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Robert Duvall on 50th anniversary of 'The Godfather'

Robert Duvall Tom Hagen.jpg
Paramount Pictures
Robert Duvall cites this scene as his favorite in "The Godfather."

Today, Paramount releases the 4K Ultra HD of the newly restored "Godfather Trilogy" overseen by Francis Ford Coppola.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of "The Godfather," the film adaptation of Mario Puzo's best selling novel. Coppola was part of an American New Wave of filmmakers trained at film schools and the movie marked a bridging of new and old Hollywood.

Coppola was under extreme pressure from the studio to deliver the picture it wanted but he fought to get the cast he had chosen — especially Marlon Brando and Al Pacino — over such ridiculous studio choices as Robert Redford and Ryan O'Neal.

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Actor Robert Duvall, who played Tom Hagen in the film, said, Coppola "thought he was going to be fired."

Fortunately, Coppola held his ground and the studio kept him employed. The result was one of the most perfectly crafted films in cinema history.

It may not seem groundbreaking today but back in 1972 it was. Coppola took what could have been a formulaic gangster film starring non-Italians and turned it into a portrait of Italian Americans starring actors who actually looked the part. Some people objected to that portrait of Italian Americans involved in crime but it is a world that did exist in New York at the time.

Coppola also gave the film an unexpected warmth and artistry to contrast the brutal violence of the mob world. It was a film perfectly crafted, from Gordon Willis' exquisite and richly shadowed cinematography to Nino Rota's hauntingly memorable score. Every face on screen — from the extras at the wedding to Luca Brasi to Mama Corleone — looked exactly right.

Coppola wanted Duvall to play Tom Hagen, the adopted son of Vito Corleone and the actor was perfect. His performance is subtle and nuanced, a contrast to characters such as James Caan's volatile Sonny Corleone. But editors William Reynolds and Peter Zinner understood how to make every performance play as part of a great ensemble. They found exactly the right reactions and quiet moments to make Duvall's Hagen as memorable and effective as any of the more flamboyant roles.

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Paramount
Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen and Al Pacino as Michael Corleone at Don Vito's funeral in "The Godfather" (1972).

Duvall, now 91, recalled of playing Hagen, "he's an adopted son. So he couldn't step over the line. I couldn't step over the line as an actor or as the character. And it was great to be part of the family."

The actor appreciated Coppola as a director: "He wants to see what you bring. I work with a lot of directors who say do this, this and this. But he sits back and listens, and appreciates what you bring to the table. That's the way he works. And that's why he's such a good director, good with actors. He wants to see what you bring. He doesn't dictate."

Duvall was doing a press day for Paramount's new release of the restored film so he was in the mood to reminisce, first about his hometown of San Diego and then about "The Godfather."

"I was born in Mission Hills, San Diego, California, [went to] Grant Elementary School. But I don't get back that way much. My dad had gone to the Naval Academy when he was 16, and we were stationed there several times in San Diego. We used to go to the Marine base and watch a movie for a dime, way back, way back before 'The Godfather.' You can't do that any more," Duvall said in our Zoom interview.

Godfather II.jpg
Paramount
Robert Duvall would reprise the role of Tom Hagen for "The Godfather, Part II" in 1974.

Looking back on the two "Godfather" films he noted, "I'm so glad I could be a part of them. It's just iconic filmmaking and part of the way through 'Godfather I' I said, 'I know we're doing something very special, very special. I've only felt that twice, and I felt it very strongly, and that turned out to be right. It's just a feeling, you go with feelings."

The other time he felt that way was on "Lonesome Dove."

"That's the most iconic thing I'm approached on all over the world, especially in Texas," Duvall said. "I went into the dressing room on 'Lonesome Dove,' I said, 'Boys, we're making The Godfather of Westerns.'"

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CBS
Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in "Lonesome Dove."

I recently saw some behind the scenes photos from "The Godfather," and there was one of Duvall standing with cue cards taped to his chest for Marlon Brando to read. So I asked what his memories were of that.

"I think by reading them, I think it was a combination of things, maybe a little laziness, but also so he could be more spontaneous and more alive," Duvall recalled. "He was always searching for the lines, so we went along with that. I tried that once on a project. It didn't work, I think you could do it that way but I think if you know your lines perfect, you can still be very spontaneous."

As for his favorite scene, he said there were a few but ultimately went with a quietly emotional one.

"I guess the one I go to, obviously, is when I tell [Vito] that Sonny has been killed. I remember that scene with Brando. I have to tell him the bad news," Duvall said.

Paramount briefly released "The Godfather" in cinemas and it was spectacular to see the gloriously restored print on the big screen. The home theater experience might not be quite as breathtaking but the careful restoration overseen by Coppola will be well worth adding to your home collection.