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In the beginning, Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t in the running to direct The Godfather. Why would Paramount Pictures ask an unknown director to film the hottest bestseller in recent memory? They wouldn’t (and didn’t). And when Paramount finally came around to Coppola, he wasn’t interested.

That really caught the attention of Robert Evans, Paramount’s production head. “Coppola couldn’t get a cartoon made in town, yet he didn’t want to make The Godfather,” Evans recalled in his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture. But the rejection made Evans respect Coppola.

For starters, he knew Coppola’s production company was deep in debt. And still, the man wouldn’t take on a high-profile, paying Hollywood project. Coppola had his reasons. When he first dug into Mario Puzo’s novel, Coppola didn’t like what he saw at all. In fact, he stopped reading it long before the halfway point.

Francis Ford Coppola found Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather’ ‘pretty cheap stuff’ at first

Francis Ford Coppola reads a book seated next to his young son.
Francis Ford Coppola and son | Ted Streshinsky/Corbis via Getty Images

Before taking The Godfather, Coppola thought he’d continue making small, personal films and avoid overblown Hollywood productions. And after he picked up a copy of The Godfather, the book seemed to make the argument for him.

“I started to read the book and I got only about 50 pages into it,” Coppola said in a 1975 Playboy interview. “I thought it was a popular, sensational novel, pretty cheap stuff.” A section with “the girl Sonny Corleone liked so much because her vagina was enormous” struck Coppola as particularly gross.

“I said, ‘My God, what is this, The Carpetbaggers?'” he told Playboy. “So I stopped reading it and said, ‘Forget it.'” But that was the first time Paramount offered him The Godfather. A few months later, Paramount offered him the film a second time.

By then, circumstances had changed for Coppola. (His production company had fallen deeper into debt.) So Coppola took another pass through Puzo’s novel. And he liked what he saw a great deal more upon his re-read.

Coppola eventually concluded ‘The Godfather’ was ‘a terrific story’

Mario Puzo smiles and holds his Oscar at the 47th Academy Awards.
Mario Puzo holds his Oscar for best screenplay for ‘The Godfather: Part II” in 1975. | Bettmann

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As Coppola dug back into Puzo’s novel, he saw what drove millions of readers to buy the book. “I got into what the book is really about,” Coppola told Playboy. “The story of the family, this father and his sons, and questions of power and succession.”

At that point, Coppola saw what he could do with the project. “I thought it was a terrific story, if you could cut out all the other stuff,” he recalled. ” I decided it could be not only a successful movie but also a good movie. So the fact is, it wasn’t a piece of trash.”

In Puzo’s defense, the novelist preferred his earlier literary efforts to The Godfather. So he was still feeling his way through his first highly commercial book. In the end, he and Coppola put their heads together for a fine screenplay — one which won them an Oscar. Then they did it all over again, including another Best Writing Oscar for The Godfather: Part II.