‘The Godfather’: The Directors Paramount Wanted to Hire Before Francis Ford Coppola

When the heads of Paramount Pictures went looking for someone to direct The Godfather (1972), the name Francis Ford Coppola didn’t occur to anyone. At that point, the 31-year-old Coppola had only made three films, none of which were close to the scale of The Godfather.

In his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994), production head Robert Evans explained his position on Coppola. “The guy’s made three pictures,” Evans recalled thinking. “You’re a Big Boy Now: artsy-fartsy, no business; Finian’s Rainbow, a top Broadway musical he made into a disaster; and The Rain People, which everyone rained on.”

Eventually, they settled on Coppola because of his Italian-American background and the artistic promise he’d shown. By then, Evans had offered the film to a long list of directors, including some with Oscars on their mantle. But they all turned it down.

Paramount offered ‘The Godfather’ to Arthur Penn, Costa-Gavras, and others

Costa-Gavras speaks and gestures with his hands
Director Costa-Gravas | Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images

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Mario Puzo had a smash hit with his novel The Godfather, first published in ’69. It sold somewhere around nine million copies in two years and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a calendar year. Yet Paramount got the rights to the book for basically nothing ($12,500, according to Evans).

In other words, Evans and his bosses could afford to pay a big-name director if they wanted. And indeed they wanted that. Evans recalled asking Arthur Penn, who’d directed Bonnie and Clyde a few years earlier. The answer was no.

Evans also got a no from Costa-Gavras, the Greek director who’d been nominated for two Oscars (including Best Director) for Z, the brilliant picture that won Best Foreign Film of 1969. (Z had also received a nod for Best Picture.)

Paramount kept running down its list. Elia Kazan, the Oscar-winning director who guided Marlon Brando through A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, also turned down the job. So did Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood), Peter Yates (Bullitt), and Franklin Schaffner, who’d directed Planet of the Apes and Coppola’s script of Patton.

Francis Ford Coppola also declined ‘The Godfather’

Francis Ford Coppola looks through the camera on the 'Godfather II' set.
Francis Ford Coppola on the East Village set of ‘The Godfather: Part II’ in 1974 |Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

With no profitable films to his name and the finances of his own production company underwater, Coppola was really in no position to turn down The Godfather. But that’s what he did, and Evans couldn’t believe it. “[Coppola] couldn’t get a cartoon made in town, yet he didn’t want to make The Godfather,” he wrote in The Kid Stays in the Picture.

In The Godfather Companion (1990), Peter Biskind noted that Coppola’s Zoetrope production house owed $600,000 to Warner Bros. at the time Paramount offered him The Godfather. “He owed more money around town than Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls,” as Evans put it.

After declining a lowball offer, Coppola agreed on terms of more money, plus the right to focus on the anti-capitalist and family aspects of the Godfather tale. With Paramount’s owners about to sell the book rights to Burt Lancaster’s production company, Evans agreed to Coppola.