Popular movie lore has it that director Francis Ford Coppola and/or Paramount originally wanted James Caan for Michael Corleone, the role that would become a career-making turn for Al Pacino, in the 1972 mob classic “The Godfather.”
But the now-73-year-old Caan, who begins a four-episode arc on Starz’s “Magic City” Friday (June 21) is quick to dispel that rumor when speaking to Zap2it.
The year was 1971 and Coppola, then a 32-year-old filmmaker with a short list of well-regarded movies to his credit, had just hired Caan, Pacino, Marlon Brando and Robert Duval to play his four main male characters, respectively, mobsters Sonny, Michael and Vito Corleone, and their lawyer, Tom Hagen.
Recalls Caan, “(Coppola) got me and Duval, who he had worked with before, and Al, who I don’t think we knew; I don’t know how much he knew him but he seemed to like his work. And Brando. And that was the cast. I mean, that was within two weeks of him getting the job.
“And then we flew up to San Francisco and started messing around, when Eleanor, his wife, all gave us haircuts with a bowl on our heads. I mean, it was like a cartoon. … We were screwing around, testing, and it cost like four corned beef sandwiches. We each had lunch and went home. So that was his cast.”
But the studio wasn’t sold on Pacino, then a relative unknown, as the lead, so a search for a new Michael was launched.
“I get a call one night,” Caan says. “It was late, it had to be like two or three in the morning there because it was 12 o’clock (in L.A.). I go, ‘Hey Fran, what’s up, buddy?’ And he goes to me – and I could tell in his voice, he wants me to come in and test. ‘Test what? You got a Porsche you want me to drive around the … block? What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘Oh please. They want you to play Michael and blah-blah-blah.’ They weren’t happy with Al … I guess he was in his self-destructive stage or whatever. So I said, ‘Come on.’ He said, ‘Jimmy, please just … .’
“So I go in,” he continues. “They had every friggin’ actor, I mean, with every accent you ever heard.” Among them, according to reports, were Robert De Niro, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman. At one point, the studio even pushed for Robert Redford to play the Italian-American Michael.
“They were all sitting in this big basement in this studio, on the floor,” Caan says. “I mean, hundreds of them. You name the actors, they were there. It was just so stupid. And from morning to night for two days, they spent — now you have to remember, this was 1971 — $450,000 on tests. We only had like a $2.5 million budget – I mean, until they started seeing the dailies, then they upped it.”
On the second day, Caan half-heartedly tested for Michael opposite Diane Keaton, who would wind up playing Michael’s wife, Kay. His reluctance showed in his performance. “I wasn’t good,” he says, “and I didn’t want to be good because I knew in my heart and in Francis’ heart it wasn’t what he wanted. And at the end of the day, he kept sneaking Al back in to test again.”
Caan had had enough of studio meddling, told the bosses so — in undiplomatic terms — and boarded a train to Chicago to do a play, intending to kiss the film goodbye.
“I said, ‘Stick the picture up your ass,'” Caan says. “I just knew that wasn’t what Francis wanted. ‘I’m not testing anymore.’ Of course, when I got to Chicago, everything settled down. They said, ‘C’mon Jimmy. We’re sorry and blah-blah-blah.’ And then they went with the cast.”
And Caan, in the role of hotheaded Sonny Corleone, would wind up getting gunned down in one of filmdom’s most memorable mob hits. He, Pacino and Duval would receive supporting actor Oscar nominations, and Brando would win lead actor honors.
“My point is,” Caan says, “what is that saying in General Electric — progress is our most important product? Well, after $450,000 they wound up with the same cast we had for four corned beef sandwiches. That’s the punch line.”