Why Jack Nicholson turned down The Godfather

Jack Nicholson had a long and storied career spanning decades but he never officially worked with Francis Ford Coppola, here's why he turned down The Godfather

Jack Nicholson in the departed

Jack Nicholson had a long and storied career spanning decades. Along the way, he made a number of films that are widely considered some of the best movies of all time and worked with directors like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and even Tim Burton.

He never officially worked with Francis Ford Coppola, though – although unofficially Coppola shot large portions of the 1963 horror movie The Terror starring Nicholson, but was uncredited for his work. Coppola did want to work with Nicholson, however, and even offered him the part of Michael in The Godfather, which ended up going to Al Pacino.

So why did Nicholson turn down the chance to star in what some consider the greatest gangster movie ever made? Well, he thought an Italian should play the lead.  “Back then, I believed that Indians should play Indians and Italians should play Italians,” he told Movieline in 2004. “Mario Puzo had written such a great book that if you go back to it you’ll see so much of what was special about the movie. There were a lot of actors who could have played Michael, myself included, but Al Pacino was Michael Corleone.”

Pacino was always Coppola’s first choice to play Michael. The problem was that Paramount, the studio financing the film, thought he was too short for the role. The studio pushed for a more recognisable ‘name’ to play Michael, at one point offering the role to Burt Reynolds.

Reynolds was reportedly keen, but Marlon Brando threatened to walk away if he came on the project. Eventually, the studio settled on the late great James Caan to play Michael but Coppola pushed back. A compromise was finally reached where Pacino would play Michael while Caan would take the role of Sonny, the eldest of the  Corleone children and the most violent.

If you love The Godfather, check out our list of the best drama movies ever made.