Can you imagine The Godfather with Robert Redford -- or Ryan O'Neal -- as Michael Corleone?
It's hard to believe, 40 years after the fact, that any actor other than Al Pacino could be considered a casting choice to play the reluctant heir to the Corleone crime family. But director Francis Ford Coppola reveals in The Godfather Legacy, a two-hour special premiering at 8 p.m. Tuesday on History channel, that Pacino wasn't always the leading candidate for the iconic role.
It was producer Robert Evans who lobbied for Redford or O'Neal, much bigger stars at the time. Coppola, who is fiercely independent and idealistic, wouldn't compromise.
Maybe The Godfather still would have been a great movie with different casting. It had so many other things going for it, after all. But it would have been a decidedly different movie, that much is certain.
This is just one of the insights in The Godfather Legacy that film buffs will find intriguing.
Here's another: James Caan, who played hothead older brother Sonny, tested for the part of Michael. The special shows snippets of his screen test opposite Diane Keaton.
Meanwhile, Pacino secretly longed to portray Sonny, the "more robust" and "more fun" role.
"I was thinking, 'Why would Francis want me to play that part?'" Pacino says in the documentary. "'He sees me as Michael. Gee, he's seeing something I don't see.'"
Roots of a blockbuster
Today, of course, Michael Corleone is one of Pacino's biggest claims to fame -- much like Don Vito Corleone was for Marlon Brando, who will forever be considered the only correct choice to play the character, even though he initially was an unpopular casting selection among executives at Paramount Pictures.
The Godfather Legacy -- narrated, fittingly enough, by Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos fame -- is teeming with classic anecdotes from cast members, archival behind-the-scenes footage and analysis from historians, film scholars and even a real-life former Mafia member.
The documentary chronicles The Godfather story from its roots as a bestselling novel by Mario Puzo in 1969, to the making of an unlikely movie blockbuster in 1972, to two follow-up films (in 1974 and 1990), to the original's enduring status as a classic of American cinema.
The Godfather didn't just break box-office records, raking in $5 million in its first five days of release, an astonishing amount of money at the time. The film also infiltrated the American consciousness.
Lines from the movie -- particularly "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse" -- became part of the national lexicon.
The depiction of Mafia bosses as devoted family men changed how subsequent crime dramas, such as Goodfellas and The Sopranos, were made. As producer Albert S. Ruddy puts it in the special, "Something bizarre happens occasionally in a movie where it becomes more than just a movie. It becomes an event."
Four decades after the March 1972 release of The Godfather, Coppola and cast members such as Pacino, Caan and Talia Shire marvel at how enduring and endearing this film is.
Coppola almost fired
They also play games of "What if?" -- which is to say, what if they hadn't done it? Coppola, for example, admits he didn't want anything to do with The Godfather at first.
"Much of the original book was a potboiler," he says dismissively. "It was not a film I particularly wanted to do."
But colleague George Lucas prodded the financially strapped Coppola into taking the job so he could stay ahead of his bills. Then, as Coppola was busy crafting a masterpiece, the producers and studio executives were often plotting to fire him, convinced they had a disaster on their hands.
Imagine how Coppola's career would be different had there been no Godfather on his résumé.
And even more disconcerting, imagine the gaping hole in film history had there been a lesser filmmaker in charge of The Godfather making all the wrong moves.