A Look Back At 'The Godfather,' With Mario Puzo And Francis Ford Coppola | Connecticut Public Radio
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A Look Back At 'The Godfather,' With Mario Puzo And Francis Ford Coppola

Mar 8, 2019
Originally published on March 11, 2019 1:27 pm

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather." A new edition has just been released with an introduction by Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola and Puzo co-wrote the screenplays for all three "Godfather" films. This is from the opening scene of the first one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for counsel or for help. I can't remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child. But let's be frank here. You never wanted my friendship, and you were afraid to be in my debt.

SALVATORE CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) I didn't want to get into trouble.

BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I understand. You found paradise in America. You had a good trade, made a good living. Police protected you, and there were courts of law. And you didn't need a friend like me. But now you come to me and you say, Don Corleone, give me justice. But you don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you ask me to do murder for money.

CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) I ask you for justice.

BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.

CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) Make them suffer, then, as she suffers. How much shall I pay you?

BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you'd come to me in friendship, then the scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if, by chance, an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.

CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) Be my friend, Godfather.

BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) Good. Someday - and that day may never come - I'll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day.

CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) Grazie, Godfather.

BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) Give this to Clemenza. I want reliable people, people that aren't going to be carried away. I mean, we're not murderers, in spite of what this undertaker says.

BIANCULLI: That's from the 1972 film "The Godfather," based on the novel by Mario Puzo. The book sold about 21 million copies and inspired countless mob-related novels, movies and TV shows, including HBO's "The Sopranos." Mario Puzo died in 1999 at age 78. Terry Gross spoke with him three years earlier. He told Terry that many of the stories in the novel came from his childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARIO PUZO: You know, like, the rug-stealing scene and the keeping of the guns from the police - you know, that kind of stuff - that happened in the family.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Well, tell the story the way it was told to you.

PUZO: Well, my brother, who's older than me - this guy threw his guns over the airway - you know, the space between apartments. And my mother took them and held them for him. And then he came and got back his guns. And he said, would you like a rug? So she sent my brother over to get the rug, and my brother didn't realize the guy was stealing the rug until he took out the gun when the cop came. So that's almost entirely in the book and in the movie, you know? It's little stuff like that.

GROSS: Now, how did your mother feel about protecting this guy's guns?

PUZO: Oh, in those days - this is when I was a very little kid - that was thought of as nothing. You know, that was like - he was a neighbor, and he wanted you to do it. And you did it because you were afraid of him, because you hope, you know, to - that he would help you out. For instance, the business about the dog being permitted to stay in the apartment - that happened to my family. My mother didn't want to get rid of the dog, so she went to the local guy of respect. I don't even think they thought of them as criminals. They were people who had influence the way you would go down to your congressman, for instance.

GROSS: And so tell the dog story.

PUZO: This has happened in the movie. The landlord wanted my mother to get rid of the dog, and she didn't want to get rid of the dog. He was going to kick her out. And the local whatever he was - I never really understood what he was - he told the landlord not to do it. And the landlord didn't do it.

GROSS: Did she do anything to pay respect to the local organized crime figures who, in part, controlled the neighborhood?

PUZO: Well, you have to remember that those figures are usually related by blood, you know, and were members of a family. So you gave them presents if you had a family member who was powerful. You know, you made sure that you gave them a present at Christmas, you know, or a special occasion, which was not regarded as a payoff in any way.

It was - for instance, my parents grew up in Italy where, since they were mostly illiterate, when they had a letter that had to be read, they would go to the local priest to have the priest read it for them. But they would automatically bring a gift. They'd bring three or four eggs or, you know, a chicken or something like that. It's a whole different relationship. It wasn't a bribe. It's a mark of respect. It's not like they said, you got to give me a piece of chicken, or, you got to give me an egg and I'll read it for you. It was just understood in the same way the local neighborhood guys that had influence - you gave them presents.

GROSS: Now, what were some of the most difficult parts of adapting the novel into the screenplay - into the first...

PUZO: It was a cinch.

GROSS: Yeah.

