MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Robert De Niro was "traded" from Paramount to MGM so that Al Pacino could be allowed to star in The Godfather.
When it was released, The Godfather became one of those rare films that was a commercial blockbuster while being considered a masterpiece, critically, as well. However, the road to success was a tricky one, as the production of the film was troubled right from the start, as producer Robert Evans and director Francis Ford Coppola clashed throughout the filming of the movie (I once did a legend about how one scene was cut from the first Godfather and then re-done in the second Godfather and was cut there, too!). Heck, even BEFORE they started filming, the two men clashed over a number of things, including the casting of perhaps the most pivotal roles in the film, that of Michael Corleone, the youngest son of Don Vito Corleone, whose place in the birth order allowed him to avoid the pressure of having to follow in his father's footsteps, so Michael was the Corleone who was destined to go legit. Of course, things never work out the way you plan them and instead, Michael is forced to take over as the "Godfather" of the Corleone family, while "taking care of all family business" in a shocking day of violence (I guess I'm technically spoiling The Godfather for you, but, I mean, it's The Godfather, right? You know what happens in The Godfather, right?).
The role went to Al Pacino, who was brilliant in it. Pacino would later reprise the role in The Godfather II, which was the rare sequel to be possibly even MORE acclaimed than the original. Both films won the Academy Award for Best Movie (a very rare achievement for a sequel).
Anyhow, Coppola and Evans fought a lot over Pacino getting the role. Evans was very much against it. Pacino was a relatively unknown performer and the role was so good that Evans (and other executives at Paramount Studios) believed that a star should play the role. They already had a major star in Marlon Brando for Vito Corleone, they wanted a star who could match Brando. Since they couldn't just settle on Pacino, they auditioned many other actors (one actor, James Caan, ended up in the role of Michael's hot-headed brother, Sonny). One actor they tried out for the role (and for Sonny, as well) was an even more unknown actor named Robert De Niro. De Niro did not get either major role, but Coppola liked him enough that he cast him as Paulie, Vito Corleone's personal driver (who later betrays Vito and is then killed for his betrayal).
Okay, so time is passing and Pacino is getting impatient that he's screen tested THREE times for this movie and they still won't commit to him. So his agent decides that enough is enough and cuts a deal with MGM that Pacino will co-star in the comedic gangster film, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. His agent did so without Pacino's express permission.
A few days after agreeing to be in that movie, Paramount finally offers Pacino the role.
As the story goes, as part of a negotiation with MGM to allow Pacino to do The Godfather, Paramount agreed to trade them De Niro, who would drop out of The Godfather and star in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight in Pacino's place.
However, I think that that is a bit of a stretch. Martin Bregman, Pacino's longtime manager, recalled the situation to Andrew Yule for Al Pacino: A Life on the Wire, "It was being settled in Los Angeles and was all very high-powered. Al did not want to go out there to settle the matter. He was uncomfortable about the whole deal. He didn't understand why he had to go; he'd never personally agreed to do the film; he found the whole thing insane. I went to pick him up on the morning of the flight. He had two shots before he got on the plane, then became a little tipsy on the way. I had to drag him into the meeting. If I hadn't, he'd never have been allowed to do The Godfather." Bregman explained that they agreed that Pacino would do a later film for MGM (he then bragged that Pacino never actually did do a film for MGM).
Lawrence Grobel interviewed Pacino about it later in the 1970s...
And what did you get for the first Godfather?
For the first one I got thirty-five thousand. About fifteen thousand I owed in legal fees.
I was involved in a movie called The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight at MGM. I can't talk too much about it, because I don't know the details. My lawyer is taking care of it, but I was supposed to have said yes and signed for it, and then the Godfather came along.
Later, Grobel returned to the topic...
And then, after the picture [The Godfather - BC] was made, MGM got its lawyers after you?
Naturally. After Godfather II the MGM people remembered their lawsuit against me and said I owed them a picture. It was a real crazy legal battle that was costing me hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Pacino then explained that he ultimately just went to the head of MGM and settled it out of court (Pacino, of course, by that point was famous enough that he could do stuff like that).
Sure doesn't sound like some official deal was made involving De Niro and Pacino, right? Especially not if Pacino was still dealing with the legal after effects years later.
Meanwhile, in Untouchable: Robert De Niro: Unauthorised by Andy Dougan, he described the situation like this, "
"He was eventually given the role of the traitorous Paulie Gatto. It was a supporting role but he was happy to take it. But when the chance of a leading role in a major movie came along he dropped out of The Godfather and signed on to play in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Just to complete the round of musical casting chairs, the actor who gave him his chance by dropping out of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight was none other than Al Pacino, who was going in the opposite direction."
Finally, though, just using Occam's Razor, it doesn't seem realistic that De Niro would have been a big enough star for him to be WORTH "trading" him for the film.
It seems a lot more likely that he just got offered a starring role and Coppola wasn't going to hold De Niro to play a tiny role in The Godfather when another picture was offering him a main role. So yes, I'm sure Coppola did technically have to let De Niro out of his Godfather contract, but it doesn't appear to be a trade like that.
Of course, the funny part is that by virtue of no longer playing Paulie in The Godfather, it freed De Niro up to play young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II, which won De Niro his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
So I'm going with the legend as...
Thanks to Lawrence Grobel, Andrew Yule and Andy Dougan for the information (and thanks to Pacino and Bregman, of course, for their part in the information).
Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of TV.
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