Francis Ford Coppola Used A Mafia Move To Escape Getting Fired From The Godfather

Late last year, we delved into a bit of Hollywood history and examined how director Francis Ford Coppola was nearly fired during the production of "The Godfather." The arrival of 2022 brings the 50th anniversary of "The Godfather" and a theatrical rerelease and 4K restoration of "cinema's most beloved masterpiece," as Paramount's new trailer calls it. Coppola is doing press to promote it, and he has again shared the story of watching the Oscars in 1971 with friend and fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Scorsese sought to comfort him after Coppola won a best original screenplay Oscar for "Patton" by telling him that the studio wouldn't be able to fire him yet from "The Godfather" because of that win.

In a new interview with Empire, Coppola explains, "That saved me, and each week something else saved me." He had to fight tooth and nail to get Marlon Brando cast as Vito Corleone, since the actor had a reputation for being difficult to work with and was coming off an unsuccessful box office run. Paramount would have preferred Ernest Borgnine, of all people, and they were initially unimpressed when they saw the first footage of Brando in character as the cotton-mouthed Vito. Coppola recalls:

"After Marlon's first day, the big rumor was I was going to get fired that week because people watching the film, running it, felt the scene was too dark, you could hardly see him, and that he mumbled. When I said, 'Give me a chance, it's his first day, let me go through a second take,' they said, 'No, you can't.' Then someone said, 'The reason they don't want you to do it is because this weekend they're going to put a new director in.' "

A Baptism of Fire (and Firings)

To survive the production of "The Godfather," Coppola ultimately took a cue from the move that Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) pulls during the film's famous baptism montage. Instead of having mob hitmen assassinate all his rivals, he simply set about terminating the employment of anyone who sought to undermine him to Paramount. As he puts it:

"I just immediately fired all the people who were in my team who were lobbying to get me out. I went up there and shot the scene [with Brando] a second time, and saved myself, basically, by firing all the people who were working to fire me. It was very much like that: it was touch-and-go the whole production. There was the perception that I had some power. But I really had no power at all."

While tension behind the scenes can sometimes help filmmakers produce great work, Coppola managed to helm the greatest movie sequel of all time under less precarious circumstances, job-wise. His favorite movie to film was actually "The Godfather Part II," and of that, he says:

"A lot of people have the theory that you do your best work when you're under tension. I don't think so. The Godfather Part II, I had a lot of power, and it was a bigger, more complicated and difficult film to do, and there was no one firing me because I was then powerful. I was the boss. That was one of the smoothest productions I ever worked on."

"The Godfather" will begin its 50th-anniversary engagement in select theaters on February 25, 2022, followed by a new 4K box set and digital release on March 22, 2022.