PUZO: Yeah, I mean, it was a cinch because it was the first time I'd ever written a screenplay, so I didn't know what I was doing. You know, it's - and it came out right. And the story I tell is that after I had won two Academy Awards, you know, for the first two "Godfathers," I went out and bought a book on screenwriting because I figured I'd better learn...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PUZO: ...You know, what it's about because it was sort of off the top of my head. And then the first chapter - the book said, study "Godfather I." It's the model of a screenplay. So I was stuck with the book.

GROSS: I'm wondering with the dialogue - everything is so - not everything, but the characters who really have power are very euphemistic in their language. So they could be saying - they could be giving you the message that they're going to kill you unless you follow their orders, but they'll be saying it in the nicest way. And of course, killing would never be mentioned. Everything's kind of beneath - you know, between the lines, beneath the surface. What made you write the dialogue for these powerful, violent people in that coded way?

PUZO: Well, it does come from the way the Sicilian Mafia operated. In fact, there was a funny story that an Englishman came to live in Sicily. And he got a kidnapping note because they like to collect the money for kidnapping you before they kidnap you so they didn't have to go through the bother of kidnapping you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PUZO: That - no, that was the way they operated. But the Sicilian Mafia wrote this Englishman such a flowery note, he thought they were paying him some sort of compliment. He didn't realize they wanted, like, 50 grand off him before they kidnapped him, so to save everybody the trouble of going through the kidnapping. But it was very flowery - your eminence, we love you, you know, we'll do anything. If you're ever having trouble, give us a call, you know? And meanwhile, just send us 50 grand. You'll never have any trouble with anybody. But that's how they talk. That's where I got it from. They were great believers in collecting money before doing the job.

GROSS: One of the most famous lines that you come - that you came up with was about making an offer you can't refuse.

PUZO: Yeah.

GROSS: Does that line have its roots in mob lore that you knew, or did it...

PUZO: No, I made it up. I wrote memos on how we could plant that line because I was sure it would become a famous line. You know, I recognized the fact it would become one of those lines that people would always be using. So that was really sort of carefully constructed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

AL MARTINO: (As Johnny Fontane) You are the one dream I pray comes true.

DIANE KEATON: (As Kay Adams) Please, Michael. Tell me.

MARTINO: (As Johnny Fontane) My darling, until I saw you...

AL PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) You know, when Johnny was first starting out, he was signed to this personal service contract with a big band leader. And as his career got better and better, he wanted to get out of it. Now, Johnny is my father's godson. And my father went to see this bandleader. And they offered him $10,000 to let Johnny go, but the bandleader said no. So the next day, my father went to see him, only this time with Luca Brasi. And within an hour, he signed a release my father went to see him, only this time, with Luca Brasi. And within an hour, he signed a release for a certified check of $1,000.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) Why'd he do that?

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) What was that?

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Luca Brasi held a gun to his head. And my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. That's a true story. That's my family, Kay, it's not me.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross interviewed Mario Puzo in 1996. He died in 1999 at the age of 78. We're celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather," which was published 50 years ago this weekend. After a short break, we'll hear Terry's interview with Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather films. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're celebrating the golden anniversary of the publication of "The Godfather." We've already heard from the book's author, Mario Puzo. Now, let's hear from Francis Ford Coppola, who directed and co-wrote all three "Godfather" films. Terry Gross spoke with him in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You were invited to direct the movie by the studio - by Paramount...

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Right. And it...

GROSS: ...Then you sat down and read the book. And you write, I read it eagerly but barely finished it. And you almost didn't make the movie because you didn't really like the book, in spite of the nice things you said about Mario Puzo. What didn't you like about the book?

COPPOLA: Well, I had thought - from its title and the intriguing logo and the name Mario Puzo - that this was a kind of Italian intellectual writer, like a kind of, you know, Moravia - something - and it was going to be a piece about the subject of power. And while, indeed, it was about power, I found the book itself more like a kind of bestseller attempt, like an Irving Wallace book with lots of - people don't remember it.

