An Actor from an Iconic Film Recalls the Casting Process
By Ron Gilbert
In 1970, I was a young actor living in New York City and everyone was excited about this book, The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. The word was out that they were going to make this book into a film and they were going to cast unknown actors.
All of us who were of Italian descent were very excited. This was a rare opportunity in casting that would take place in New York City, and Paramount Pictures was producing it. Louis DiGaimo was the casting director. At that time, I had just closed in on a play, off-Broadway, Rosebed.
A friend, Tommy Signorelli, who was a writer and actor, had come to see the play, which also starred Norma Donaldson, a Black actress who starred in the Black version of Guys and Dolls on Broadway. She was loved by many, and lots of big names had come to see her in the play.
One day I received a phone call saying that I was to meet the producer of The Godfather, Al Ruddy. In the meeting he told me that Marlon Brando, who was already cast, told him that an unknown actor should be cast as Michael. At that time I was performing in off-Broadway plays, soap operas, commercials and TV episodes, but I was really unknown and training under Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio. Al Ruddy was very cordial with me and we spent 30 minutes discussing the project. A week later they cast Al Pacino, which was a big surprise to many. Al had been working on stage and film and was known by us at The Actors Studio, but most people did know him. His acting roles were dark characters who were drug addicts, like his film character in Panic in Needle Park and the play Does a Tiger wear a Necktie. So when he was cast, we were all amazed at that choice.
So now the casting has entered a different stage. Al was 5 feet 6 inches tall, and that was an issue to be reckoned with. Richard Bright, who played his brother in Panic in Needle Park, was cast as Neri, who was his buddy in the film and his size. Carmine Caridi was supposed to play his brother Sonny, but he was 6 feet 3 inches, so, to his disappointment, he was replaced and had a nervous breakdown. Jimmy Caan, who had worked with Coppola before, was cast as Sonny. Much to my surprise, I was brought back in and was cast as the tallest usher. I was not very happy with that, but over the years I have felt blessed to have been a part of that film.
I spent three weeks on that film after the wedding scene, which took a week to shoot, and I have many inside stories to share. Ira Zuckerman, a director I had worked in the play The Time of your Life, I was writing an article about the filming and he told me a very funny story about Marlon Brando. Marlon did not like to learn lines, so they would be written somewhere off-camera so that he could read them. Lenny Montana, who played Luca Brasi, was a jokester. So during his scene with Marlon, he stuck out his tongue and on it was written the words “Fuck You.” He wanted Marlon to be able to read his lines and Brando laughed. There are many other stories to share, and one day I will.
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The film was an award winner in many categories and Al Pacino should have won an Oscar for his performance. I took time off, bought farms in Hankins and Callicoon, New York, and raised cows, chickens, ducks and pigs. I had a huge organic garden and apple trees and acres of blackberry bushes. However, 40 years later I still work as an actor and live in Santa Monica. I still attend the Actors Studio and do my work.
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Photo: The Godfather, wedding party picture, 1971