On its 50th Anniversary, The Godfather is one of the most influential and respected films in Hollywood history. But that outcome didn't seem likely at its premiere.



And now, let us make you an offer you can't refuse - a look back 50 years to the premiere of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." Regarded today as a gunshot-riddled masterpiece, it marked a major change from earlier gangster epics, and critic Bob Mondello says it caused major changes in Hollywood.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It was a bridge between worlds - old Hollywood meets new.


MONDELLO: The movie industry had just been through a rough decade - television stealing its audience, grand old movie palaces torn down for parking lots, low-budget indies like "Easy Rider" making bigger splashes than studio epics. And in the middle of all that, along comes this kid named Coppola with a gangster flick.


JAMES CAAN: (As Sonny) What the hell is this?

RICHARD CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) It's a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.

MONDELLO: The 32-year-old filmmaker had initially turned the job down. He'd just co-founded American Zoetrope with George Lucas so he could avoid big Hollywood projects and make personal films. But Zoetrope needed cash, so Coppola bit the bullet, as it were, and then immediately alarmed studio execs by insisting on casting Marlon Brando, who at 47, though still a star, was thought to be past his prime.


MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) In a month from now, this Hollywood big shot's going to give you what you want.

AL MARTINO: (As Johnny Fontane) It's too late. They start shooting in a week.

BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.

MONDELLO: The big shots at Paramount Pictures had also been less than excited at first, but once committed, they knew how to whip up a public relations frenzy, especially after Italian American groups got headlines with a Madison Square Garden rally protesting what they predicted would be ethnic slurs...


MONDELLO: ...And glorification of the mafia.


CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

MONDELLO: These were the days when prestige films premiered with months-long roadshow engagements in big cities - exclusive runs with reserved seats - before playing neighborhood theaters at popular prices. "The Godfather," at almost three hours, could certainly have gone that route and indeed its klieg-light charity gala on March 14, 1972, was at the Manhattan movie palace that had hosted the premiere engagement of "Ben-Hur" for 74 weeks.


MONDELLO: Though the once 3,000-seat Loew's State had recently been remodeled as Loew's State I and II, even cut in half, it was a fabulous house that "Godfather" could have filled indefinitely before letting other theaters join in. But Paramount had a different plan.


CAAN: (As Sonny) Bada beep, bada bap, bada boop, beep beep (ph). And the promise is that the deal is so good that we can't refuse.

MONDELLO: It offered the film to theater owners across the country just 10 days after the premiere in return for - and this was the part of the offer that could not be refused - an upfront, non-refundable guarantee against 90% of the box office take, whichever was greater.


ROBERT DUVALL: (As Tom Hagen) This is business, not personal, Sonny.

CAAN: (As Sonny) Well then business will have to suffer, all right?

MONDELLO: Theater owners would keep just a dime of every dollar that came into their box offices, but it would be a lot of dimes.


AL PACINO: (As Michael) It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business.

MONDELLO: Paramount accepted more than 300 bids, and when those lucky theater owners ponied up their guarantees, the producers had more than $15 million in the till before opening night - twice what they'd spent making the picture. And then "The Godfather" opened, and audiences saw what Coppola had wrought - not an Edward G. Robinson-style gangster flick, not even the potboiler Mario Puzo had written. Coppola had crafted a quasi-Shakespearean epic about a family.


BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I knew that Santino was going to have to go through all this - and Fredo.

MONDELLO: It was the story of a dynasty giving way, King Corleone and his princes.


BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life - I don't apologize - to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by all those big shots. I don't apologize. That's my life. But I thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings, Senator Corleone.

MONDELLO: As Henry Kissinger noted to producer Robert Evans at the film's premiere, here was Brando playing a gangster who'd killed hundreds of people, and when he died, the whole audience was crying. Touch of greatness, he said. More than a touch, actually.

And by the time the film opened nationwide 10 days later, absolutely everyone was buying tickets, though sometimes for odd reasons, as NPR's member station KCUR told ALL THINGS CONSIDERED while covering the film's premiere at the Empire Theater in Kansas City, Mo.


ROBERT CONLEY: The performance was sold out, but the theater was empty. Dave Berg reports.

DAVE BERG: According to Giles Fowler, film critic for the Kansas City Star, "The Godfather" is a triumph of traditional storytelling cinema in an age that had just about forgotten such things. But no matter, nobody saw the film. The Italian American Unification Council of Greater Kansas City bought all 1,000 tickets for $2,500 so that "The Godfather" would play to an empty house.

MONDELLO: They also got a court injunction barring Stan Durwood, the theater operator, from scheduling a matinee that day and spoiling their optics. For obvious reasons, he was fine with that.


BERG: Durwood said he's just happy with all the publicity the film is getting.

MONDELLO: The group got its optics. The theater got its first of many, many sold-out performances. And what did audiences get? A look at an Italian mob community that felt real, right down to its recipes.


CASTELLANO: (As Clemenza) Come over here, kid, learn something. You never know. You might have to cook for 20 guys some day. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes...

MONDELLO: No less delicious, a raft of star-making performances - Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, James Caan - and a story that reached the point where a conventional mob movie would end at the 90-minute mark and still had half its story left to tell, the half that thrilled.


MONDELLO: There were things that were not altogether new. That line everyone quotes, the one I've used a couple of times already, here's John Wayne talking to Forrest Taylor in the 1933 Western "Riders Of Destiny" three decades before "The Godfather" novel was written.


JOHN WAYNE: (As Singin' Sandy Saunders) I'll take the job. Now, how about these Dentons?

FORREST TAYLOR: (As James Kincaid) I've made them an offer they can't refuse.

MONDELLO: And composer Nino Rota's love theme sounded awfully familiar to folks who had seen the Italian comedy "Fortunella" 14 years earlier.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Italian).

MONDELLO: Rota scored that one, too, but his bit of recycling cost him an Oscar nomination. "The Godfather" received 11, though even those came with complications. Brando decided best actor was an honor he could refuse and sent Sacheen Littlefeather to decline it, citing the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. Less noticed because of the fuss that kicked up, Al Pacino also boycotted the ceremony, which many attributed at the time to the fact that he'd been nominated as supporting actor when he had more screen time than Brando did.


BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) This wasn't enough time, Michael, wasn't enough time.

PACINO: (As Michael) We'll get there, Pop. We'll get there.

MONDELLO: And he did. Pacino got his best actor nomination for "The Godfather: Part II," all of which qualified as blood under the bridge as far as the audience was concerned. "The Godfather" was the No. 1 film at the box office for 23 consecutive weeks in 1972, then spent one week at No. 2 and came back for three more weeks at the top of the chart. It earned $100 million faster than any film before it. And having cost less than $7 million to make, it was so profitable that the stock price of Gulf & Western, the huge conglomerate that owned Paramount Pictures, more than quadrupled.

The film also began an era in which Coppola's generation, fed up with the studio system, essentially took over the studio system. Three years after "Godfather" rewrote film exhibition rules, Steven Spielberg made "Jaws," establishing a new pattern, this time for summer blockbusters. Two years after that, George Lucas rewrote the rules again with "Star Wars." Old Hollywood had met new. "The Godfather" had been the bridge, and the dynasty had changed.

I'm Bob Mondello.