But maybe a third, if not, more of the book concerned this young woman, Lucy Mancini, and her private anatomy problems and a love affair with the doctor who fixed them. And I just couldn't believe how low-class that was. But I, you know - but that was, you know, not included in the movie, and so it didn't harm the remaining part, which we all know.

GROSS: Did you ever tell Mario Puzo your thoughts about the novel?

COPPOLA: Sure. He knew. And, you know, he had written a beautiful book called "The Fortunate Pilgrim," which he felt was the best book he ever wrote, which also was about immigrants. But it was very respected by writers. And it was a beautiful book, but it didn't make money. And he needed the - he had - he, you know, like so many Italian men, he adored his children. He wanted to give his children some - you know, better life. And he wrote this hoping it could make a lot of money for him. So...

GROSS: It did. Yeah.

COPPOLA: ...And it did.

GROSS: Yeah. The Mario Puzo novel, "The Godfather," is set in the '70s. The movie, Part 1, is set - you know, starts out in the mid-1940s, just after World War II. Why did you want to change the time that it was set in?

COPPOLA: I didn't change the time. That's the way the novel is. The novel starts out exactly - I was very loyal to the novel after I had derived what the movie would be, and it was set in in the '40s. Michael, at the wedding, was in uniform still. He had sort of broken his father's heart a little by kind of signing up for the army, as though he could be loyal to the country even beyond his loyalty to the father. So yeah, that was one of my first arguments with the producers was I felt that should be set in the '40s. They had wanted - and really had script set...

GROSS: Oh, they wanted it set in the '70s...

COPPOLA: Yeah, because...

GROSS: ...OK.

COPPOLA: And you know why, of course. If you make a movie during the contemporary period that the movie's being made, you don't have to have special cars. You don't have to have special costumes. You don't have to spend all of that money trying to create a period.

GROSS: I see. OK. So that was..

COPPOLA: So I...

GROSS: ...One of your first fights with the studio?

COPPOLA: Very big fight because they had planned to use this script. I mean, the script had hippies in it because it was being a - going to be set in the '70s. And they wanted to shoot it in Kansas City. In fact, they took me on a trip to look around at Italian neighborhoods in Kansas City.

And I, you know - I had done this study, which this book we're discussing had laid bare, was that the period of the '40s and the textures of the '40s and - in fact, you'd go into a railroad station and see guys in uniform. And - and it was like America on - with a new beginning, as it were. Was - and that it was set in New York, I was very adamant - and New York, in those days when we shot, had gotten a black eye of being a very tough and not good place to shoot - very expensive place to shoot.

So the studio was just - had this young director who was hired mainly because he was Italian-American. And they figured that would, possibly, be good in terms of saying, well, an Italian made the film. And also, I was - had some acclaim as a screenwriter. And they knew the script needed to be worked on, so they figured they'd get a free rewrite out of it, which they did. And also I was young and had no power, so they figured they could just boss me around, which they proceeded to begin to do.

GROSS: In each scene in your notebook, you have a list of pitfalls you might fall into. And perhaps the most common one that you're worried about is cliche. What were your - some of your biggest worries about turning the material into cliches?

COPPOLA: Well, having been raised in the family of Italian-Americans who - all of them were accomplished musicians - they weren't gangsters, certainly. But so much of the detail of life - what the bottle of anisette looked like, the fact that they would sometimes send out for Chinese food. I knew a lot of stuff through living with - my father and my uncles and my family - that I used those details in the film. And my fear was that, you know, Italians were always (imitating Italian accent) talk like people - like the Marx brother, Chico Marx.

And there were so many cliches related to us as a - the culture of our family, that I certainly, you know - and also I knew that the Italian-American didn't speak with an Italian accent. One of my big arguments with the studio was saying, well, you know he wouldn't speak - he would speak more with a Brooklyn accent. It'd be more like Eddie Carbone in "A View From The Bridge," you know, so I knew things just by having lived them that I could avoid cliches.

GROSS: You also wanted to avoid the dialogue sounding too "Guys And Dolls"-y. So what were your fears there?

