'The Godfather' at 50: Francis Ford Coppola Reflects on His Cast Bonding Around a Real Italian Dinner Table

Writer-director Francis Ford Coppola recalls how the cast of 'The Godfather' first bonded: over food.
by Scott Huver — 

Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather'

Courtesy of Paramount / YouTube

In March of 1971 a ragtag troupe of actors — some with a few Hollywood films to their credit, some still hoping to make a name in the industry, and one who was already famous around the world — sat down over dinner in an Italian restaurant in Manhattan to discuss their upcoming film and, more importantly, to get to know each other a little better.  

By the time they left, they had already settled into the family dynamics as the mafia clan known as the Corleones. 

A year later, the world would know them that way as well, as The Godfather premiered and became an instant hit. With a rare perfect Metascore of 100 and a user score of 9.2, it has more than stood the test of time over these past 50 years. An adaptation of Mario Puzo's bestselling potboiler about a family at the center of a New York's Midcentury criminal empire, the now classic Paramount Pictures title won three Oscars, spawned two followup films, has been taught in film schools for decades, and even inspired an upcoming series about the making of the movie.

Invitations to that late-afternoon meal in 1971 had been sent to the actors by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who was just weeks away from putting his cast before the cameras to shoot The Godfather. Many of the performers had already assembled for a script read back in Los Angeles, but now that they were all ensconced in Manhattan, Coppola wanted to arrange both a proper welcome and provide a first opportunity for the fresh-faced cast to meet, for the first time, the film's just-arrived heavyweight, Marlon Brando.  

"When first Marlon was met by the cast, of course everyone and I mean everyone, they looked up to Marlon Brando," Coppola recalled during a Q&A at a recent 50th anniversary screening of the film on the Paramount lot. "So, we got a family room in Patsy's Italian restaurant in New York, uptown, and they set a table that looked like a dining table."  

At 47 years old, Brando was already a then-five-time Academy Award nominee with one Oscar trophy to his credit. (He would go on to win another Oscar, his only other one, for his performance in The Godfather.) Despite some diminishing recent box office performances, he remained revered among his peers for transforming the very nature of film acting with his more naturalistic, immersive style. Coppola himself was aiming to instill as much authenticity as possible into the gangster epic and hoped by gathering his cast around a dinner table, much like his own Italian American family did, that the first glimmers of the collective Corleone chemistry might emerge. 

Even the location itself was selected for its verisimilitude: Patsy's in East Harlem had become an institution since its founding in 1933, a place where the celebrity elite from Frank Sinatra to Joe DiMaggio dined while rubbing elbows with real-life mafiosos. It's even been suggested that Puzo, a regular, may have found inspiration for the famous hidden-gun scene directly from the design of the toilets in Patsy's men's room. As the actors began to roll in around 3:30 p.m., Coppola said, the more street-savvy of them noticed a few genuine made men spiraling spaghetti around their forks nearby, 

The actors who'd been invited to the meal included the immediate core of the Corleone family: Al Pacino, the little-known but electrifying Broadway actor that Coppola had won a hard-fought battle to cast as Michael, the son who'd resisted joining the family; James Caan, who previously worked with Coppola on the 1969 film The Rain People and was considered a rising star in Hollywood, cast as Sonny the hot-tempered heir apparent; John Cazale, another stage up-and-comer playing mild-mannered middle son Fredo; Robert Duvall, a journeyman Hollywood character actor on the brink of a major breakout, playing foster son and consigliere Tom Hagen; Diane Keaton, a young Tony-winner and prolific TV player, in the role of Michael's paramour Kaye Adams; Coppola's younger sister Talia Shire, who would be playing Corleone's Mafia princess Connie; and Gianni Russo, cast as Connie's ne'er-do-well husband Carlo. 

And of course there was Brando, who arrived with all the same mix of star power and earthy gravitas that made him famous, disarming the collected worshippers with some early, well-timed jokes that immediately set the sort of warm sense of camaraderie that Coppola was hoping for, all amid a feast's worth of Italian dishes and copious amount of wine. At Coppola's suggestion, as they dug into their meal, they began to improvise in character for the next few hours, and the results were almost immediately magical. 

"I remember Marlon sat [at] the head of the table [and] to his right was Al," remembered Coppola. "Next was the wonderful Johnny Cazale, next was Jimmy Caan and then Bobby Duvall and Talia." 

He added that Shire immediately assumed the traditional daughter role, serving the newly formed family. 

"We actually had dinner, and of course, Al was trying to impress Marlon by being silent and intense, Jimmy was cracking jokes. ... And then Duvall was making Marlon Brando imitations whenever Marlon wasn't looking," he said.

Coppola's intuitive move paid off handsomely: By the end of the meal, Brando had shrewdly transformed himself from a venerated — and somewhat nerve-inducing — idol into a beloved patriarch, while the other actors had all swiftly settled into their appropriate character orbits around him. 

"The most interesting thing that happened is that at the dinner [was] everybody went into their role," Pacino told this writer during a roundtable interview. "I sort of became a little bit reluctant, a little moody. And after a while, we retreated into our characters. ... We took our position. It's funny how that happened. It was a very clever idea by Francis to put us together that way." 

By the time the dinner ended, the Corleones no longer existed solely on the page. 

"I tell you, after that dinner, it was done," Coppola said. "They were a family." 

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