marlon brando on acting in the godfather -- 6/14/19

Today's selection -- from Hollywood Godfather by Gianni Russo. Marlon Brando on acting, as related by Gianni Russo, who played the character of Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather:

"Brando had a personal makeup man for years who traveled with him from picture to picture. The actor was in the chair between three and four hours a day, getting made up to look like an old man for the role of Don Corleone (Brando was only forty-seven years old when the picture was shot). During these makeup sessions, he'd have me sit next to him and he'd coach me in the fine art of acting, stressing the nuances in scenes that made a performance memorable.

'"Let me give you an example,' he said. 'When we did the scene where Don Corleone is in his office the day of the wedding, and he's doing favors for people, catching up on business, I asked for a cat and a fish tank to be included in the scene. You know why?'

"Don Corleone has a cat on his lap when he's talking business, and there's a clear shot of the fish tank. Brando had to put catnip in his pocket to keep the cat from jumping off his lap.

"'Tell me,' I said.

"'Because' -- he paused for effect -- 'it makes the f**king don human!' I didn't want everyone to think he was a heartless killer. How can you dislike someone who keeps fish, and strokes a cat on his lap? The first rule of writing: Make the protagonist likable, even if only slightly. Did you know Hitler loved dogs? There's some good even in the evil­est of people.

"'You've got to show emotion. You've got to show fear,' he said.

"'You've got to do what a real person would do under the same circum­stances. Go off script if you have to.'

"Brando gave me excellent pointers in the pivotal scene near the end of the picture when Michael confronts Carlo with his duplicity, which resulted in his brother, Sonny, being killed.

"Brando was present during that scene, just out of camera range. He had a tough time showing up on time for his own scenes, and would normally take off when he was finished shooting, but he arrived on time that day to make sure I gave my most effective performance in that crucial scene.

"'When Michael accuses you of being a traitor,' Brando told me just before the shoot, 'you need to convey genuine fear. Think of something that scares you. And Carlo needs hope -- he thinks he's gonna die, right?'

"'Yeah, right,' I said.

"'Okay, so when Michael tells you your punishment for betraying the family is banishment to Las Vegas and he hands you a plane ticket, you've gotta glance at the ticket. This is important. You're looking to make sure the ticket is real. You see that it is ... you have hope. Your mood elevates a little.'

"I was taking all this in, hoping I wouldn't screw any of it up, par­ticularly with Brando a few feet away, watching me.

"We took our places; the cameras began to roll. I am on the phone when Michael walks in. He tells me to hang up the phone. I detached myself from the moment and thought of the most terrifying time in my life ... when I was taken to the Bellevue polio ward as a kid.

"Michael sees Carlo is scared. The script called for him to go into accusation mode, but Pacino departed from the script and offered Carlo a drink to 'calm your nerves.' He was playing to the effective­ness of my fear and thought offering Carlo a cocktail would calm him down and make him think he was safe."



Gianni Russo


Hollywood Godfather: My Life in the Movies and the Mob


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2019 by Gianni Russo


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