The reluctant Godfather: why Brando ran scared of Mob rule

To adapt the famous line from
The Godfather, it should have been an offer he could not refuse. But, according to revelations that will surprise those who could not imagine Don Corleone any other way, Marlon Brando repeatedly turned down his Oscar-winning role as the the Don because of the film's Mafia theme.

To adapt the famous line from The Godfather, it should have been an offer he could not refuse. But, according to revelations that will surprise those who could not imagine Don Corleone any other way, Marlon Brando repeatedly turned down his Oscar-winning role as the the Don because of the film's Mafia theme.

Indeed, when an assistant suggested he read Mario Puzo's book, Brando threw it back saying: "It's about the Mafia. I won't glorify the Mafia," according to the actor's friend, Budd Schulberg. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Mr Schulberg, a writer, has thrown light on the lengthy and often tortured negotiations that led to Brando's agreement to play the iconic role.

Mr Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfont, another Brando classic, charts a series of increasingly desperate meetings with the director of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola. Having identified Brando as his ideal mafia boss, Coppola was forced to talk the actor into the part and then persuade a reluctant Robert Evans, the head of production at Paramount, that Brando was the right man for the job. On Evans' insistence, the great actor was forced to audition and do a screen test.

Apparently unconvinced he could portray a gangster, Brando used an eyebrow pencil to experiment with a variety of Mafia-style moustaches as he contemplated whether to take the role. "How do I look?" he asked his assistant Alice Marchak on one occasion.

"Like George Raft," responded Marchak, referring to an actor who often played gangsters on the big screen. Each time she went to see Brando, said Mr Schulberg, a new fake moustache was in place.

Playing a character 20 years his senior, Brando famously stuffed his cheeks with tissue paper to make himself look "like a bulldog," he later recalled. During the shoot he used "dental plumpers".

The tension apparently lifted once production was under way. Surpisingly, Brando turned out to be something of a practical joker on set and there are numerous stories of jokes pulled on co-stars during filming.

In a scene where he had to be carried on a stretcher, Brando secretly slipped weights into the canvas and four extras strained in vain to lift the frail Don Corleone, who now weighed more than 70 stone. The extras were replaced by four husky grips dressed in tuxedos. Muscles bulging, they hoisted the stretcher poles but the canvas bearing the Don sagged to tearing point. Brando reportedly climbed off the stretcher, weak with laughter.

In another scene, James Caan, who played Sonny Corleone, was filmed opening a door - only to find Brando bent over, trousers down, his buttocks aimed at the doorway.

A concluding "group moon" was achieved during the famous wedding scene when Brando, Caan, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall dropped their trousers and shorts in front of 500 Italian women who had been hired as extras.

Caan and Duvall later presented Brando with a silver belt buckle inscribed: "Mighty Moon Champion." The levity on set hardly detracted from the quality of one of the most popular films in American history.

Brando's performance won him the 1973 best actor Oscar, which he did not accept. Instead, he sent the fringe-and-deerskin clad Sacheen Littlefeather to the Academy Awards ceremony in his place to protest against the treatment of American Indians in film and on television.

Although his actions did not help his relations with the Academy, the award revived his career and he was nominated again the next year for his role in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris.

Don Corleone will be heard in a video game version of The Godfather for PlayStation2 and Xbox. Brando recorded his voice for the game six months before he died of lung cancer last July.

I COULDA BEEN...

* Richard Gere probably owes his career to John Travolta. Travolta turned down the title role in American Gigolo that eventually went to Gere and made him a star. Travolta did Gere another favour when he rejected the male lead in An Officer And A Gentleman that Gere took up and which confirmed his star status.

* Billy Wilder wanted Mae West for the role of the fading star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard but the actress, then 55, recoiled at the idea of playing a has-been. The role went to Gloria Swanson. Montgomery Clift was initially cast as the screenwriter Joe Gillis, but he left after two weeks' filming. Fred McMurray was offered it but turned it down and it finally went to William Holden.

* Peter Sellers benefited from Peter Ustinov rejecting the Inspector Clouseau role in The Pink Panther films; Julie Christie was magnificent in Dr Zhivago after Jane Fonda did not want to do it; Doris Day decided she did not want to play a seductive mother in The Graduate and Anne Bancroft took the job.

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