COPPOLA: Well, just that, you know, Italian-Americans were always portrayed in the movies, even on stage, a certain way - gangsters were, and I knew different because those were my family. My father was the first flute of the NBC Symphony, so he was, you know, certainly a man of great culture and education. But, you know, he also - the food he ate and what it was like in our home was something I could borrow and invest in the film to give it authenticity.

GROSS: About the character Clemenza, who is like very heavy, he's not only a heavy, he weighs a lot. He's heavy (laughter).

COPPOLA: Yeah.

GROSS: And he like - he's the one who's cooking the sauce in the movie. And you write about him in your notes that he has to be believable as the type that would be everybody's favorite uncle but also a killer. Did you have an uncle who resembled him in any way?

COPPOLA: I did. I had - they were twins, and they were both a little heavy set, and they were the least accomplished of all the boys. My grandfather's sons were fine musicians and excellent engineers and the - but the twins, kind of, were not. But they were the youngest. And to us kids, we loved them because they - we could always get them to take us to the movies. We could always fool them into driving us somewhere, and they weren't like Clemenza in that they were favorite uncles but also killers.

The funny thing - a note that is fun is that when I wrote the scene of Clemenza cooking, I couldn't cook. So when I wrote the scene of Clemenza describing how to make a tomato sauce with the trick of meat sauce is that you put a tablespoon of sugar, but I said in the dialogue - I said, well, first, you brown some sausage and then you blah, blah, blah. And the note from Mario on the script said, Francis, gangsters don't brown, gangsters fry.

So he hit me. So that's what Mario was. He was always like, you know, correcting with notes on the page and he was - it's true, you know, gangsters would never say brown.

BIANCULLI: That was Francis Ford Coppola speaking with Terry Gross in 2016. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather." A new edition of the novel has just been published with a new introduction by Francis Ford Coppola. After a short break, he'll tell us about his fight with the movie studio over casting the film. They didn't want to cast Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone, and they hated Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. And we'll hear film critic Justin Chang's review of "Captain Marvel." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINO ROTA'S "THE GODFATHER WALTZ")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of our salute to Mario Puzo's "The Godfather." His novel about a mafia family was published 50 years ago this weekend. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with Francis Ford Coppola. He directed all three "Godfather" films and co-wrote the screenplays with Mario Puzo. But when setting out to direct the original film, Coppola's vision wasn't exactly embraced by the film executives at Paramount Studios. They fought him on several fronts, including the casting of the title role.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So casting Marlon Brando was just such a really brilliant stroke, and stroke of luck as you were able to get him, and I want to play what Mario Puzo told me in 1996, when I interviewed him, about casting Brando - about how Brando got cast in the movie. So can I play that for you, and then...

COPPOLA: Of course.

GROSS: OK. So this is Mario Puzo, who wrote the novel "The Godfather," speaking with me in 1996 about casting Marlon Brando.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PUZO: I'm the guy that picked Brando.

GROSS: You did pick Brando?

PUZO: Oh, sure. I wrote him a letter, and he called me up, and we had a chat. And then I tried to get Paramount to take him, and they refused. And then when the director came on the picture, I took the director, Francis Coppola, and he managed to talk Paramount into letting Brando play the role. But it was my idea to cast Brando, which caused me a lot of trouble before it finally got done.

GROSS: What did you say in your letter to Marlon Brando when you were inviting him to play the part?

PUZO: I think it was something like - help. They're going to kill - they're going to kill me. They're going to cast - I think it was Danny - Danny Thomas is the guy.

GROSS: Danny Thomas? Wow.

PUZO: I think it was something like, help. They're going to kill me. They're going to cast - I think it was Donny - Danny Thomas as the godfather.

GROSS: Danny Thomas. Wow (laughter).

