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'Godfather Iii': The Movie Waiting To Happen

November 24, 1985|DAVID T. FRIENDLY

It was "Godfather III" business. It has been 11 years since "Godfather II" arrived on the screen and surprised audiences and critics alike by nearly equaling the style and power of its predecessor. Both movies won best-picture Oscars, a feat unduplicated in this Era of the Sequel. There have been 14 James Bond movies, five "Pink Panthers" and now a fourth "Rocky" (opening Wednesday), but there have been just two "Godfathers." "Godfather III" is the movie that everyone wants to see but no one seems able to make.

Sequels generally get made for one reason. Like star names on the marquees, they give a picture built-in momentum: The audience has an instant familiarity with the subject matter. With the "Godfather" movies, that familiarity would, of course, be enormous.

The first two episodes are classics and brought the studio immeasurable prestige--and healthy profits. The two movies have grossed more than $700 million--"I" took in about $400 million in worldwide grosses, and "II" about $200 million worldwide, according to Robert Evans, who was chief of worldwide production at Paramount when the first "Godfather" was made (Stanley Jaffe was president of the studio) and is now an independent producer on the lot. The two together earned an additional $100 million in television and videocassette sales. " 'Godfather I' was really the first of the modern blockbusters," Evans said.

Today the Godfather character and even some of his don't-get-mad-get-even philosophy is entrenched in American culture. Its legacy is used to hype everything from pudding (Bill Cosby dressed as a godfather) to pizza (the Godfather chain). Used-car dealers promise offers you can't refuse and the theme music is piped into elevators.

No one understands that better than the executives at Paramount. For years, they have been trying to make a third chapter in the saga. According to one insider, the studio has spent an estimated $800,000 developing scripts, treatments and story lines for what would almost certainly become an instant hit.

Says Evans: "Of course they (Paramount) should make it ("III"). Because there is an audience out there that wants to see it and that's what the movie business is about. . . . But when you have a natural resource as rich as 'The Godfather,' you must protect it as well as make it blossom."

And Paramount has tried to do just that. At today's prices, it would hardly be cost effective to assemble the original cast, but over the years the studio has recruited some of the most bankable star names in an effort to come up with a commercial and tasteful continuation of the story. Imagine Sylvester Stallone as the Godfather (a deal was almost signed for him to star in and direct "III"). Imagine John Travolta as Anthony, Michael Corleone's son. (Bludhorn wanted him desperately to play the role.) Says Michael Eisner, a former Paramount studio president: "For about a three-year period there, anyone with an Italian last name was up for the part." And imagine Eddie Murphy calling Francis Coppola (director of the first two films) and Mario Puzo (author of the novel and co-author of the films) earlier this year (he did) and expressing his serious interest in a role in "Godfather III."

Even if Coppola were available (there are serious doubts whether Paramount would use him) and Al Pacino affordable, the movie would still be a long shot.

Thus far, the biggest hurdle has been in finding a script, and Paramount has employed some of the best-known writers as well. There have been attempts by Puzo and novelist Vincent Patrick ("Pope of Greenwich Village") and Dean Riesner ("Dirty Harry," re-writer of "Starman").

Even top executives have tried their typing fingers on the saga. In his only known venture into such writing, chairman Bludhorn collaborated with Puzo on the story for his treatment. Michael Eisner wrote a story proposal. Eisner, now chairman of the board at Walt Disney Productions, said: "In the eight years I was there, we just never had the right idea. We tried stories with Cubans, Kennedys and political assassinations, but it never worked out. It was a movie waiting to happen, but somehow it would always run out of gas."

This search for a sequel has taken a circuitous and circular route. On the way, it reveals the complications and pitfalls inherent in that quirky Hollywood gray area called development.

Paramount initially agreed to cooperate and "authorize" studio executives to discuss the chronology of "Godfather III." But just as Calendar began its reporting, the studio balked. At the direction of chairman Mancuso--who, according to an aide, is now himself championing efforts to try yet again to make "III"--executives were told not to cooperate with Calendar. "Development is the lifeblood of this company," explained studio president Steel. "We just can't comment on this one."

Perhaps. But the studio may also feel some embarrassment over its inability to get "III" made.

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