Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic mafia drama, “The Godfather”, premiered on March 24, 1972.
The landmark film, featuring “Citizen Kane” in terms of cinematic style and influence, changed the career trajectories of its stars — including James Caan, who played fiery, doomed Santino “Sonny” Corleone, the eldest son of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). and brother to Fredo (John Cazale), Connie (Talia Shire), and Michael (Al Pacino).
Prior to his breakthrough was the Oscar-nominated role in “The Godfather.” Bronx-born Caan was best known for roles on a slew of 1960s television series, including “The Untouchables,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Get Smart,” “Wagon Train,” “Naked City” and “Route.” 66″ — and for playing cancer-stricken Chicago Bears chasing Brian Piccolo opposite Billy Dee Williams (as Gale Sayers) in “Brian’s Song”, ABC’s tear-jerking Movie of the Week which aired November 1971.
(He also appeared in several films, including “The Rain People” in 1969, directed by Coppola — Caan’s classmate at Hofstra — and co-starring Robert Duvall, aka Corleone Family. counselor Tom Hagen.)
Caan, who turns 82 on Saturday (March 26), spoke to The Post in an extended interview about his memories of filming “The Godfather,” which airs on television pretty much every day — in all its iterations — and will be out Tuesday. (March 22) Re-released in an expanded 4K ultra-high-definition Blu-ray package.
“One of the things that made ‘The Godfather’ successful, besides brilliant directing and writing and great actors… was that everyone had a lot of fun making it, and that comes from the screen,” Caan said. “And I think the public can see that we had a good time with what we were doing there.
“Marlon was great,” Caan said of Brando. “He had a great sense of humor, but he would sometimes struggle to get the hang of the punch line. We went for lunch – those stupid Polish jokes came out at that point… and then two hours later, in the middle of a scene, I watched at him and said something and suddenly [imitates Brando laughing] I’d say, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ And he said [referring to the joke] ‘That’s funny.’ Two hours later it was playing in his fucking head. He was like that as a child. I loved him.”
Caan recalled how Coppola asked him to untie Lenny Montana, a hulking former pro wrestler and bodyguard for the Colombo crime family who made his film debut as gruff, dreaded Corleone enforcer Luca Brasi — who first appears in the opening scene during the wedding of Don Vito’s daughter Conny.
“He knocks on the door and says, ‘Don Corleone, I’m honored to be here on the day of your daughter’s wedding, may her first child…’ He did it a few times, the door opens, with camera on the other side of the door with Marlon Francis comes running out and said to me, ‘Jimmy, do something!’ I said, “What are you talking about Francis?” He said, “Do something with him. I said, ‘What do you want me to do with that damn beast?’ “Do something to scare him, do some of your s–t.” He was stiff and Francis was angry that he couldn’t get more out of him than… [said in flat Luca Brasi voice] “Don Corleone.”
“So I grabbed Lenny and said, ‘Lenny, come here. You have to do something when you open the door.’ I tried to give him this snow track. “When you say ‘Don Corleone’, stick out your tongue”—his tongue was like a shoebox for God’s sake—”and I’ll put a piece of tape on it that says ‘Fk you’. He was like a baby, ‘Oh Jimmy, don’t make me do this,’ and I said, ‘Lenny, please, it’s humor, everyone’s going to laugh and you’ll feel better. Please do this for me.’
“So I grab a piece of tape and put it on his tongue… boom, they say ‘Action!’ and that’s when he says “Don Corleone” – he sticks out his tongue and everyone falls laughing. He smiled. He was happy. Marlon’s line was “Luca, my dearest friend”, and when he did that scene, he had also written ‘F–k you’ on his tongue.’
Caan also said he used a bit of on-the-spot improv in the scene where Sonny beats up his pregnant sister’s husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo), in the street with his fists, legs and the top of a trash can.
“The stick I threw at” [Carlo] if he runs away, it wasn’t in the script,” he said. “I took one of those industrial brooms, cut off the end and put it under my seat [in the car as Sonny drives up to confront Carlo]† They said, “It’s not in the script,” and I said, “What’s the difference, put it there.” I swear to God I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I knew a lot of guys around me did. We called them ‘attitude adjusters’. I just grabbed it and shot [the stick] to him and Francis said, “That’s great, Jimmy, you looked like you were going to miss him.” So he’s behind the cars on the other side and luckily, during the upswing, I caught him on top of the coconut.
Caan said he also went back to his Bronx roots for the scene where Sonny confronts the FBI outside the gates of the Corleone compound on the day of Connie’s wedding — and for Sonny’s iconic black and white shoes.
“The [FBI] man took a picture of me with one of those old square cameras,” he said. “This was not in the script [but] I got so damn hot I grabbed his camera and knocked him to the ground. I took about $40 out of my pocket and kept walking – because in my neighborhood you paid for it. It didn’t matter what you did, but you paid for it.
“We didn’t really have a big budget and we were constantly adding to it,” he said with a chuckle. “They said, ‘The shoes aren’t in the script,’ and I said, ‘A lot of Italian guys in my old neighborhood might have two suits to their name, but they’ve got ten pairs of shoes.’ So one day I went to The Bronx and bought those black and white shoes for $10 and wore them in the movie.”