When character actor Richard Castellano (Clemenza), orders his henchmen to whack Paulie Gatto in the parked car, he said the words, “Leave the gun,” and was then struck with an inspired improv and added, “Take the cannoli.” The Godfather has supplied many quotable lines, and that is surely one of them.
The Godfather, which succeeded in usurping Citizen Kane from the list of Best Movies of All Time, had production woes, sure, but some iconic dialog wasn’t scripted. It came out of nowhere and has taken an honored place in American lexicon. Like Bada-Bing.
A famous word pairing, this phrase landed in the English language like a grenade with the pin pulled. Bada-Bing “became a mantra for mobsters,” and even had a fictitious mob hangout named after it in The Sopranos. In an interview with Mark Seal for a Vanity Fair article (March 2009), Jimmy Caan ( Sonny Corleone), revealed that, although he had Sonny’s character down pat with the strut and how gangsters were always touching themselves, because “I grew up in the neighborhood,” he was stuck on a scene with Brando, the one where Sonny was to interrupt the Don during a meeting with Sollozzo. Then, says Caan, he began to recall characteristics of his “say-anything, do-anything” friend, Don Rickles.
Next day, he nailed the scene with a “rapid-fire, Don-Rickles-meets-the-mob bravado that elevated his character to a whole new level. Then a phrase was delivered to him straight from improvisational heaven. It popped into his mouth as he mocked Michael,” after Michael says he wants to kill rival mobster Sollozzo and corrupt-cop McClusky. Sonny says, ‘What do you think this, the army, where you shoot ‘em a mile away? You gotta get up close, like this – and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.’ “Bada-bing? Bada-boom? I said that, didn’t I? Or did I just say ‘bada-bing’?” asks Caan. “It just came out of my mouth – I don’t know from where.” Many unscripted classics from The Godfather weren’t always dialog.
When pop singer Al Martino, an inexperienced actor, plays pop singer Johnny Fontane, whining about the role a Hollywood producer won’t give him, Brando barks “You can act like a man!” In a spontaneous effort to get some expression out of Al Martino, Brando extemporaneously slaps him across the face. “Martino didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” says James Caan.
Sources have said that when director Francis Ford Coppola placed a stray cat on the Don’s lap because he knew Brando improvised best with props, Brando began to gently stroke the cat. The dialog had to be redubbed because the cat’s purring was so loud, it could be heard on the soundtrack.
One of the most beloved characters in the movie, Luca Brasi, was played by world wrestling champion, Lenny Montana, the six-foot-six-inch, 320-pound moonlighting bodyguard of a real-life young don who came around one day to see Godfather producer (and all-around mob buddy), Al Ruddy. He was perfect for the part. “Luca Brasi rehearsing his wedding wishes for Don Corleone as he waits outside the Don’s office is actually Lenny Montana rehearsing his lines, and his classic, stammering homage to the Don (“And I hope that their first child be a masculine child”) is actually the result of the wrestler’s blowing his lines,” says Vanity Fair.
Caan recalls that Sonny’s rage confronting the feds at Connie’s wedding was pure instinct. “When I grabbed that poor extra as he took the picture, the guy must’ve had a heart attack. None of that was scripted. Then I remembered my neighborhood, where guys could do anything as long as they paid for it afterwards. I had this guy choked. Luckily, Richie (Castellano) grabbed me. Then I took out a 20, threw it on the ground, and walked off.”
Andrew Yule’s book, Al Pacino: A Life on the Wire, reports that Brando showed up for Pacino’s first scene with Diane Keaton, and stood by the camera while Coppola took the two actors through their paces. During the take, without breaking pace, Pacino tossed away a leaf that had fallen from a tree onto his shoulder. “I liked what you did with that leaf,” Brando told him. Pacino and Keaton went out and got drunk on the strength of that comment.
Brando, revered by colleagues, very nearly did not land the role of Don Corleone. Even though Mario Puzo had only him in mind when writing The Godfather novel believing he was “the only actor who can play the part with that quiet force and irony the part requires,” the studio wanted anyone BUT Brando. Peter Manso’s bio, Brando, reports that his getting the part was strictly due to Coppola, whose obsession with signing Brando despite Paramount’s absolute refusal, caused him to argue with studio president, Stanley Jaffe. Brando, Coppola said, would attract other actors to the cast, and he was the only actor up to the part. When these arguments failed, Coppola fell to the floor, apparently so distraught by Jaffe’s refusal that he collapsed, hyperventilating as he clutched his stomach, writhing. Dumbstruck, Jaffe agreed to casting Brando, with conditions, all of which were met.
The late John Cazale, who was once engaged to Meryl Streep, won the role of Fredo after Coppola saw him in an off-Broadway play, Richard Castellano (Clemenza) was also a stage actor, as was Abe Vigoda (Tessio) who said “I’m really not a Mafia person.” Caan had been tested for the role of consigliere Tom Hagen, which went to Robert Duvall, whose previous acting had been largely in television. Caan had already been cast as Michael with Carmine Caridi as Sonny, but when Pacino came aboard as Michael, Caridi was too tall at six-foot-four, to play against Pacino’s five-foot seven.
Puzo and Coppola became fast friends while working on The Godfather script together. Says Coppola, “… when I put a line in the script describing how to make sauce and wrote, ‘First you brown some garlic,’ he scratched that out and wrote, ‘First you fry some garlic. Gangsters don’t brown.’”
People were fired and rehired, there were mob threats (“shut down the movie or else”), and internecine struggles (“I’m not using Caan” screamed Coppola. “I’m not using Pacino” shouted producer Robert Evans), but nothing derailed The Godfather, not even Frank Sinatra’s threat to break Mario Puzo’s legs.
The Godfather was, in the words of Robert Evans, “a film so authentic the audience would smell the spaghetti,” and “the best picture ever made.” With improvisations, it is Masterpiece.