On this day in 1972, The Godfather–a three-hour epic chronicling the lives of the Corleones, an Italian-American crime family led by the powerful Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)–is released in theaters.
The Godfather was adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Mario Puzo, a novelist who grew up in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and got his start writing pulp stories for men’s magazines. Controversy surrounded the film from the beginning: Soon after Paramount Pictures announced its production, the Italian-American Civil Rights League held a rally in Madison Square Garden, claiming the film would amount to a slur against Italian Americans. The uproar only increased publicity for the movie, which Paramount was counting to become a big-money hit after the success of Puzo’s novel.
The studio’s production chief, Robert Evans, approached several directors–including Sergio Leone and Costa Gavras–about The Godfather before hiring the relatively unknown Francis Ford Coppola, who was only 31 years old at the time. As an Italian American himself, Coppola strove to make the film an authentic representation of the time period and the culture, and to do justice to the complex relationships within the Corleone family, instead of focusing primarily on the violent crime aspect of the story. He worked with Puzo on the screenplay and persuaded Paramount to increase the budget of the film, which the studio had envisioned as a relatively meager $2.5 million.
Perhaps most importantly, Coppola and Puzo fought to cast Marlon Brando in the coveted role of Vito Corleone. At the time, Brando’s career had been in decline for a decade, and he had become notorious for his moody on-set behavior, most notably during the filming of 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty. When Paramount insisted that Brando do a screen test, the legendary actor complied because he wanted the role so badly. Reading his lines from hidden cue cards, Brando turned in a phenomenal, intuitive performance as the Godfather, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor (which he declined to accept). Combined with Coppola’s meticulous direction and memorable performances by the rest of the film’s cast, including Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, Brando’s star turn propelled the film to record-breaking box-office success, as well as three Academy Awards, for Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Godfather has remained a perennial choice on critics’ lists of the all-time best films in history. In 2007, it ranked second on the American Film Institute (AFI)’s list of the greatest movies of all time, behind Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Its sequel, The Godfather: Part II, was released in 1974 and won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. A third installment, The Godfather: Part III (1990), received some positive reviews but was generally considered to be the weakest of the three films.