robert evans, francis coppola, and the godfather -- 6/24/22

Today's selection -- from The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life by Robert Evans. Robert Evans, head of the studio that produced The Godfather, recalls the circumstances that led to the movie:
"[Mario Puzo’s Godfather] novel turned into an explosion, instantly becoming the decade's number one run­away best-seller. For 10 Gs and change, I sat owning the rights to the Hope diamond of literature. There was one problem -- timing. With all its international success, Paramount distribution didn't want to make the picture. No way, fuckers -- not after Funny Girl.

"'Sicilian mobster films don't play' was distribution's bottom line.

"When you bat zero, don't make another sucker bet. The Brotherhood, a perfect example ... Kirk Douglas, an all-star cast, terrific reviews, no biz, not even a good first weekend.

"Making matters worse, one director after another turned it down. Am I losing my fuckin' mind? Here I sit controlling the biggest book in the world; everyone congratulating me on my coup, yet my company won't make it and I can't find a fuckin' maestro to direct. Richard Brooks, Costa-Gavras, Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn turned it down. 'Romanticiz­ing the Mafia is immoral' was their single voice.

"'Immoral? What about your agents? You deal with them every day.'

"I felt like a kid picking up a stone in the street that turns out to be an emerald, but you can't sell it because it's the wrong color that year.

"The coup de main came when Hecht, Hill, Lancaster offered me a million-dollar profit on our minuscule investment. Burt Lancaster desperately wanted to play the title role. His production company was riding high and because it was for Burt, money was no object. Worse, Paramount was determined to sell it to them.

"One evening, Peter Bart and I were pacing the floor.

"'Is it Stanley, you, or me, Peter? One of us must need a shower. Be­tween us, we can't get one director, not even a half-assed one to commit. Bluhdorn's right! This business is for lunatics!'

"Peter, being the more analytical, said, 'They're scared of it, Bob ... that simple. It's still a spaghetti gangster film. It's never worked yet.'

"'Get out the hook that lists every picture made in the last twenty years. Mark each one that has to do with the Organization -- Black Hand, The Purple Gang. Let's study them, see why they didn't work.' 

"'It'll depress you more.'

"'Peter, I can't get more depressed. They talked me out of Funny Girl. It's not gonna happen again.'

"Distribution was right. Except for a B-picture or two -- e.g., Rod Stei­ger in Al Capone -- every film about Sicilians and organized crime had one thing in common -- red ink.

"'We've got a problem,' Peter laughed.

"'I don't believe in problems -- I believe in solutions.'

"At two that morning, we found it. Outside of red ink, every one of the films shared another thing in common -- they were written, directed, and produced by -- and usually starred -- Jews, not Sicilians. For exam­ple, The Brotherhood came out the year before, directed by Marty Ritt, starring Kirk Douglas, Susan Strasberg, and Luther Adler, and died.

"'That's it, Peter. It may be bullshit, but it's the only defense we've got to get the picture made.' 

"We stayed at the studio all night and called Stanley at 6:00 A.M., L.A. time. We all agreed to the party line: bullshit or not, there's a reason that this genre film never worked. It must be ethnic to the core -- you must smell the spaghetti. That's what brought the magic to the novel -- it was written by an Italian. The film's going to be the same.

"There was one problem. In 1969 there wasn't a single Italian American director with any credibility to be found.

"'What about Francis Coppola?' 'Are you nuts, Peter? He's crazy!' 'Brilliant though,' snapped Bart.

"'That's your esoteric bullshit coming out. The guy's made three pic­tures: You're a Big Boy Now, artsy-fartsy ... no business, Finian's Rainbow, a top Broadway musical he made into a disaster, and The Rain People, which everyone rained on.'

"'It's Coppola or Lancaster,' Peter shot back.

"'There must be someone else .... There has to be.' There wasn't.

"'Let me see if I can sell it to Stanley. He's going to blow a gasket on this one.'

"I was wrong. He didn't. Rather, he was pragmatic. 'He fits the party line, you'll smell the spaghetti.'

"Stanley blocked the Hecht, Hill, Lancaster deal, convincing the New York distribution honchos that I wasn't crazy. He explained why The Godfather would be a first. Reluctantly, they bought it.

"There was one problem. Coppola didn't want to do it. He couldn't get a cartoon made in town, yet he didn't want to make The Godfather. To his credit, his convictions were strong in not wanting to immortalize the families that blackened his Italian heritage. Did he need a job? He owed more money around town than Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls.

"Time was not on our side. Without an Italian director in place, the corporate hierarchy was more than anxious to embrace the Hecht, Hill, Lancaster deal. Here I am, on my knees begging this director who had made three features, all flops, to please, please put The Godfather on screen.

"Three days of discussions later, Peter came into my office.

"'Coppola will make the picture on one condition -- that it's not a film about organized gangsters, but a family chronicle. A metaphor for capitalism in America.'

"'Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. Is he nuts?' 'Doesn't matter. He's Italian.' 

"With fewer than forty-eight hours to make a decision -- Hecht, Hill, Lancaster, or shake hands with the devil -- Coppola was announced as The Godfather's maestro.

"Less than an hour later, Dick Zanuck, who was then head of Twen­tieth Century-Fox, was on the horn. 'If you go with Coppola, you'll be testing for matador parts soon. Do it in animation -- you've got a better chance.' He laughed.

"Minutes later, John Calley, at that time head of Warner Brothers, was on the horn. 'Don't use him, Bob. Corporately, I shouldn't say it. His company owes us $600,000. Whatever money you pay him goes di­rectly to us. Chalk this up as a chit for Catch-22.' Calley had produced the Nichols film, which was far from a platinum success, for Paramount on my insistence.

"Nevertheless, by default, Francis Coppola was handed the baton lo orchestrate cinema history.
"Auguste Rodin molding clay with his hands did not have the agility of Francis's brain when it came to seduction. Whether personal or professional, his persuasive powers made Elmer Gantry look like Don Knotts. Till this day, I doubt whether his own wife really knows who he is."



Robert Evans


The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life


New Millennium Press in 2003


Copyright 2013, 1994 by Robert Evans


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