The Godfather Scene You Might Not Know Was Improvised

"The Godfather" is a movie that is so richly layered, thoughtfully structured and expertly performed that it has a feeling of verisimilitude in every frame. Though painstakingly scripted by Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola, the film rarely feels staged or stilted. The most authentically chaotic sequence in the film is undoubtedly the opening scenes depicting the wedding of Connie Corleone (Talia Shire) to Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), during which the whole Corleone clan celebrate on their New York City grounds while Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) entertains requests from his family members and business associates.

Of course, the Corleone's are a crime family, a powerful Mafia organization who are under constant scrutiny and observation by the authorities. It's within this hotbed of celebration, observation, and barely-restrained tension that one of the film's famous moments occurs courtesy of the elder Corleone son, Sonny (James Caan). It's a moment that feels utterly authentic — but, as it turns out, was unscripted, and completely improvised by Caan.

Sonny makes an offer(ing) that can't be refused

At one point during Connie's wedding, Sonny Corleone is tipped off that some suspicious characters are parked outside the gates of the Corleone home. Going to investigate, the quick-to-anger Sonny starts to pick a fight with one of these people, only for the man to flash his badge, revealing they're federal agents. "Goddamn FBI don't respect nothin'," Sonny says as he walks back toward the wedding, seeing another agent taking pictures of the event with his camera. Sonny violently grabs the camera and smashes it on the ground, thinks about it for a moment, then swiftly removes two bills from his pocket and tosses them next to the destroyed camera.

As Caan explained to interviewer Ben Mankiewicz on CBS Sunday Morning, the altercation was actually improvised by the actor. "I grabbed that camera and I smashed that camera," Caan said, detailing how in the moment and in character he "realized that in my neighborhood I did wrong, and I took out $20 and threw it on the street." Although unscripted, it's clear why Coppola made sure to include the scene in the film's final edit: the scene not only establishes Sonny's temper, but perfectly illustrates the crime family's code of honor in paying their debts and asking for forgiveness instead of permission. It is because of these ethics and his temper that Sonny meets his ultimate fate later in the film.

The importance of improvisation, food, and ... Don Rickles?!

Caan's act of improvisation was far from the only one of its type in the making of "The Godfather." Allowing the cast to improvise and inhabit their characters was a key aspect of Coppola's ethos in making the movie. In fact, the director encouraged improv right from the rehearsal process, during which he gathered the actors and had them play their characters while having a meal together. Such rehearsals helped lead to a number of improvised moments in the film, including some of the movie's classic lines.

The cast's encouragement by Coppola to explore their characters led to further discoveries. In Caan's case, he took inspiration not from other tough-guy actors or real-life gangsters but from comedian Don Rickles. As Caan elaborates, "It wasn't imitating Don Rickles. It was having that drive, that thing, you know?" Sure enough, while Caan never breaks into stand-up routines during the film, he manages to capture a certain charm and sense of humor that gives Sonny more dimension as a character, making him more than just a brute with anger management issues. It's part of why that improvised camera smash is so memorable, and why "The Godfather" and its characters are still so beloved 50 years on.