Jack Nicholson Turned Down ‘The Godfather’ Because He’s Not Italian

The Godfather remains one of the most revered mob movies of all time. The story has inspired countless TV shows and movies since its release. At the heart of it was the young Al Pacino.

While it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Pacino for the part of Michael Corleone, you’ll be surprised to learn that Jack Nicholson was in the running for the part but turned it down because he’s not Italian.

Jack Nicholson refused to appear in ‘The Godfather’

Michael Corleone and Pacino mutually benefitted one another. The role made Pacino a superstar, while Pacino made the part a classic. Before playing the son of the mafia don Vito Corleone, Pacino was an unknown in the film industry, with little work on his resume. Still, director Francis Ford Coppola always wanted Pacino to play Michael.

The studios had something else in mind, however. The studio courted several big-name actors for the part, including Nicholson. The Easy Rider star had already created a name for himself in the industry both for acting and screenwriting. Given his success at the time, he seemed like the right fit for Michael.

Nicholson told MovieLine in 2004 that he read the script and immediately knew it would be a hit. However, despite his enthusiasm for the project, he turned it down, reasoning, “Italians should play Italians.” Nicholson said, “Mario Puzo had written such a great book that if you go back to it, you’ll see so much of what was special about the movie.”

Nicholson said several actors could have played Michael, but he couldn’t think of anyone who would’ve done it as well as Pacino. He explained, “Al Pacino was Michael Corleone. I can’t think of a better compliment to pay him.”

‘The Godfather’ is widely considered one of the best mob dramas of all time

The Godfather details the rise of Michael Corleone in his mafia family. Michael, Vito Corleone’s youngest son, reluctantly joins the family business when his father dies and his brother is killed. The movie starts with Vito declining an offer to join the narcotics business with Sollozzo.

Sollozzo then puts out a hit on him, but the don survives. His oldest son Sonny convinces Michael to strike back, which drives them into hiding. After Sonny’s death, Michael returns home, and Vito hands him the reigns of the business. Michael plans to relocate the family business to Las Vegas, but his father dies before they can move.

Michael’s hitmen then murder the leaders of the Five Families while the new don attends his nephew’s baptism. The second Godfather film focuses on Michael as he continues his father’s legacy and tries to hold the business together. 

It also gives viewers a background on Vito’s rise as a mafia don. The third film in the trilogy follows Michael as he tries to legitimize the business. The Godfather was a success. All three films collectively earned between $430 million and $517 million.

Inside Jack Nicholson’s acting career

Actor Jack Nicholson smiles with his arms outstretched, wearing overalls and sunglasses, in 1972
Jack Nicholson in 1972 | Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Nicholson got his big break in 1969 when he appeared in Easy Rider. His performance in the movie got him his first Oscar nod for a supporting role and led to a leading role in Five Easy Pieces. This time, Nicholson earned an Oscar nom in the Best Actor category. In 1974, the actor starred in Chinatown, earning his fourth Oscar nod.

The following year, Nicholson won his first Oscar for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Nicholson’s other notable projects include Batman (1989), The Shining (1980), and The Departed (2006).

The actor retired in the early 2010s and refuted reports that he stopped acting due to memory issues. He told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2013 that he lacked the drive to continue acting and didn’t want to work until he died.

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