When I first heard about The Godfather, no one wanted to make it. Mario Puzo brought the manuscript to me: It was called Mafia, and I never thought it would happen. So I paid him $12,000 for it as a favor to a friend. But six months later, Mario says, “Can I change the title to The Godfather?” He said he would turn the manuscript in to the publisher anyway.
So the book comes out, and it does well, but no one wanted to make the film, including my boss, Charlie Bluhdorn [chief executive officer of Paramount’s former parent, Gulf + Western]. Mafia films just didn’t work back then. Two years earlier we had made The Brotherhood, which starred Kirk Douglas—and no one went to see it. Burt Lancaster was attached to The Godfather, and he offered my bosses $1 million for the property. Paramount wasn’t doing very well, and Bluhdorn wanted the million dollars.
I said to Bluhdorn, “You can’t do that. If you do, I quit.” My idea was to give it to an Italian director, someone who could make you smell the spaghetti. I only wanted an Italian, but Sergio Leone had another film, and I couldn’t get any director to do it.
Giving it to Francis was a very bold gamble—he had only made a few films: You’re a Big Boy Now, Finian’s Rainbow, and The Rain People. And he didn’t have much of a track record with my bosses. But he was Italian, and he wanted to do it. So I took the chance. I put my job on the line—I put my job on the line with Bluhdorn more times than I was married—and he told me that I could make the film if I could do it for $6 million. So we budgeted it at $6 million—and it ended up costing $6.6 million.
It was the beginning of a very tumultuous marriage with Francis. But 25 years later we showed the film in San Francisco, and Francis walked across the aisle, put his arm around me, and said, “We must have done something right.” I always found that most of the fights you have in business are irrelevant. If you make a great film, you usually forget what the fight was about. — As told to Ron Grover