I don’t know about you but I love to play the game of “What if.” You know how it works. What if so-and-so had directed such-and-such movie? Would we still love that movie as much? Would so-and-so be a star today? Or would the movie have failed because the director was right to reject so-and-so during preproduction?
I guess that’s why I love the picture below. Taken from one of Francis Ford Coppola’s notebooks, it’s a page where he jotted down a few possibilities to play the roles of Don Vito, Michael, Sonny, and Tom Hagen in The Godfather. It’s a fascinating collection of names, some of which are very familiar and some of which most definitely are not. As I look at this list, it’s hard not wonder what if someone like Scott Marlowe had played Michael Corleone? Would he had then become known as one of the great actors of his generation and would Al Pacino then be fated to just be an unknown name sitting on a famous list?
(This page, just in case you happen to be in the neighborhood , is displayed at the Coppola Winery in California.)
The production of the Godfather — from the casting to the final edit — is something of an obsession of mine. It’s amazing the amount of names — obscure, famous, and infamous — that were mentioned in connection with this film. Below is a list of everyone that I’ve seen mentioned as either a potential director or a potential cast member of The Godfather. Consider this my contribution to the game of What If….?
Director: Aram Avankian, Peter Bogdonavich, Richard Brooks, Costa-Gravas, Sidney J. Furie, Norman Jewison, Elia Kazan, Steve Kestin, Sergio Leone, Arthur Penn, Otto Preminger, Franklin J. Schaffner, Peter Yates, Fred Zinnemann
Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando): Melvin Belli, Ernest Borgnine, Joseph Callelia, Lee. J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Frank De Kova, Burt Lancaster, John Marley, Laurence Olivier, Carlo Ponti, Anthony Quinn, Edward G. Robinson, George C. Scott, Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger, Danny Thomas, Raf Vallone, Orson Welles
Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino): John Aprea, Warren Beatty, Robert Blake, Charles Bronson*, James Caan, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Alain Delon, Peter Fonda, Art Genovese, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Tony Lo Bianco, Michael Margotta, Scott Marlowe, Sal Mineo, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Parks, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Richard Romanus, Gianni Russo, Martin Sheen, Rod Steiger**, Dean Stockwell
Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan): Lou Antonio, Paul Banteo, Robert Blake, John Brascia, Carmine Caridi, Robert De Niro, Peter Falk, Harry Guardino, Ben Gazzara, Don Gordon, Al Letteiri, Tony LoBianco, Scott Marlowe, Tony Musante, Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds***, Adam Roarke, Gianni Russo, John Saxon, Johnny Sette, Rudy Solari, Robert Viharo, Anthony Zerbe
Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall): James Caan, John Cassavettes, Bruce Dern, Peter Donat, Keir Dullea, Peter Falk, Steve McQueen, Richard Mulligan, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Ben Piazza, Barry Primus, Martin Sheen, Dean Stockwell, Roy Thinnes, Rudy Vallee****, Robert Vaughn, Jerry Van Dyke, Anthony Zerbe
Kay Adams (played by Diane Keaton): Anne Archer, Karen Black, Susan Blakeley, Genevieve Bujold, Jill Clayburgh, Blythe Danner, Mia Farrow, Veronica Hamel, Ali MacGraw, Jennifer O’Neill, Michelle Phillips, Jennifer Salt, Cybill Shepherd, Trish Van Devere
Fredo Corleone (played by John Cazale): Robert Blake, Richard Dreyfuss, Sal Mineo, Austin Pendleton
Connie Corleone (played by Talia Shire): Julie Gregg, Penny Marshall, Maria Tucci, Brenda Vaccaro, Kathleen Widdoes
Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino): Frankie Avalon, Vic Damone*****, Eddie Fisher, Buddy Greco, Bobby Vinton, Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Carlo Rizzi (played by Gianni Russo): Robert De Niro, Alex Karras, John Ryan******, Sylvester Stallone
Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (played by Al Letteiri): Franco Nero
Lucas Brasi (played by Lenny Montana): Timothy Carey, Richard Castellano
Moe Greene (played by Alex Rocco): William Devane
Mama Corleone (played by Morgana King): Anne Bancroft, Alida Valli
Appollonia (played by Simonetta Steffanelli): Olivia Hussey
Paulie Gatto (played by John Martino): Robert De Niro*******, Sylvester Stallone
* Charles Bronson, who was in his mid-40s, was suggested for the role of Michael by the then-chairman of Paramount Pictures, Charlie Bluhdorn.
** By all accounts, Rod Steiger – who was then close to 50 – lobbied very hard to be given the role of Michael Corleone.
*** Some sources claim that Burt Reynolds was cast as Sonny but Brando refused to work with him. However, for a lot of reasons, I think this is just an cinematic urban legend.
**** Despite being in his 60s at the time, singer Rudy Vallee lobbied for the role of the 35 year-old Tom Hagen. Supposedly, another singer — Elvis Presley — lobbied for the role as well but that just seems so out there that I couldn’t bring myself to include it with the “official” list.
***** Vic Damone was originally cast as Johnny Fontane but dropped out once shooting began and announced that the project was bad for Italian Americans. He was replaced by Al Martino.
****** John P. Ryan was originally cast as Carlo Rizzi but was fired and replaced with Gianni Russo. Ryan went on to play the distraught father in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive. Russo went on to co-star in Laserblast.
******* Robert De Niro was originally cast in this role but dropped out to replace Al Pacino in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Pacino, incidentally, had to drop out of that film because he was given the role of Michael in The Godfather.