I’m a huge fan of The Godfather trilogy, so much so that the prevailing negative opinions about the third film led me to write an entire book defending it and other projects and people I think are unfairly criticized. The Godfather Part II is not only my favorite film of all time, but I truly believe it is the greatest American film ever made. It is perfect in every way.
And it was nearly all undone.
In April 1973, a month after The Godfather cleaned up at the Academy Awards, Francis Ford Coppola sent a letter to Marlon Brando asking that reprise his role as Vito Corleone in the sequel:
I never knew this. I had always heard that Brando was supposed to appear in the flashback scene at the end, but not the entire film. The actor was notoriously difficult to work with and Coppola was forced to pull out all the stops to cast him in the first film and now he was asking him to reprise his role. Apparently, Brando actually agreed to the part, but failed to show up when shooting began.
I know he’s a legend, but I’m actually grateful that Brando’s temperament kept him away from the set.
It’s hard to imagine Brando turning in a better performance than his ultimate replacement, Robert De Niro. By this point in his career, Brando was beginning to get lazy and sanctimonious while De Niro was still a hardcore method actor that dove into roles. De Niro’s performance is phenomenal because he somehow managed to portray the young Vito Corleone by channeling Brando’s performance without it becoming imitation or parody. Plus, approximately 95% of De Niro’s dialogue is in Italian, just to add some more difficulty to the role.
For his role, De Niro was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and, when coupled with his early work with Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), helped him become one of the finest actors around.
Brando and Coppola eventually worked together again on 1979’s Apocalypse Now and, according to Coppola, Brando acted “like a kid, very irresponsible” during the legendarily difficult shoot. Just imagine what he would have done if he had agreed to play Don Corleone one more time.
Thanks to Brando’s ego, we were given a better version of The Godfather Part II.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, including the brand new In Defense Of…, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.