Academy Award-winning director, producer and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola, a 1960 alumnus of Hofstra University’s drama department, celebrates his 75th birthday on Monday, April 7. In tribute, Assistant Professor Rodney Hill, PhD, of the Department of Radio, Television, Film answers our questions about the acclaimed movie maker (pictured above, center, in a Hofstra production), who also received an honorary degree in fine arts from Hofstra in 1977.
Dr. Hill is co-author of The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia (2010), which has been hailed as ‘essential for Coppola enthusiasts and film studies collections,” and co-editor of 2004’s Francis Ford Coppola: Interviews. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in film and documentary studies, including a course last fall on film authorship that focused on Coppola’s work, which includes the Godfather trilogy, Patton, and Apocalypse Now, among others.
Q. What’s your favorite Coppola movie, and why?
My favorite Coppola film is, without question, The Godfather: Part II. It is a landmark of the American cinema, epic in its narrative and stylistically brilliant. It’s the only clear-cut case I can recall of a sequel that is even better than the original (which is also a tremendous cinematic achievement). Coppola wanted to give the film a mythic dimension, seeing the Corleone “family” as a metaphor for America. Structurally, Part II is quite innovative, alternating between the rise to power (and moral decline) of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in the 1950s storyline, and the flashbacks of his father, Vito, (Robert DeNiro) as a young man coming to America and embarking upon a life of organized crime. The way that Coppola moves between the two time periods is truly graceful, elegant, even poetic. For example, when Vito as a child is quarantined on Ellis Island, he sings a song as he looks out the window of his hospital room. Coppola then dissolves to the first communion of Anthony Vito Corleone, son of Michael and Kay (Diane Keaton), at roughly the same age, with the same tune being performed at the ceremony. Of course much of the film’s appeal has to do with its marvelous cast, which also includes Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister, who plays Connie), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), and the late John Cazale (Fredo). Another key collaborator is cinematographer Gordon Willis, who gives both films their distinctive look, with his gorgeous use of color and shadow.
Q. Who else was considered for the main roles in The Godfather?
Coppola always wanted Marlon Brando for Don Vito Corleone and Al Pacino for Michael. However, the executives at Paramount thought that either Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal (both more established than Pacino at the time) would be a better fit for the character of Michael. Studio chief Robert Evans objected to the casting of Brando, who had a reputation for being very difficult. Evans insisted that Coppola shoot a screen test of Brando, knowing that the temperamental actor would refuse; but Coppola got around this problem by telling Brando that he needed to shoot a make-up test.
Q. Did Coppola first meet James Caan (Sonny Corleone in The Godfather) when both were students here at Hofstra?
Yes. James Caan is also a star in of one of Coppola’s early feature films, The Rain People (1969), which was shot partly on Hofstra’s campus — we see Caan portraying a football player during the scenes filmed here. Another Hofstra alum, Lainie Kazan, appears in Coppola’s film, One From the Heart. According to critic Lillian Ross, who interviewed Coppola in 1982, Kazan was a Hofstra classmate and acted in some of his theatre productions here. Two other classmates, Ronald Colby and Robert Spiotta, also worked with him as a producer and executive, respectively, at Zoetrope Studios.
Q. If Coppola were a Godfather character, who would he be? Which would you be?
The character in The Godfather who most resembles Coppola, to me, is Clemenza (Richard Castellano), especially in the scene where he is cooking spaghetti and teasing Michael about his phone call with Kay. As for me, it’s tough to say, since I don’t really see any of the characters as role models. I am most fascinated by Michael, especially in the first movie, because he starts out as an upstanding war hero whom Vito wants to shield from the “family business,” but ultimately he gets pulled into the crime “family” that Vito has created. Michael is a terrific tragic hero.
Q. What would you say is his most underrated film?
One From the Heart (1982) is a charming, old-fashioned musical romance, beautiful in many ways, and terribly underrated. Although I don’t count it among Coppola’s greatest films, it certainly is one of his most ambitious and personal visions. The problem, I think, is that audiences were expecting something quite different; but to fully understand Coppola the artist, one has to give this film its due.
Q. Tell us some little-known or interesting facts about Francis Ford Coppola.
- Coppola never wanted to make any of the Godfather films, and he only did so in order to get the chance to make the kinds of films he really wanted to make (such as the brilliant 1974 drama, The Conversation).
- Coppola got his start in Hollywood working for B-movie producer Roger Corman on a number of films, before directing his first feature film for Corman: a low-budget horror movie called Dementia 13 (1963).
- Numerous members of the Coppola family have been involved in the film and entertainment business: His father, Carmine Coppola, played flute in the NBC radio orchestra under Arturo Toscanini in the 1940s, and he later composed the music for several of his films; Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman are both Coppola’s nephews; Sofia Coppola and Roman Coppola (his daughter and son) both have directed and written films of their own; his sister, Talia Shire, is a respected actor and producer; and his wife, Eleanor, has made several documentaries about her family’s film work.
- Coppola’s eldest son, Giancarlo (Gio) died tragically in a boating accident in 1986. Many years later, Coppola incorporated that heavy personal loss into one of his films, Twixt (2012), in which Val Kilmer plays a writer haunted by the death of his teenaged daughter in a similar boating accident.
Photo above: courtesy Hofstra Special Collections