The ‘Godfather I’ Role Robert De Niro Turned Down

Many fans of The Godfather films can’t pick which picture is better. The first installment, released in 1972 with Marlon Brando (Don Vito Corleone) in the lead role, seems impossible to top. But then the dazzling Godfather: Part II arrived two years later with Robert De Niro playing the Don as a young man.

On the awards front, the sequel took home more Oscars (six) than the first film (three). Yet both won Best Picture; both featured heavyweight performances from the leads (Brando, De Niro, and Al Pacino twice); and both fulfilled on their epic promise.

But would the Godfather sequel be in the running without De Niro in his starring role? While it’s impossible to say, it’s hard to imagine another actor pulling off what De Niro does in the Vito Corleone part. And that would have been the case had De Niro accepted his first part in the saga.

Robert De Niro had the part of Paulie Gatto in ‘The Godfather’

Robert De Niro on the street in costume during the 'Godfather II' shoot
1974: Robert De Niro performs a scene in ‘The Godfather Part II’ | Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

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If you’ve read anything about the casting process for The Godfather, you know what a wild ride it was for all parties. Studio heads didn’t want Brando; they also didn’t want Pacino. Meanwhile, director Francis Ford Coppola didn’t want his sister Talia Shire in the film.

As you might expect, there was more agreement on the smaller roles, like that of Paulie Gatto. That character works under Corleone caporegime Clemenza (Richard Castellano) and famously meets his end at the wheel of a car. Clemenza, tutoring the assassin, tells him to leave the gun that killed Paulie but to take the cannoli with him.

While Paulie has a few moments along the way, it’s no stretch to say De Niro would have been wasted in that role. But that was the part he’d landed during casting for the first film. Fortunately for everyone (and cinema as an entity), De Niro dropped out of playing Paulie to shoot another picture.

De Niro worked on ‘The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight’ instead

Robert De Niro points a gun in a still from 'Mean Streets.'
1973: David Proval and Robert De Niro perform a scene from ‘Mean Streets.’ | Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

In The Godfather Companion (1990), Peter Biskind noted that De Niro tested for several roles (including Michael Corleone) before getting slotted in as Paulie. But De Niro checked out when he learned he got a bigger part in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971).

De Niro couldn’t have known what a wise move he was making at the time. He probably just thought he’d get more exposure in a larger role. Considering he screen-tested for Paulie, he came fairly close to being the guy Clemenza makes sure dies by the side of the road for his betrayal of Vito Corleone.

Instead, De Niro returned following the smash success of the first Godfather. With 1973’s Mean Streets and Bang the Drum Slowly both on his résumé by then, he didn’t need to accept anything less than young Vito Corleone. And he won his first Oscar for his performance.