It was this week in March of 1972 when “The Godfather” came out in cinemas. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola has since become a household name and the masterpiece, a cult classic. We honour four decades of the ultimate mafia film with 40 facts about the production.
Guns, oranges, a horse head—oh my! Who knew that these would be the key ingredients for a classic mafia movie? TIME has compiled trivia and tidbits about the film in line with its 40th anniversary.
1. The Cat
As Don Corleone calmly explains his idea of “friendship” to the undertaker Bonasera, the first nearly full-body shot of the don reveals an unexpected guest: a gray and white cat sitting in Marlon Brando’s lap. “The cat in Marlon’s hands was not planned for,” director Francis Ford Coppola said later. “I saw the cat running around the studio, and took it and put it in his hands without a word.” Brando apparently loved children and animals, and it became part of the scene. But it also nearly ruined the shot. When the sound crew listened to Brando’s dialogue, they couldn’t understand a word he was saying and feared they would have to use subtitles. The problem wasn’t Brando but the cat, whose purring wrecked the sound. You can still hear it on the sound track.
2. Coppola Wasn’t the First Choice
By 1971, Francis Ford Coppola had written and directed several cheap films produced by Roger Corman, directed The Rain People (starring Godfather co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall) and won an Academy Award for his screenplay of the George C. Scott film Patton. But the reason he was chosen as director of The Godfather was because he was young (i.e., the studio assumed, cheap and pliable) and Italian, which certainly wouldn’t hurt when the inevitable protests arrived. But several big names were considered before Coppola: Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Peter Yates (Bullitt) and Greek director Costa-Gavras (Z, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film). Author Mario Puzo wrote that although Costa-Gavras was interested in the film as an “indictment of American capitalism … he declined because it was too American and he felt that he, as a foreigner, couldn’t handle the nuances.”
3. The Horse Head
It could be said of so many movie moments, but describing the horse-head scene as one of the most iconic in American film history is no exaggeration. It was already famous from the book — only in Mario Puzo’s novel, the horse’s head was on the bedpost when Jack Woltz wakes up. Audiences rose up in anger over the death of the horse, and many asked if it were a real animal head.
Yes, it was. The studio had encouraged Francis Ford Coppola to use a fake horse head, but he didn’t like the mock-up. His scouts found a horse ready for slaughter at a dog-food plant in New Jersey. The art director picked one that looked like the horse in the film and said, “When that one is slaughtered, send us the head.” Coppola later remembered, “One day, a crate with dry ice came with this horse’s head in it.”
4. Brando Was Almost a No-Go
Early in his career, Marlon Brando starred in hits such as On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. But by 1971, he had a reputation for conflicts with directors, off-screen antics and delays on the set. Even though Don Corleone appears in less than a third of the film, Francis Ford Coppola knew he needed an actor who could give the picture power and mystique, and in Brando he had his man. Studio head Stanley Jaffe thought otherwise and told Brando, “As long as I’m president of the studio, Marlon Brando will not be in this picture.” After more badgering, Jaffe finally agreed to three concessions he thought would be deal breakers: that Brando work for far less than his usual salary, take financial responsibility for any delays he caused and, most important, consent to a screen test, which was unheard of for the actor at that time.
5. What’s with All the Oranges?
Though some have interpreted the presence of oranges in various scenes as a harbinger of death to come (see the oranges that roll across the street as Don Corleone gets shot, the ones in producer Jack Woltz’s dining room, the ones at the meeting of the dons and those in Don Corleone’s garden), the reason for their presence is likely a more practical one. In his book on the making of the film, The Godfather Legacy, Harlen Lebo writes, “For [production designer] Dean Tavoularis, oranges were simply another carefully chosen compliment to otherwise somberly dressed sets. ‘We knew this film wasn’t going to be about bright colors, and oranges make a nice contrast,’ said Tavoularis. ‘I don’t remember anybody saying, Hey, I like oranges as a symbolic message.’"
That’s just five of 40 not-so-known facts about the movie. Head on over to TIME for the complete list.
" I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman; blood is a big expense. " (The Godfather, 1972)