‘The Godfather: Part III’: Why Robert Duvall Passed on the 3rd Installment

When Francis Ford Coppola released his recut version of The Godfather: Part III in 2020, it got film fans wondering about what went wrong in the first place. And while some still pointed to Sofia Coppola’s participation, the more obvious answer stared everyone in the face. That is, the third Godfather installment didn’t have Robert Duvall.

Duvall delivered his breakout performance as adopted Corleone son and family consigliere Tom Hagen in The Godfather (1972). For that performance, Duvall landed his first Oscar nomination and several other nods. (He won Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle.)

Then Duvall matched it in The Godfather: Part II (1974). But when Coppola started making the third film in the late ’80s, he couldn’t get Duvall back — he had to settle for George Hamilton. Over the years, Duvall has made it clear he passed on Godfather III because producers didn’t value him highly enough.

Robert Duvall didn’t think the money was right for ‘The Godfather: Part III’

Robert Duvall and Al Pacino in suits, seated at a table with microphones in front of them, as Tom Hagen and Michael Corleone  in 'The Godfather: Part II'
‘The Godfather: Part II’: Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen and Al Pacino as Michael Corleone | FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

The framing for Duvall’s passing on The Godfather III has always been that he wasn’t offered enough money to reprise the role of Tom Hagen. And that’s true on the most basic level. Around the time of the production, Duvall even called the producers “cheap” (via the L.A. Times).

But when you dig in with his comments, it’s clear Duvall wasn’t as concerned with the dollar amount as he was the scale of the offer compared to the other actors’ salaries. “There are two or three other actors in that film being paid more than I was offered,” he said in ’90. “That just isn’t right.”

In short, Duvall didn’t feel that Godfather III producers really wanted him back. Otherwise, they’d have made a better offer. When discussing the offer, Duvall has frequently pointed to a visit Coppola made to his home in Virginia.

“Coppola came to my farm in Virginia to ask me to do the film, and I fed him Maryland crab cakes, my mother’s recipe,” Duvall said in ’90. “Then he called me a couple of days later. I got the impression he was more interested in the recipe for the crab cakes than getting me to play the role.”

Duvall had no regrets about passing on ‘The Godfather: Part III’

Robert Duvall smiles with Billy Bob Thornton smiling on his far left and a woman standing between them
Circa 1990: Robert Duvall | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

‘The Godfather III’: Why Sofia Coppola Played Mary Corleone Instead of Winona Ryder

Once he saw The Godfather: Part III, Duvall knew he’d made the right decision. In 2010, The Hollywood Reporter checked in with the actor, who by then had notched the first six of his seven Oscar nominations. (Duvall won the Best Actor Oscar in 1984 for Tender Mercies.)

When THR asked if had regrets about saying no to the third Godfather installment, Duvall was clear. “No, because it wasn’t as good as the other two,” he said, via Reuters. Then he told the story of Coppola and the crab cakes one more time.

In the end, it was Coppola and Paramount’s loss. If they’d pulled in Duvall one last time, maybe critics wouldn’t have paid so much attention to Sofia Coppola. And if producers wanted to replace Duvall, they shouldn’t have gone with an actor known more for his tan than his work on the screen.