PUZO: Yeah. Well, he was going to buy Paramount so he could play the role. At that time, Paramount wasn't really worth that much. And Danny Thomas was very rich off television. And I read an item he was going to buy Paramount Pictures so he could play the godfather. So that scared me so much I wrote a letter to Brando. I knew some people who knew him. So, you know, I had an entree. And he gave me very good advice. He said, no studio will hire me. Wait until you get a director. And then talk to the director. And he was quite right. When I talked to the studio, they swore they would never hire Brando.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: OK, Francis Ford Coppola, you were the director. I suppose Puzo talked to you. And you made it happen. Can you pick up the story from there?

COPPOLA: Well, it's true that Mario had always liked the idea of Brando. But, you know, Mario was often Bay Shore. He was not really on the scene so much. Even a lot of my work with him was my sending him drafts and him writing notes. So although he had (inaudible) the idea of the godfather being Brando, I don't even know if he told me that because I just was hit by a whole bunch of ideas from the studio. Danny Thomas was one, Ernest Borgnine - it was a whole bunch of ideas. Even Carlo Ponti was suggested. And finally, I came down to - the thing about the character of that character was that, you know, you couldn't find anyone new, as we had done for all the other parts. Al Pacino was totally unknown. Johnny Cazale was - well - Bobby Duvall was (unintelligible)

So a lot of new people got big parts. But, like, a man who was supposed to be in his 60s couldn't be new and, like, had never been in anything before because what was he doing all those years? So finally, with my colleague in casting, Fred Roos, we said, well, who are the two greatest actors in the world? So we said, well, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. Each one had a difficulty for that part. Olivier was British. He was perfect age. He looked like one of the real guys, Genovese. And Brando was only 47 years old. He was extremely handsome as always. He had long, flowing blond hair. And most important, he had just been in some pictures notably won by the great Pontecorvo called "Burn!" That was a huge flop - tremendous financial flop.

So the studio felt that Brando was supposedly difficult to work with, sort of irresponsible, you know, would cause big delays. The film was only budgeted for $2.5 million. You have to understand. It wasn't like we could throw money around. And my decision to make it in the '40s and have period cars and shoot in New York was already impacting the cost. So that's one of the reasons why I was so unpopular.

But they also hated my casting ideas. They hated Al Pacino for the role of Michael. And they hated Marlon Brando for the role of the godfather. And I was told categorically by the president of Paramount. He says, Francis, as the president of Paramount Pictures, I tell you here and now, Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture. And I forbid you to bring it up again.

GROSS: But you won. How did you win?

COPPOLA: Well, when he said, I forbid you to bring it up again, I, like, feigned that I just fell on the floor on the carpet and, like - you know, as if, you know, what - and then I said, what am I supposed to do if you tell me I can't even discuss it? How can I be a director if I - if the part I think should be cast - that you won't even let me talk about it. And they said, all right. We'll tell you it this way.

One - if he will do the movie for free, two - if he will put up - if he'll do a screen test and three - if he'll put up a million-dollar bond that he will, in no way, have any misbehavior that causes the, you know, the overrun of the picture budget, then you can do it. So I said, I accept (laughter). You know, so at least they were saying if I did three things - have a screen test, if I could get him to do the movie for nothing and if I could have him put up a million dollars, which is absurd - but at least I said, I accept, meaning, OK, now I can talk about it.

GROSS: So did he do the movie for free?

COPPOLA: No. I called him up. And I said to Marlon, Marlon, you know, of course, this is an Italian-American, you know - wouldn't it be fun if we could, like, do a little experiment and kind of improv and see what playing an Italian might be like? That was my way to talk to an actor, essentially, asking for a screen test. But I didn't put it in those ways. And I knew that if I could do something with this little screen test that was convincing, the absurd idea of him doing it for nothing - although they didn't pay him much more than nothing. I think that paid him scale, which was an insult.

And obviously, putting up a bond to prevent misbehavior was - you know, sometimes, you know, you say you accept terms meaning that you just have a way to continue. So the important thing was to do some sort of a little screen test that I could get on tape and show to all these executives.

GROSS: So you played this kind of little trick. And he did improv on - or whatever - on film for you. What did he bring to that audition that he didn't realize was an audition?

