16 June 2024

I think you’re the only actor who can play the Godfather

Published in 1969, Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather tells the story of the (fictional) Corleone mafia family, headed by patriarch Vito Corleone. The book covers the years 1945 until 1955, with its main storyline following son Michael who eventually succeeds his father as head of the mafia clan. Puzo's novel became a huge success, remaining on The New York Times bestseller list for 67 weeks and selling more than nine million copies in just two years. 

Before Mario Puzo had even finished his novel, Paramount Pictures bought the film rights for $80,000, on the basis of a 60-page treatment. To direct the film, Paramount hired Francis Ford Coppola after several other directors had declined (including Sergio Leone, Peter Bogdanovich and Otto Preminger). Coppola would work on the script with author Puzo, the latter hired by the studio in April 1970. They worked on the script separately, Puzo in Los Angeles and Coppola in San Francisco. While writing their respective screenplays, the men kept in touch with each other, their combined efforts ultimately resulting in a completed script in March 1971.

From the start, even before he was hired by Paramount to work on the picture, Puzo already knew who should portray the family's patriarch Marlon Brando. (Brando was also Coppola's first choice.) In order to entice Brando to play the role, on 23 January 1970 Puzo wrote him the following letter.

Source: Gotta Have Rock and Roll


Jan 23

Dear Mr Brando

I wrote a book called THE GODFATHER which has had some success and I think you’re the only actor who can play the part Godfather with that quiet force and irony (the book is an ironical comment on American society) the part requires. I hope you’ll read the book and like it well enough to use whatever power you can to get the role.

I’m writing Paramount to the same effect for whatever good that will do.

I know this was presumptuous of me but the least I can do for the book is try. I really think you’d be tremendous. Needless to say I’ve been an admirer of your art.

Mario Puzo

A mutual friend, Jeff Brown, gave me your address


Brando was not interested in the role despite Puzo's letter. The actor later said in his autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994): "Alice Marchak [Brando's secretary] remembers my throwing [Puzo's letter] away and saying, "I'm not a Mafia godfather". I had never played an Italian before, and I didn't think I could do it successfully. By then I had learned that one of the biggest mistakes an actor can make is to try to play a role for which he is miscast .... But Alice took the book home, read it and said she thought I should take the part if it was offered me. She didn't change my mind, though I did call Mario without having read the book and thanked him for his note.

While working on the screenplay, Puzo called Brando every now and then, pleading with him to reconsider his decision. Puzo was also lobbying at Paramount on Brando's behalf (without the actor's knowledge) but his attempts proved futile. The studio didn't want Brando for the role, partly due to his notorious bad behaviour on set and his recent box-office failures. Paramount's preferred choice was reportedly Orson Welles, and other actors who were being considered include Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quinn and Ernest Borgnine. Unable to make the Paramount executives change their minds, Puzo typed this letter to Brando in March 1970.

Source: RR Auction
Mario Puzo and Marlon Brando on the set of The Godfather, pictured here with Red Buttons (left). (Buttons and Brando had become good friends after co-starring in the 1957 Sayonara.)

In the end, after reading both the novel and the screenplay, Brando decided he wanted to play Don Corleone after all. Paramount finally regarded him as a serious option but wanted to do a screen test first. Afraid that a test would offend Brando, Coppola thought of a way to do one secretly. He visited Brando at his home with a video camera and told him, after first having discussed the role, that he wanted to test some things on tape. With Kleenex stuffed in his cheeks and shoe polish in his hair, Brando then did his interpretation of Don Corleone for Coppola, not realising he was being screentested. The footage impressed Paramount and they finally agreed to Brando playing the role. Brando was cast in January 1971, just a few months before production was to start. His performance turned out to be one of the most iconic of his career, earning him the Oscar for Best Actor (which he famously declined).

The Godfather (1972) was a huge success, both with critics and audiences. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture (Albert S. Ruddy), Best Actor (Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Puzo and Coppola). It was followed by two sequels, The Godfather Part II (1974) and The Godfather Part III (1990). Brando appeared only in the first Godfather film. 

On the set of The Godfather with director Francis Ford Coppola (left), Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, the latter playing the role of Vito Corleone's youngest son, Michael.


  1. I'm a huge fan of The Godfather (both the film and the book), so I ate up your post like it was a bowl of sweet grapes. (Or juicy orange slices, as the case may be.) I was intrigued by Puzo's first letter -- I'm usually good at deciphering handwriting, but -- yikes! -- not in his case! So I got a chuckle out of his second letter being typed -- and that Brando had gone from Mr. Brando to Marlon. Loved learning all this behind-the-scenes info. Really good stuff!

    - Karen

    1. Thanks, Karen :-) I found the transcript to Puzo's letter online, so luckily I didn't have to decipher it myself. Terrible handwriting indeed!