James Caan’s wild, hilarious memories of filming The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic mob drama The Godfather premiered on March 24, 1972.

The seminal film, which rivals Citizen Kane in terms of cinematic style and influence, transformed the career paths of its stars – including James Caan, who portrayed the fiery, doomed Santino “Sonny” Corleone, eldest son of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and brother of Fredo (John Cazale), Connie (Talia Shire) and Michael (Al Pacino).

Before his breakout, Oscar-nominated role in The Godfather, Bronx-born Caan was best known for roles in a number of ’60s television series – including The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Hour , “Get Smart”, “Wagon Train”, “Naked City” and “Route 66” – and for the role of the cancer-stricken Chicago Bears, who played Brian Piccolo opposite Billy Dee Williams (as Gale Sayers) in “Brian’s Song” , ABC’s tearful film, rewinds the week that aired in November 1971.

(He also appeared in several films, including 1969’s The Rain People, directed by Coppola — Caan’s classmate at Hofstra — and starring Robert Duvall, aka the Corleone Family consigliere Tom Hagen.)

Caan, who turns 82 on Saturday (March 26), spoke to The Post in a lengthy interview about his memories of filming The Godfather, which airs on TV somewhere pretty much every day — in all its iterations — and will be re-released on Tuesday (March 22) in a full 4K ultra high definition Blu-ray package.

“One of the things that made The Godfather so successful, besides the brilliant direction and script and the wonderful actors…was that everyone really enjoyed working on it and that shows on screen.” , said Caan. “And I think the audience can tell that we had a good time doing what we were doing up there.

Photograph of James Caan and Marlon Brando in a scene from Connie's wedding in "The Godfather." They both wear tuxedos.
Sonny and Don Vito Corleone (James Caan, Marlon Brando) in a scene from The Godfather.
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“Marlon was great,” Caan said of Brando. “He had a great sense of humor, but he had trouble getting the damn punch line at times. We went to lunch – those silly Polish jokes were coming out back then… and then two hours later, in the middle of a scene, I looked at him and said something, all of a sudden [imitates Brando laughing] I would say, “What the hell is wrong with you?” and he said [referring to the joke] ‘This is funny.’ Two hours later it was playing in his fucking head. He was like a kid like that. I loved him.”

Caan recalled how Coppola asked him to loosen up Lenny Montana, a hulking former pro wrestler and bodyguard for the Colombo crime family who made his screen debut as the gruff, feared Corleone enforcer Luca Brasi — who first appeared in the opening scene during the Wedding of Don Vito appears daughter Conni.

“He knocks on the door and says, ‘Don Corleone, I’m honored to be here on your daughter’s wedding day, may her first child…’ He did it a couple of times, the door opens, with the camera in the background other side of the door with Marlon. Francis comes running and said to me: ‘Jimmy, do something!’ I said, ‘What are you talking about Francis?’ He said, ‘Do something to him. I said, ‘What do you want me to do with that damn beast?’ ‘Do something to piss him off, do something of your st.’ He was stiff, and Francis was pissed that he couldn’t get more out of him than [said in flat Luca Brasi voice] “Don Corleone.”

James Caan and Al Pacino in the wedding scene "The Godfather." They talk in front of a tree;  Sonny is in a tuxedo and Michael is in his army uniform.
Brothers Sonny and Michael Corleone (James Caan, Al Pacino) in the wedding scene from The Godfather.
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“So I grabbed Lenny and said, ‘Lenny, come here. You have to do something when you open the door.” I tried to give him that snow job. “When you say, ‘Don Corleone,’ stick your tongue out’—his tongue looked like a shoebox, for Christ’s sake—’and I’ll put a piece of tape on it that says ‘F-k you.'” He was like a baby, ‘Oh, Jimmy, don’t make me do that,’ and I said, ‘Lenny, please, it’s humor, everyone will laugh and it will make you feel better. Please do this for me.’

“So I take a piece of duct tape and put it on his tongue… Boom, they say ‘Action!’ and then he says “Don Corleone” – he sticks his tongue out and everyone falls out laughing. He smiled. He was happy. Marlon’s phrase was ‘Luca my most valued friend’ and when he was filming that scene he also had ‘Fk you’ written on his tongue.”

Caan also said he improvised a bit in the scene where Sonny beats his pregnant sister’s husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo), in the street with his fists, his legs, and the lid of a garbage can.

“The stick I threw at [Carlo] if he runs away, that 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 the hell is the difference, just write 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 in my neighborhood were doing it. We called them “attitude changers”. I just grabbed it and fired [the stick] and Francis said, ‘That’s great Jimmy, you looked like you missed him.’ So he’s behind the cars on the other side and luckily I caught him on the upswing at the top of the coconut.”

Photo of Sonny Corleone being gunned down at the tollbooth "The Godfather." He is leaning out of the car with his suit jacket smeared with blood, his face contorted with pain.
Sonny, damn Sonny: shot down in a hail of bullets at a tollbooth.
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Recent photo by James Caan.  He is smiling for the camera and is wearing a light colored suit with brown tie.
James Caan in 2017. He was born and raised in the Bronx.

Caan said he also went back to his Bronx roots for the scene where Sonny confronts the FBI on the day of Connie’s wedding just outside the Corleone compound — and for Sonny’s iconic black-and-white shoes.

“The [FBI] The guy took a picture of me with one of those old square cameras,” he said. “It wasn’t in the script [but] I got so damn hot I grabbed his camera and smashed it on the floor. I took about $40 out of my pocket and kept walking—because my neighborhood paid for it. It didn’t matter what you did, but you paid for it.

“We didn’t really have a big budget and kept adding to it,” he says with a smile. “They said, ‘The shoes aren’t in the script,’ and I said, ‘A lot of Italians in my old neighborhood might have two suits to their name, but they have 10 pairs of shoes.’ So one day I went to the Bronx and bought these black and white shoes for $10 and wore them in the movie.”

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