Fifty years after its release, The Godfather (1972) remains one of the most beloved and respected films ever made. Based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo, the crime drama made superstars out of its cast and director. The film earned ten Academy Award nominations, ultimately winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Among those nominated was Robert Duvall, who received his first Academy Award nomination for his performance in the film. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing Tom Hagen, the informally adopted son of Vito and Carmela Corleone who is the valuable consigliere of the Corleone family.
Duvall has since been nominated six more times (three more times for supporting roles and three times for leading roles), winning Best Actor in a Leading Role for the 1983 drama Tender Mercies. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, A.frame caught up with Duvall to hear about a few of his memories of working on Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece.
"Everybody thought the script was maybe better than the novel,” Duvall recalls, "and it was a wonderful character that [Coppola] offered me to play. Had I not done The Rain People, I might not have been in The Godfather – because that's where I met Coppola. And everybody became like a family, you know, like a team. It was wonderful." However, the up-and-coming director wasn’t given carte blanche by Paramount at the time, even reaching into his own pocket to do screen tests at his house to prove the value of the actors he wanted.
"He worked under great pressure," Duvall says. "He could have been fired at any moment because there was a standby director in the wings, waiting. And, because of that, I gained a lot of respect for Coppola. And I was willing to stick right with him during those first few weeks."
As for the character of Tom, the man behind the scenes of one of the mafia’s most powerful families, Duvall had a very direct approach.
"Tom was part of the family, but not a thousand percent. You had to keep that in mind when you… when the part was played. But it was a lovely part, and I enjoyed having it. You had to keep it simple, keep it truthful."
Amongst his fellow actors, one stands out in particular: James Caan, who played Sonny Corleone.
"A very quick guy. Very clever. He’d tell a joke, and it would take Marlon Brando two or three seconds to get it. But he liked Jimmy because he was great on the set and had a lot of fun," Duvall recalls. "When Jimmy came in one day for the shooting of The Godfather: Part II, we were running late for lunch. So, he went to a restaurant, grabbed some pita bread, and put the hottest pepper he could find in that sandwich – and came in and held it up. He knew what would happen. Coppola reached for it and took a bite, then said, ‘You sons of b*****s!’"
According to Duvall, though Coppola expected his actors to be prepared and work hard, he had a wonderful sense of humor and wasn’t an old-school taskmaster. “He waited to see what you would bring to the table; he didn't dictate."
To mark the special occasion, The Godfather is in select theaters today.
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