Skip to main content

In the history of movies, The Godfather was not considered a sure thing in 1972. In fact, the history of the making of The Godfather is juicy enough to be its own TV series, The Offer. One of the ways The Godfather created hype was by getting Marlon Brando on the cover of Life Magazine. Photography Steve Schapiro tells the story of how that happened. 

'The Godfather': Marlon Brando and director Francis Ford Coppola stand in the wedding crowd
L-R: Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando | Paramount Pictures

Schapiro appears in the new bonus features on the Godfather Trilogy 50th anniversary 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD sets, which is available now. He relates the story of negotiating with Life Magazine for the Brando cover. 

The photographer anticipated Marlon Brando as ‘The Godfather’ would be an event

While Paramount was mounting The Godfather, Schapiro saw it as a major opportunity. Schapiro already had a relationship with Paramount shooting behind the scenes stills on their movies. While he observed the troubles in bringing Mario Puzo’s novel to the screen, Schapiro thought some early buzz could help. 

A lot of things happen with luck. This happened with ingenuity in terms of convincing Paramount and Life Magazine they should do a cover. What happened was the Puzo book came up and Paramount paid very little money for it when they discovered it was becoming an international sensation. I had very good relationships with Paramount. Particularly when it became obvious Marlon Brando was going to play the Don, I saw that this was going to be sensational.

Steve Schapiro, The Godfather 50th Anniversary collection

He made Life Magazine an offer they couldn’t refuse 

As a photographer, Schapiro also had an “in” with Life Magazine. He knew that a cover photo of Brando as Don Vito Corleone would be good for both the magazine and Paramount.

“So I talked to Paramount and said, ‘What would happen if I got Life Magazine to guarantee you a cover exclusively?’” Schapiro said. “They said, ‘Hey, if you can do that, fine.’ I then went to Life and said, ‘What if you could do a cover on The Godfather and be the first way people really see the image of Marlon Brando as he looks in The Godfather? Would you guarantee a first cover?’”

‘The Godfather’: Marlon Brando’s Cat Was a Non-Scripted Stray

Schapiro makes it sound easy. Life Magazine drove a hard bargain, but he simply name dropped Brando.

“They said, ‘We didn’t do that for Frank Sinatra,’” Schapiro said. “I said, ‘I know that but would you do it with Marlon Brando in The Godfather?’ And they said yes.”

Life Magazine landed Steve Schapiro work on ‘The Godfather’

Schapiro shares some of his behind-the-scenes photographs in the bonus feature, including some candid moments with Brando. That’s because once he secured the Life Magazine cover, Paramount hired him to shoot stills for The Godfather. 

“So I went back to Paramount and said, ‘I think we have something going,’” Schapiro said.  “Immediately, that put me in the position of being what is called a special photographer.”