As Paramount Studios embarked on the filming of The Godfather, the film it was banking on to save the studio, exectutives were uncertain about whether it was truly comfortable with director Francis Ford Coppola, much less over-the-hill actor Marlon Brando, who corporate head Charles Bluhdorn had labeled ‘box-office poison.’ Both Coppola and Brando were in financial trouble, and competition for their coveted slots was fierce. Brando’s financial difficulty would lead him to make a notoriously bad deal:
“[To surreptitiously test Marlon Brando,] Coppola tried a shrewd … ploy. He went
to Brando’s house on Mulholland Drive, atop Hollywood, with a skeleton crew, telling the actor that he wanted to shoot some trial footage in an effort to get a ‘take’ on the character of the Godfather. He emphasized that this would not be a screen test: he was testing some equipment and also some character points.
“Brando, attired in a kimono to conceal his girth, welcomed the young director. He had read the book again and felt that, whoever played the part, the actor should speak in a slurred manner — he had been shot in the throat at one time and his soft gravelly voice would carry more authority.
“To Coppola’s delight, Brando had started to get into the part. He stuffed Kleenex into his mouth, causing his jaw to jut out. He blackened his hair with shoe polish and put on a jacket with a rolled-back collar. When he started speaking his lines, Marlon Brando had become the Godfather.
“I [the writer is esteemed studio executive Peter Bart] was not invited to witness the ‘Miracle on Mulholland,’ as Al Ruddy later described it. Learning about it a day later, however, I was intrigued by the paradox that both Coppola and Brando were resentful of Paramount, yet both had become enveloped in a love-hate relationship with the material. Brando knew Bluhdorn and [studio president Stanley] Jaffe did not want him for the movie. Coppola was well aware that the project had been offered to several other filmmakers. Yet, from what I could glean, Brando had instinctively concluded that this would be a great role for him and, indeed, after the disastrous opening of Burn, he needed a great role. Coppola, meanwhile, had not exactly been deluged with offers from studios to direct other movies. He, too, needed money and, much as he resisted ‘commercial movies,’ he understood that The Godfather, based on the success of the novel, could be spectacularly successful. For Coppola and Brando alike, The Godfather had taken on the form of a literary narcotic.
“The deals that were offered to them by the studio were less than enticing. The movie would be made on a modest budget, they were told. Brando was offered actor’s scale up front and 5 percent of gross receipts when the film grossed $50 million. He would also have to put up a bond against any cost overruns caused by his bad behavior. Brando’s attorney, Norman Gary, pleaded for at least $100,000 to help the actor avoid tax delinquency. In exchange Brando agreed to return his points in the movie — a deal which would ultimately cost Brando at least $11 million.
“Even before Coppola’s deal could be consummated, Warner Bros, put in a claim that his company, Zoetrope, owed the studio some $600,000 in overhead and development costs. Hence, whatever Coppola received for The Godfather would have to go first to that studio until this sum was paid off.”
Author: Peter Bart
Title: Infamous Players
Publisher: Weinstein Books
Date: Copyright 2011 by Peter Bart
Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex)
by Peter Bart by Weinstein Books
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