At the end of "The Godfather Part III," which opens in nearly 2,000 theaters across the country today, Michael Corleone blows his brains out.
Scratch that. He dies in a diabetic coma.
No wait. He gets shot, then his nephew murders the archbishop . . . .
Well, actually, none of the above occurs at the end of Francis Ford Coppola's third entry in the Corleone family saga, but those endings were among many written in the 18 versions of the screenplay during the last two years. Two versions were filmed.
Even as late as September, Coppola was shooting new scenes that he had just completed writing. All that frantic, sometimes chaotic, composition has finally been condensed into the two-hour, 41-minute "Godfather III," which arrives 16 years after the second, Oscar-winning installment, in 1974.
The film marks the close of an epic struggle by Paramount Pictures and its chief executive, Frank Mancuso, to breathe life into this long-awaited sequel to two of the most popular and critically acclaimed movies of all time.
Mancuso and his studio have more than a $55-million production bill and an estimated $20-million-plus marketing tab riding on this movie: Their prestige is deeply wrapped up in the production. "(The first two 'Godfather' movies) were the pinnacles of achievement--motion pictures that did tremendously creatively, as well as being commercial successes," said Mancuso, who had made "Godfather III" a top priority of his regime. "You always attempt to achieve that combination."
The latest episode brings back some of the original cast--Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire--in a story about a Corleone family gone "legit" being drawn back into the violent underworld by Michael's attempt to take over a Vatican-connected conglomerate.
Andy Garcia plays Vincent Mancini, Michael's nephew and unlikely heir apparent. Michael's daughter--Vincent's lover and first cousin--is played by Coppola's own daughter, Sofia; it's a key performance, originally cast with Winona Ryder, that has met with derision from many critics.
This wasn't always the cast or story line for "Godfather III." Not even close. Before Coppola and author Mario Puzo got involved, Paramount commissioned 15 treatments and screenplays by at least nine writers. Even former Paramount chief Michael Eisner once tried his hand at writing a story line.
At various times, the movie was to star Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta and Eddie Murphy, and Coppola wasn't the only director the studio considered. The names of Martin Scorsese, Richard Brooks and Dan Curtis were all mentioned. The story's various backdrops included CIA plots, Colombian drug rings and the Las Vegas casino scene. Even the original story that Coppola and Mario Puzo finished in the spring of 1989 changed markedly over the course of pre-production, production and post-production.
The scripts accommodated major cast changes, most notably the loss of Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen, the trusted \o7 consiglieri \f7 of Vito and then Michael Corleone in Parts I and II, when Paramount refused to meet Duvall's salary demands. And there was Coppola's own frenetic style, his penchant for writing as he goes, that caused even some of the new film's fans to lament the muddled complexities of the story and to acknowledge that it is far from the level of perfection reached by its predecessors.
"Godfather III" is dedicated to Charles Bludhorn, the late chairman of Gulf and Western (which owned Paramount), who made the second sequel a kind of guiding mantra for the company. "He felt it was a brand name, a valuable asset, that you had to do it," said Mancuso.
Mancuso worked in Paramount's distribution department when Parts I and II were released and got caught up in Bludhorn's passion for the series. Mancuso was along when Bludhorn flew Richard Brooks to Paramount's Dominican Republic resort and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to direct the project.
But Paramount's West Coast office made its own attempts. In June, 1977, Michael Eisner, then head of the studio, proposed a plot for "Godfather III" involving a new Mafia family's offers to aid in a CIA assassination attempt in return for drug-trafficking support. Eisner's regime also solicited screenplays --all of them focused on the next generation of the Corleone family.
In a 1978 screenplay by the late Alexander Jacobs (co-writer of "The French Connection II"), Michael's son, Anthony, tries to legitimize the empire, but his cousin embroils the family in renewed family warfare and a stock fraud scheme. That same year, Puzo--author of the novel that inspired the series, and Coppola's co-writer on all three--wrote a 53-page treatment in which the CIA recruits Michael's son to assassinate a Latin-American leader, while Michael, posing as a mentally ill recluse, actually runs the family business behind the scenes.