Despite being one of the greatest actors of all-time, Marlon Brando was a risky actor to cast in the early 1970s. Brando had amassed the reputation of being a brilliant, but notoriously difficult to work with actor thanks to his experiences with Elia Kazan on the groundbreaking dramas On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. No one could doubt Brando’s brilliance, but that didn’t mean that his personality made him very fun to work with. Even when Brando seemed “uncastable” due to the stories circulating about his off-screen activities, he managed to have a major comeback role in 1972 when he took on perhaps his most beloved role as Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster film masterpiece The Godfather. Working with Brando was in Coppola’s favor, but that didn’t mean that the notorious The Wild One star didn’t present some difficulties on set. In fact, Brando voiced his opinion on who would be playing his onscreen son well before the cameras started rolling. In a different world, it would’ve been Burt Reynolds, and not Al Pacino, who was starring as Michael Corleone.

Why ‘The Godfather’ Needed Marlon Brando

the godfather played by Marlon Brando
Image via Paramount Pictures

Although The Godfather is now recognized as one of the greatest films of all-time, the novel that it was based upon by Mario Puzo wasn’t exactly a literary classic. While entertaining (and a major bestseller at the time of its initial debut), The Godfather was a rather standard airport read. Coppola’s ambitions for the film were greater than the source material; he wanted to transform what was otherwise a standard gangster story into a complex analysis of family, legacy, American politics, and power. In order to do so, Coppola knew that he needed to cast the best actors imaginable for each role in order to ensure that the film’s dramatic material was treated with the sensitivity that it needed.

Coppola’s casting process was notorious, as he had to deal with pressure from Paramount Pictures and producer Al Ruddy to make a film that could also be commercially viable. Although Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Sterling Hayden are all household names, they weren’t exactly “movie stars” before The Godfather took their careers to the next level. Coppola knew that in order to satisfy Paramount’s desire for a box office hit, he needed to cast a major star as the senior gangster Don Vito Corleone. Brando made perfect sense — he had the experience of working within the industry for several years, and could easily slip into the role of such a veteran family man. He was perfect for the role, but Brando's popularity also meant that audiences might be more willing to check out The Godfather than they would be if the film had starred a bunch of unknown actors.

This meant getting Brando and making him happy was of the utmost importance, and that the film’s casting department would have to yield to his demands. Although Coppola felt that Reynolds would be perfect for the role of a young, initially innocent war veteran like Michael, Brando didn’t see it that way. Brando allegedly threatened to quit the production if Reynolds was hired, forcing Coppola to expand the casting process to find the perfect Michael Corleone. Reynolds didn’t appear to be all that upset about the whole ordeal. He reflected that he was “flattered” that Brando cared so much. Ironically, Brando reportedly didn’t want Reynolds involved with the film because he felt that he was a narcissist.

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Burt Reynolds Was Almost Michael Corleone in 'The Godfather'

Burt Reynolds in Stroker Ace (1983)
Image via Universal Pictures

Although it now seems unfathomable that anyone but Pacino could play Michael, the notion of Reynolds playing the elder Corleone son actually made a lot of sense at the time of The Godfather’s release. Pacino was an unknown stage actor at the time, and although he had shown promise onscreen with his role in the drama film The Panic in Needle Park, The Godfather was the first film that truly established him as a movie star. Reynolds wasn’t the only big name actors that nearly earned the role; James Caan, Dustin Hoffman, Martin Sheen, Dean Stockwell, Jack Nicholson, and Ryan O’Neal were also considered at various points during the film’s production to take on the role.

Reynolds had already attracted a significant following due to his success on television shows such as Gunsmoke and Hawk, but The Godfather certainly would have changed the direction of his career. However, Reynolds thankfully didn’t miss out on the opportunity to star in a great drama film in 1972. The same year of The Godfather’s release, Reynolds delivered an unforgettable performance in John Boorman’s survival thriller Deliverance. There was a brief moment when it appeared like he may have been one of the foremost “serious actors” of his generations alongside Pacino, Cann, and Duvall.

However, Reynolds’s filmography took a different direction in 1977 when he starred in the comedy blockbuster hit Smokey and the Bandit. Released the same weekend as Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit proved that Reynolds was better suited for comedy than anything else. Although he would occasionally appear in action-centric films in the next decade of his career, Reynolds had established himself as much more of a traditional “movie star” than someone like Pacino. That being said, The Godfather still became a massive box office sensation. It’s easily forgotten that upon its initial debut, the film became the highest-grossing film of all-time.

Pacino needed a role like Michael Corleone in The Godfather to prove to the world what a great actor he could be — it would be unfortunate if he spent his entire career confined to a small New York theater. Although starring in The Godfather would have boosted Reynolds’ career, he was still able to reach a significant audience due to his unparalleled charisma. Reynolds’ endearing nature was much more appreciated among general audiences in populist fare than any of Pacino’s roles ever were. Brando may not have been happy about it, but Reynolds would have been a star either way.

The Big Picture

  • Marlon Brando was a risky actor to cast in the early 1970s due to his reputation of being difficult to work with, but his comeback role as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather helped elevate the film's dramatic material.
  • Director Francis Ford Coppola knew that casting a major star like Brando as the senior gangster was crucial to satisfy Paramount's desire for a box office hit and attract audiences to the film.
  • Burt Reynolds was initially considered for the role of Michael Corleone, but Brando threatened to quit the production if Reynolds was hired, ultimately leading to the casting of Al Pacino instead.