How James Caan of “The Godfather” taped the phrase “f–k you” onto a co-tongue star’s
On March 24, 1972, Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic mafia drama “The Godfather” premiered.
The groundbreaking film, which ranks alongside “Citizen Kane” in terms of cinematic style and influence, changed the lives of its stars, including James Caan, who portrayed Santino “Sonny” Corleone, the eldest son of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and brother to Fredo (John Cazale), Connie (Talia Shire), and Michael (James Caan) (Al Pacino).
Prior to his breakout, Oscar-nominated role in “The Godfather,” the Bronx-born Caan was best known for roles on a slew of 1960s-era television series, including “The Untouchables,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Get Smart,” “Wagon Train,” “Naked City,” and “Route 66,” as well as playing cancer-stricken Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo opposite Billy Dee Williams (as Gale Sayers
(He also starred in many films, notably “The Rain People,” directed by Coppola, a Hofstra classmate, and co-starring Robert Duvall, playing Corleone Family consigliere Tom Hagen, in 1969.)
Caan, who turns 82 on Saturday (March 26), spoke with The Washington Post in a wide-ranging interview about his memories of filming “The Godfather,” which is re-released in a comprehensive 4K ultra-high-definition Blu-ray package on Tuesday (March 22) and airs somewhere on television virtually every day — in all of its iterations.
“Aside from fantastic direction and writing and wonderful performers, one of the things that made ‘The Godfather’ successful was that everyone really liked creating it, and that comes over on the screen,” Caan added. “I think the audience could see we were having a good time up there doing what we were doing.”
“Marlon Brando was fantastic,” Caan said of the actor. “He had a terrific sense of humour, but he couldn’t always figure out the f—ing punch line.” We’d go out to eat — those idiotic Polish jokes were doing the rounds at the time… I’d look at him and say something, and then [imitates Brando laughing] I’d say, ‘What the f–the k’s wrong with you?’ two hours later, in the middle of a scene, I’d look at him and say something, and all of a sudden [imitates Brando laughing] I’d say, ‘What the f–the k’s matter with you?’ then he said, ‘That’s funny,’ alluding to the joke. It was still playing in his f—ing head two hours later. That was how he was as a youngster. “I had a thing for him.”
Caan recalled Coppola asking him to loosen up Lenny Montana, a hulking former pro wrestler and bodyguard for the Colombo crime family who is making his screen debut as gruff, feared Corleone enforcer Luca Brasi, who first appears in the film’s opening scene during Don Vito’s daughter Connie’s wedding.
“Don Corleone, I am honoured to be here on the day of your daughter’s wedding, may her first child…’ he says as he knocks on the door. He done it a few times, the door opens, and Marlon is on the opposite side of the door with the camera. ‘Jimmy, do something!’ Francis exclaimed as he dashed out the door. ‘What are you talking about, Francis?’ I said. ‘Do something with him,’ he murmured. “What do you want me to do with that f—king beast?” I asked. ‘Do something to cheer him up, do some of your s–t,’ says the narrator. Francis was enraged that he couldn’t get more from him than [said in a bland Luca Brasi voice] ‘Don Corleone.’
“So I grabbed Lenny and said, ‘Come here, Lenny.’ When you open the door, you have to do something.’ ‘I was attempting to get him a job shovelling snow.’ Stick your tongue out when you say “Don Corleone” — his tongue looked like a shoebox for f–sake k’s — and I’ll put a piece of tape on it that says “F–k you.” ‘Oh, Jimmy, don’t make me do this,’ he cried, and I told him, ‘Lenny, please, it’s humour, everyone will laugh, and you’ll feel better.’ ‘Please take care of things for me.’
“So I get a piece of tape and place it on his tongue… boom, they shout ‘Action!’ and he says, “Don Corleone” — he sticks his tongue out and everyone falls over laughing.” He was a happy man. He was content. “Luca, my most cherished friend,” Marlon said, “and when he did that scene, he had “F–k you” inscribed on his tongue as well.”
In the scene where Sonny knocks up his pregnant sister’s husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo), on the street with his fists, legs, and the top of a garbage can, Caan stated he employed some on-the-spot improvisation.
He explained, “The stick I tossed at [Carlo] when he was running away wasn’t in the script.” “I chopped the end off one of those industrial brooms and stuffed it under my seat [in the automobile as Sonny approaches Carlo].” ‘It’s not in the script,’ they said, and I replied, ‘What the f–k is the difference, just put it down there.’ I swear to God, I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I knew it was something that a lot of the guys in my area did. They were dubbed ‘attitude adjusters.’ ‘That’s wonderful, Jimmy, you looked like you were going to miss him,’ Francis commented after I grabbed it and fired [the stick] at him. So he’s behind the cars on the other side, and luckily, I caught him on the top of the coconut on the upswing.”
For the scene in which Sonny confronts the FBI outside the Corleone compound on the day of Connie’s wedding and for Sonny’s iconic black-and-white shoes, Caan said he returned to his Bronx origins.
“One of those old square box cameras was used by the [FBI] guy to take a picture of me,” he explained. “I became so f—king hot that I grabbed his camera and smashed it on the ground, which was not in the script.” I withdrew about $40 from my wallet and continued walking — since, in my neighbourhood, you had to pay for it. It didn’t matter what you did; you had to pay the price.
“We didn’t have a big budget, to begin with, and we kept adding to it,” he chuckled. “They said, ‘The shoes aren’t in the script,’ and I responded, ‘A lot of Italian guys in my old neighbourhood have maybe two suits to their name, but they have ten pairs of shoes.’ So one day I went to The Bronx and bought those $10 black-and-white sneakers, which I wore in the movie.”