs] But if I put “Dog Day Afternoon” with “Godfather,” or “Serpico,” I don’t see a resemblance there. Would you call Michael more introspective? That’s what I would say. And I don’t know of any other introspective characters I played. But if I sit down with you and go to the almanac, we’ll find something.
You received your first Academy Award nomination for “The Godfather,” yet you didn’t attend the ceremony that year. Were you protesting because you were nominated as a supporting actor and not as a lead?
No, absolutely not. I was at that stage in my life where I was somewhat, more or less, rebellious. I did go back for others. But I didn’t go to them early on. It was the tradition. I don’t think Bob [De Niro] went to one of them. George C. Scott didn’t even go. They had to wake him up. [Laughs] Marlon didn’t go. Look, Marlon gave back the Oscar. How about that? They were rebelling from the Hollywood thing. That kind of thing was in the air.
So all of this is contributing to your feelings at the time about your rising fame?
I was somewhat uncomfortable with being in that situation, being in that world. I was also working onstage in Boston at that time [in “Richard III”]. But that was an excuse. I just was afraid to go. I was young, younger than even my years. I was young in terms of the newness of all this. It was the old shot-out-of-a-cannon syndrome. And it’s connected to drugs and those kinds of things, which I was engaged in back there, and I think that had a lot to do with it. I was just unaware of things back then.
When you did win an Oscar for “Scent of a Woman,” was there some part of you that still wished you’d won it for playing Michael Corleone?
Absolutely not. If I think about it now, I would say, “Sure, I should have won! I’d have three Oscars! I would be like the big guys.” [Laughs] No, I don’t think that. It’s a serious thing. You’re being honored for something.
So you’re comfortable now with the praise you received — and continue to receive — for your performance in “The Godfather”?
Oh, yes. I am deeply honored by it. I really am. It’s a piece of work that I was so fortunate to be in. But it’s taken me a lifetime to accept it and move on. It’s not like I played Superman.
Do you have any kind of metric you allow yourself to use to rank your own films?
I guess the films I make myself, that I directed and wrote, none of which I think anyone has ever seen, like “Looking for Richard” or “Salomé” with Jessica Chastain — but I’m talking about myself. I should be talking about “Godfather.” I don’t know why I get on about myself. I don’t know anybody else. [Laughs] Someone called me, he says, You must be alone. I said, no, I’m here with my ego. [Laughs]
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