Back in 1972, Paramount Pictures was wobbling.
It had made three big-budget musicals, but not the good ones … and three Neil Simon comedies, but not the funny ones … and some youth-oriented films, but not the famous ones. It had scored with “Love Story,” flopped with others and needed a break; it got it with “The Godfather.”
And a half-century later? The Paramount+ streaming service and cable’s Paramount Network have had modest starts. One solution – again – is “The Godfather.” On Thursday, Paramount+ starts “The Offer” (shown here) a 10-part mini-series about the making of the film; that weekend, the cable network has both the film and its sequel – 7 and 11 p.m. Saturday, 4 and 7:45 p.m. Sunday
“I watched (‘The Godfather’) before I was a teenager and it deeply affected me,” Juno Temple, one of the “Offer” stars, told the Television Critics Association. “I have such a romanticism of Hollywood’s past.”
Both “Godfather” and its sequel won Academy Awards for best-picture – Paramount’s first such wins in 20 years. Both made the American Film Institute’s all-time best-movie list – “Godfather” at No. 2 (trailing only “Citizen Kane”) and “The Godfather Part II” at No. 32 (the only sequel on the 100-film list).
Yet both faced doubts from studio executives and criticism from Italian-American groups. “The only story I knew about making ‘The Godfather’ was that (writer) Mario Puzo got into a fight with Frank Sinatra at Chasen’s (the Hollywood restaurant),” said Michael Tolkin, who wrote the “Offer” scripts. “So I had five minutes in the show written, and I just needed another nine hours and 55 minutes.”
There are plenty of other stories, focusing on “Godfather” producer Al Ruddy.
He was an engineer and architect who happened into show business. He produced a successful TV series (“Hogan’s Heroes”) and two unsuccessful movies (“Little Fauss and Big Halsy,” “Making It”), but had a reputation for getting things done on time and under budget. He wasn’t a Hollywood type; Robert Evans, the Paramount studio chief, was.
Evans was a former actor – he played the handsome bullfighter in “The Sun Also Rises” – who dated Hollywood beauties; his seven marriages included Ali MacGraw, Phyllis George and Catherine Oxenberg. Some people called him an egotistical jerk, but Mathew Goode, who plays him (shown here) in “The Offer,” says that’s not what he heard from old-timers. “Most of those people would (say), ‘He was the nicest, he was the kindest, he was the most generous.’”
A Paramount literary scout had read the start of Puzo’s novel and suggested the company buy it. It paid $12.500 for the option – enough to pay off Puzo’s $10,000 gambling debt, Evans later said – and $80,000 if the film was made.
Then the novel sold a million copies. Evans chose Ruddy, who had given a good interview, as the producer. He also suggested the director be Italian-American … but when Sergio Leone turned it down, the ideas shifted to Peter Bogdanovich, Costa-Gavras, Peter Yates, Arthur Penn, Richard Brooks and Otto Preminger … before reaching a young Italian-American who needed the job.
Fresh from film school, Francis Coppola had worked for budget-movie producer Roger Corman, making “Dementia 13” (1962) for $22,000. He followed with standard films – a comedy (“You’re a Big Boy Now,” 1966), an exceptionally good musical (“Finian’s Rainbow,” 1968) and a drama with newcomer James Caan (“The Rain People,” 1969). Then he set a Warner Brothers deal to make modest-budget, youth-oriented films.
The first was George Lucas’ “THX 1138” – which the studio hated. “Warner’s decided not to finance any more youth-oriented, adventurous, crazy movies ….They sold us completely down the river,” Lucas told one interviewer.
Out of work and out of money, Coppola turned down “Godfather,” then accepted it, then threw himself into the project. He and Puzo (paid an extra $100,000 for this) wrote separate scripts, then merged them together. Coppola offered a rich sense of ethnic tradition; Puzo added Mob specifics. “American values – family, free enterprise, patriotism – became totally twisted,” director Martin Scorsese wrote in “A Personal Journey” (Miramax Books, 1997). “Even individualism was dead. The organization was a state within a state.”
That notion brought efforts by Italian-Americans to stop “The Godfather.” Meanwhile, Coppola did cast some non-Italians (led by Caan and Robert Duvall), but wanted Italians in the key spots. For the title role, the studio suggested Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, Anthony Quinn, Orson Welles and, especially, Ernest Borgnine; Coppola insisted on Marlon Brando. For Michael, the studio wanted Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Dustin Hoffman or Burt Reynolds; he cast Caan … then moved him to another role and cast newcomer Al Pacino. (Coppola also cast Robert De Niro in support, but De Niro left to do the movie Pacino was abandoning; he would be back for the sequel.)
On a tidy, $6.5 million budget, Coppola made a film with his ambitious approach. “His style is operatic,” Jeanine Basinger wrote in “American Cinema” (Rizzoli, 1994), but his films, “although epic in sweep, are personal in point of view.”
As “Godfather” grew in esteem, Evans boasted about it and talked about having edited it. In a telegram, Coppola called that “ridiculous pomposity. You did nothing on ‘The Godfather’ other than annoy me and slow me down.”
Smoothing everyone were Ruddy (played by Miles Teller) and his assistant. Bettye McCartt (Temple) was skillful at “navigating her way in Hollywood, in a man’s world,” producer Nikki Toscano said, and in guiding Ruddy.
In the half-century since then, Ruddy has remained a Hollywood producer, trying difficult projects – an Ayn Rand film and a James Bond TV series never got made – and simple ones, from “Cannonball Run” to TV’s “Walker, Texas Ranger.” In 2004, Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” brought Ruddy his second best-picture Oscar.
There will be more Ruddy films, Teller said. “When I met him, he was like, ‘Listen, kid, if playing the part of Al Ruddy doesn’t work out, I’ve got two other projects I think you’d be perfect for.’”