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Bonus Episode: Robert Duvall on 'The Godfather'

 March 22, 2022 at 1:57 PM PDT

Hi I’m Beth Accomando, host of the Cinema Junkie Podcast and today you get a bonus edition podcast featuring actor Robert Duvall. I got to speak with him last week via zoom because not only is the godfather celebrating a 50 year anniversary but today Paramount is releasing a 4K Ultra HD restoration supervised by director Francis Ford Coppola of all three Godfather films. That is something to celebrate.

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 Coppola 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.

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 being of Italian Americans involved in crime but it is a world that did exist in New York at that time.

Coppola also gave the film an unexpected warmth and artistry to contrast with the brutal violence of the mob world. It was a film expertly 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.

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

San Diego. That's where I was born. Mission Hills, San Diego, California, the 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 or anything.

So 50 years later, what do you feel most proud of about your work in The Godfather and about the film itself?

Godfather One or two of great films. I'm so glad I could be a part of them. It's just iconic filmmaking and part of the way through Godfather One, I said, I know we're under 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.

What was the other time?

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

What did you like most about playing Tom? What did you connect with in that character?

Well, it's a good character. Maybe 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. You know, I think in one of the other two, I got kicked out of the family. I think I haven't seen the film in 25 years since the last time it opened.

And what was Francis Ford Copper like as a director on that first film? Because I know he was dealing with a lot of pressure from the studio.

Yeah, he thought he was going to be fired, but he was the way he always is. He wants to see what you bring. And I work with character actors, directors to say do this. He sets 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 with a performance like yours that's really subtle and such a part of an ensemble. What role did the film Editors, William Reynolds and Peter's, interplay in kind of finding all those perfect little moments to highlight while they were editing?

Well, I don't know. We just hopefully we gave them something edit. I guess we did. You know, I call it a journey from ink to behavior, from the script to what you eventually put forth as the result. And I guess we gave them a lot of results, although those are saying don't be a result actor. Let the process take you to the results rather than going to the result. And hopefully I and the others gave them what they needed to do. But couple of said, yeah, you just paste it together. But I'm sure he was right in there telling them what to do and listening, but still, we have to follow.

And how did the shooting of The Godfather compare with The Godfather, too? Because by that time, Cobble had kind of proven himself. And did the set feel different?

It was different because it was more serious, because Jimmy Connors always laughs. We have a lot of laughs. He's he tell a joke or take Brand of 3 seconds together. But the second one was a little more serious. But we respected Coppola. And what he asked for. Both were different, but both were unique under themselves, but terrific. Sometimes I'd be watching TV and I see a part of Godfather, too. Let me watch a little, and I sit there watching the whole thing. Filmmaking terrific stuff.

And I recently saw some behind the scenes photos from The Godfather, and there was one of you standing with, like, cue cards taped to your chest for Marlon Brando. And so I'm wondering, what kind of memories do you have from shooting that and what kind of challenges were there by reading them?

I think it was a combination of things, maybe a little laziness, but also it could be more spontaneous and more alive. He was always searching for the lines, so we went along with that. I tried that once in a project. It didn't work, but I think you could do it that way. But I think if, you know, your line is so perfect, you can still be very spontaneous. I'm trying to think of when Luca Blossi trying to think of the story where you have a son, a beautiful son, and that's what he says to Brando. So we got him to put a writer thing on his tongue that stuck out. May you have a beautiful son. He sticks his tongue out and says, oh, my God, Brandon laughing. But once again, if you're there, all those things help relax situation. And Copper would say, come on, we've got to be serious now. Come on, let's go back. But he knew that by messing around and being funny, it was a relaxation project that helped the overall atmosphere of the set. He welcomed those things. Come on, guys. He knew it was very therapeutic.

Do you have a favorite scene or moment from the film for you personally?

There were a number of them, but I think that I guess the one I go to, obviously, when I tell him that Sonny has been killed, I remember that they shot something on the Causeway. He's dead. That same with Brando. Yeah. But I have to tell him that telling the bad news.

And did you feel that being in The Godfather impacted your career or impacted you personally?

Well, personally, but I suppose it did. But my career, it helped everybody's career. But I always thought the repercussions of that movie itself for me would come a little bit later than the others because I was always a late bloomer and eight or ten years later would help me more. I think that was the case, ace.

Thanks for listening to this mini podcast featuring the great Robert Duvall. Cinema Junkie will return in May to bi-weekly shows.

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.

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Paramount Pictures
Robert Duvall played Tom Hagen in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" in 1972.
Today, Paramount releases the 4K Ultra HD of the newly restored "Godfather Trilogy" overseen by Francis Ford Coppola. Actor Robert Duvall talks about being in the film.

Actor Robert 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 a mood to reminisce, first about his hometown of San Diego and then about "The Godfather."

NOTE: This episode contains explicit language.

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