Thursday, March 25, 2021

'Godfather' film memoir: celebrating 50 years, the making of a classic

The Church of San Nicolò in Savoca was the filming location of some of the iconic scenes in "The Godfather." We joined fans of the film to visit the village and climb to the church, remembering the wedding of Michael Corleone and Apollonia and other scenes shot a half-century ago.

The village of Savoca, Italy, owes its recent prosperity to
the legendary film, "The Godfather," shot there 50 years ago.


PHOTOS By BRUCE KELLER  and courtesy Paramount Studios

A SMALL VILLAGE in Sicily owes its popularity to a film made there 50 years ago. That's when principal photography on "The Godfather" began. The film is now considered legendary, a landmark motion picture, and I hold happy memories of attending its  premier and visiting the film's on-location setting.


The film premiered in 1972, with a gala charity
event followed by several other showings.

I was invited -- along with movie reviewers from all 50 states and many foreign countries -- to Loew's State Theater, New York, March 25, 1972. It was a gala event, a star-studded evening. I'd been to Italy twice already, but had not visited Savoca. Forty-five years later, Bruce Keller and I did.  We spent a day in Savoca, where much of the film was shot in 1971. 

 DIRECTOR Francis Ford Coppola scouted Sicily to find the perfect "borghi."  He fell in love with the historic village of Savoca because it captured his imagination; he could picture the Mario Puzo story unfolding there. His vision would come true, as Savoca became the centerpiece for his masterful film.

Marlon Brando in the leading role takes direction from
Francis Ford Coppola in a studio shot, March, 1971.
What attracts most visitors here is the chance to retrace the locations of the film.  All manner of "Godfather" memorabilia awaits -- t-shirts, shot glasses, posters.  The bar-cafe where other scenes were shot is the much visited Bar Vitelli, and we stopped there at day's end to enjoy a cocktail.
THE CASTING of Brando was controversial because the studio was considering Anthony Quinn and Ernest Borgnine for the role of Mafia boss Don Vito Corleone, chief of the organized crime family.
But Coppola was insistent: his first and only choice was Marlon Brando.
Writer Puzo agreed and the inflexible stand of the pair caused a stir at Paramount. But after much debate, Brando it was!

Director Francis Ford Coppola's Italian
 heritage was a plus for Paramount's decision.
THEN AL PACINO was hired to play the part of the young Michael Corleone. We heard tales of his time in the village, while reminiscing at Bar Vitelli.  It's at the entrance to town, where young Michael meets the cafe owner, the father of of his future wife.
Our cocktail there was our reward for making it up the steep slopes to the Church of San Nicolò where the wedding between Michael and
Keller and Cookie relax at
the end of their Savoca tour.

Apollonia took place. Most of the principal photography took place a half-century ago, from March 29, 1971, to August 6, 1971. A whiz-bang total of 77 days of shooting -- fewer than the 83 planned days -- brought the picture in under budget.

The success of "The Godfather" has also meant success
in tourism for the village of Savoca. Here, an artful tribute. 

AS WE CLIMBED, we joined other tourists and locals on the streets -- shopping, dining, browsing, selling "Godfather" memorabilia and limoncello. Taking breaks on the  cactus lined hill, we admired citrus trees, olive groves and vineyards below. We wanted to explore this small medieval town on foot but we'd underestimated the climb's steepness.

The narrow streets, flanked by historic buildings, are like those of all southern Europe -- meandering, full of history and intriguing shops. Below, we caught views that reach as far as the Gulf of Taormina. We also rested often, enjoying the visual treats.

The famous wedding
scene from the film.
Paramount promoted "The Godfather" as the first Italian mob drama made by Italians, but we found from our bartender that some of his American relatives were skeptical. "Italian-Americans were always portrayed as criminals in the movies," Giuseppe said, "and my people were tired of the stereotypes."
We did some homework. There was controversy. Joseph Colombo, of the crime family that bore his name, formed The Italian-American Civil Rights League in 1969 demanding the words “mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” be pulled from the script and that all the money the movie made at its premier be donated to a fund to build a new hospital. This came to be.
 THE CHOICE of the leading man wasn't the only cause for debate. Studio production chief, Robert Evans, approached several directors—including Sergio Leone and Costa Gavras— before hiring the relatively
Cactus lines the walk to the church in Savoca
where "The Godfather" scenes were filmed.
unknown Coppola, who was only 31 years old. As an Italian American, Coppola wanted to to make the film an authentic representation of the culture and times. He wanted to do justice to family loyalty and the complex relationships within the Corleone family, rather than focusing on the crime aspect. He worked with Puzo on the screenplay and persuaded Paramount to increase the film's meager $2.5 million budget.
Coppola persuaded Paramount to up the ante to $7 million.  The film made $287 million, was nominated for 11 Oscars, won three and will long be remembered for Nino Rota's haunting score.

Actor, poet, teacher Bruce Meyers was born April 1, 1943.
He acted in more than 50 performances and taught at MSU-
Billings for 25 years before his death in 1992.
We segue from the movies to theater as we celebrate the life of Bruce Kemp Meyers, born April 1, 1943.  He would be 78 years old this week, so we celebrate his talents and note his remarkable legacy as actor, teacher, poet, friend. We'll also update readers on the Bruce Meyers scholarship fund at Montana State University-Billings where Meyers taught for 25 years.  Each year, it honors an English major and it is possible to contribute to this worthy endeavor. Tune in for fun memories of a talented man. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us Fridays for a fresh look at the arts, travel, nature, family and more:



  1. I can hear the wonderful theme song now. Thanks for the memories.

  2. Fun story, interesting life you're having! We know this little village, too, and the Vitele Bar! Nice.

  3. We loved hearing this colorful history.