COPPOLA: Well, I had always heard the rumor that Marlon Brando didn't like loud noises. And he always wore things in his ears. So I took a couple of my colleagues from San Francisco from this period of, you know, having new, young filmmakers all ethical. And I told them all to dress in black. And no one was to speak. We would do sign language. And so we descended on Marlon's house early in the morning. He wasn't up. And these dinges (ph) went to different corners and set up their cameras. And I also brought a whole bunch of, like, Italian sausage and little Italian cigars and provolone and little things. And I put them in dishes around, just - without even saying what I was doing.

And then the door opened. They said he was going to wake up. And the door opened and out came this beautiful man in a Japanese robe with flowing, blond hair. And we're shooting all of this. And he came out. And he didn't talk very much. He, you know, he's - Marlon was a brilliant man. And he just knew what was going on instantly. And he - I remember he came and he took his hair and he rolled it up and made it sort of like a bun in the back. And then he took shoe polish and he made - and he was mumbling the whole time. And he made the shoe polish and made his hair black. And then he put on the shirt that I had brought. And I remember him folding the lapel - those guys always - the lapel is always folded, he said. And right in front of my eyes with the - then he said, oh, he's shot in the throat in the story, (imitating the godfather) so he should talk like this - you know, his throat. And he started doing that.

And right in front of my eyes, he transformed himself into this character. And I couldn't believe it. And then he started picking up the sausage and eating it. And he just gravitated to the props and was using it to create a kind of Italian-ness the way he did it. And the whole time he was just going like this - he was going (imitating Marlon Brando). He wasn't saying anything, which was funny because his phone rang. This was his home. His phone rang, and he picked up the phone and went (unintelligible). I said, my God, who was it who called? What are they going to think? But when it was all done, I had this tape and it was quite remarkable.

GROSS: People were afraid in the studio that Brando would be hard to work with, and he would create problems. Did any of that happen?

COPPOLA: Yeah, not at all. He was a joy to work - you know, you don't talk a lot to Marlon. You sort of just give him - like, I would take a cat and put it in his hands. Or I would have some Italian props or, you know, you don't direct him by talking about acting. What he likes to hear is make it more angry, make it less angry, make it sweeter, you know. He doesn't want to have any acting kind of talk, but he knows, obviously, what he's doing.

And, you know, I had the blessing of having the cast together for about three days. So all of the actors - we got together. We had - the first thing we did was to have a dinner up in Patsy's restaurant around the table with Marlon sitting - when they all met him for the first time - sitting as the father, and Al to his right and Jimmy to his left and Bobby Duvall - my sister, Talia, was serving the Italian food. And they just did an improv together as a family. And when that was over, they were a family.

GROSS: Was it Brando's idea to stuff his cheeks so that he'd look really jowly?

COPPOLA: Yes, he said he wanted to look like a bulldog.

GROSS: So the studio didn't want you to cast Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone...

COPPOLA: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...And so how did you win that one?

COPPOLA: Well, the problem is that when - I had known Al a little bit before - so when I read "The Godfather" book as - I had him pictured in my mind. I saw him walking through Sicily with the two shepherds, with their shotguns. And I couldn't get that out of my mind. I couldn't see Ryan O'Neal, who is what Paramount's first choice was. And I couldn't see Bob Redford. And, of course, you know, it's true that the Sicilians are often blond and blue-eyed because of the French presence in Sicily for, you know, over a hundred years.

But I saw Al Pacino, and I just wouldn't give up on him. And I began to realize that, you know, that Bob Evans, who was the chief executive - and, you know, he was very tough on me. But I have to always say when I speak of Evans, he is not without talent. He definitely is a man with talent. It's just that he wanted, really, a Michael that was better looking, taller, a guy like him. I wanted Michael to be more like a southern Italian, more like me.

