This Memorable Godfather Moment Almost Didn't Happen

One of the key pieces of the opening scene from Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 film "The Godfather" is the cat that sits on Vito "Don" Corleone's lap for the first few minutes. Apart from being some of the best minutes in cinema history and containing some of the film's most quoted lines, that scene and the image of the cat on the Don's lap is forever burned into my mind — and probably most who've seen it. It paints a portrait of power and reverence that weighs over the film long after Vito exits the story, while the cat juxtaposes the Godfather's formidable power alongside his generosity.

It's no surprise that the imposing image of the Don holding the cat as he negotiates Bonasera's request for justice has led to endless recreations by other filmmakers to the point that it's become pretty much a trope for villainous kingpins. But despite how instantly iconic the image of the cat might be, its very presence on set was pure chance, while its placement in the script was nonexistent.

The Stray Cat Coppola Made a Star

The first shot of the Don holding his feline companion is a disarming one, as it undermines any assumptions of appearance you might've had for the leader of the Corleone crime family. But the cat, which gives audiences an image of a Godfather both intimidating and hospitable, was never supposed to be there. Coppola later said of the scene, per Time Magazine.

"The cat in Marlon's hands was not planned for. I saw the cat running around the studio, and took it and put it in his hands without a word."

Coppola's decision to give Brando the cat transforms an already captivating scene into something indelible. Without it, the Don would've appeared stiff and rigid behind his desk, and Coppola would've missed a brilliant opportunity to reveal more about this complex and magnetic character. It helps that Brando was himself a cat lover, sparking immediate chemistry between the two — unfortunately the animal showed its affection by purring so loudly it ruined all of the actor's dialogue. It was so bad that subtitles were nearly considered until editors managed to loop re-recorded lines over the scene, ensuring this very famous feline was an asset to the film rather than an accidental fiasco.

The Cat Symbolizes the Don's Strategy

Apart from lending a human warmth to Brando's Godfather, the cat also points to his overall strategy as the cunning leader of the Corleone family. As Vito plays with the cat, he leverages Bonasera's desperation for justice over the assault of his daughter to gain a loyal ally. Could the scene have existed without the cat? Possibly, but while the cat's inception might've been random, its presence on his lap isn't just an aimless idiosyncrasy. Instead, the cat has become symbolic of the Don's personality and way of thinking, especially his desire to make indebted friends over bitter enemies. Instead of bullying Bonasera into loyalty, he empathizes with his misplaced faith in American laws and justice. But at no point does the Don forget to remind his subjects who is in total control. Such is the case when he pulls the cat off his lap, as he does to Bonasera when he rejects his request for justice until he calls him "Godfather." The Godfather giveth, and the Godfather taketh away. We're just glad he kept the cat!

The Cat Wasn't the Only Innovation

Coppola tossing a studio stray on his lead actor's lap wasn't the only moment of ingenuity to happen on-set. For his enthralling, slow-zoom opening shot the director used a computerized lens to focus on Bonasera's darkened face, building the momentous tension that finds climax in its full body cut to the Don and his cat. The difficult but stunning shot relegates the other men in the room to little more than background furniture as those opening moments of the film focus on only a small group of characters onscreen: Bonasera, Vito, and the cat.

Had Coppola opted for a different opening, like the outdoor overhead shot of the wedding he originally had planned, much of the ambiguity and mystique fostered by the close-up would've been weakened. Instead, the elongated shot keeps an intense spotlight on Bonasera's emotions, while also building this nervous anticipation for the appearance of the Godfather and the reveal of the now-famous cat.