BIANCULLI: Francis Ford Coppola speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY PREVITE AND THE NEW BUMP'S "SHE HAS INFORMATION")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2016 interview with Francis Ford Coppola. He directed and co-wrote all three "Godfather" films. The original novel "The Godfather," written by Mario Puzo, was republished this week in a special 50th anniversary edition with Coppola providing a new introduction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So I want to ask you about the final scene of "The Godfather" where Michael basically draws the line between what's business and what's family. Kay wants to know if it's true that Michael killed Carlo, his brother-in-law, his sister's husband. And Michael says, you know, I'm not going to talk to you about business. There's a line between family and business. Then he tells her, just this once, I'll tell you - and he lies to her and says, no, I didn't kill him.

COPPOLA: But that's been set up throughout the movie if you even - even then the scene we discussed before, when he goes to ask her to marry her, he says, just this one time I'll tell you something. When he tells her the story about your brains or your signature on the contract, he always limits it that he's telling her these things because he loves her but that it will be the end of that, that she shouldn't ask him anymore. So at the end, you know, that is the final lie, and he closes the door on her.

GROSS: Exactly. I mean, literally, like, he walks into another room where there's a business meeting about to take place in their home.

COPPOLA: Well, it's the meeting of him becoming the godfather. They're kissing his hand just as the door is closed.

GROSS: Right. And somebody else comes over - one of his men comes over and shuts the door, basically shuts the door on her. So the last shot we see is of his wife getting shut out. And it's a really interesting place to end the movie. I don't think that's how the novel ends.

COPPOLA: No. The novel ends with a scene that, indeed, we did shoot, which is Kay going to church, lighting candles for him but...

GROSS: Hoping to save his soul.

COPPOLA: Yeah. You know, but because that thread of don't ask me about my family, don't ask me about my business, don't ask me, don't - I'll tell you this, but I'm not going to tell you anymore. He finally says to her, all right, I will answer this just one time. I will answer it, but then I will never again. And then - and she says, did you kill him? And he says, no. He lies to her. And then the door - and I just felt emotionally that when he - that door gets closed on her just as the other - what they call caporegimes are kissing his hand, that that was the ending and to go to her lighting candles was anticlimactical (ph). So I ended it there.

GROSS: And we're kind of like her 'cause she loved him and she believed in him. And we like him a lot at the beginning, I mean, in the sense that like, he's not part of the killing. He's not connected to the business. He slowly becomes part of it. And we have to keep asking ourselves, who is he becoming, throughout the film, and how do we feel about him?

COPPOLA: Well, I always, you know, when I make a movie, I always have to have a theme preferably in one word that I can get my - when I made "The Conversation," the theme was privacy. When I made "The Godfather," the theme was succession. And I taught my children to try to know what that big theme is because a lot - you have to answer so many questions every day, like should she have long hair or short hair; should she wear a dress or a skirt; should he have a car, or should it be a bicycle? And you know the answer, so you just fire them off. But once in a while, you don't know the answer. And that's when you say, well, what is the theme?

I remember in the conversation where we were picking sort of trench coats for the character that Gene Hackman - and I didn't know which one. I didn't want him to look too much like a detective. He wasn't really a detective. And then I said to myself, well, what's the theme? And I said privacy. So there was one coat that was a plastic coat that you could see through. So I chose that.

So your theme - in the case of "The Godfather" being succession, I would always know that as long as I was telling the story of the succession of - there was a king, and he had three sons. And one was very this, and one was very that and blah, blah, blah. I knew that what - what I was doing.

GROSS: Francis Ford Coppola, thank you so much for talking with us about "The Godfather." Thank you so much for making "The Godfather" and for insisting on the things that you wanted to make it as good as it is.

COPPOLA: Oh, thank you so much and for your wonderful program, which I have enjoyed throughout many years.

BIANCULLI: Director and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. He's written a new introduction for the 50th anniversary edition of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather," which was published this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) Michael, is it true?

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Don't ask me about my business, Kay.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) Is it true?

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Don't ask me about my business.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) No.

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) All right. This one time - this one time, I'll let you ask me about my affairs.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) Is it true?

PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) No.

KEATON: (As Kay Adams) I guess we both need a drink.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Michael Corleone.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the latest superhero movie from the Marvel Universe, "Captain Marvel." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.