One reason for the longevity of "The Godfather" over the past 40 years is that, behind its gangster plot, is a classic story of an American family, tracing its journey from immigration and poverty toward assimilation and success. In fact, it's not just the story of the Corleone family, but of the Coppola family as well. The movie feels like a personal glimpse into a family album, but it's director/co-screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola's family album as much as it is the fictional Michael Corleone's.

True, the characters came from Mario Puzo's novel. But, on screen, Coppola not only invested them with details from his own family history, he even cast several members of his own family in the three movies, often in roles corresponding to their real-life relationships to him. Playing Michael's sister Connie was Francis' sister, Talia Shire. The director's father and mother, Carmine and Italia Coppola, both appeared as extras; musician Carmine (who composed some music for the three films and won an Oscar for "Part II") is briefly seen as a pianist in the first film, while Italia doubled for Michael's mother during her wake when actress Morgana King didn't want to be photographed in a coffin.

At the end of "The Godfather," Connie's son by Carlo Rizzi is baptized Michael Francis, and the infant is played by the director's then-newborn daughter Sofia. In fact, before becoming a celebrated filmmaker in her own right, Sofia Coppola appeared in all three "Godfather" movies. In "Part II," she was a girl in steerage during Vito's immigration to America. And in "Part III," Francis Coppola cast his daughter in a key role as Michael's daughter, Mary.

Criminal activity aside, Coppola identified strongly with Michael Corleone, the son who dreamed of making his father proud. In his insistence on casting the then-unknown Al Pacino, Coppola defied producer Robert Evans, who wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal for the role. "Bob Evans wanted a Michael who looked like him. Someone who was handsome and tall," the director recalled in a 2003 interview. "And I wanted a Michael who was more like me, who was more ethnic."

Coppola hadn't even wanted to make the film, but Evans had hired him because he was young, inexpensive, and Italian-American; he had wanted "The Godfather" to be a Mafia film authentic enough so that audiences could "smell the spaghetti." (Cue Richard S. Castellano as Clemenza, teaching Pacino's Michael how to cook meat sauce while also offering tips on how to commit his first whacking.) Coppola finally decided to do the film because he was broke, but also because, in researching the New York crime families, he recalled a gangster he'd heard about during his own New York upbringing, a mobster named "Trigger Mike" Coppola. Trigger Mike was no relation, but he'd been part of family lore anyway. There were also family stories of an uncle who had married into the family of a "connected guy," who would threaten to send leg-breakers around if his relatives got into trouble.

Coppola came to realize that the Corleone family would have been very much like his own, with its rituals, its recipes, its storytelling, and its native New Yorker (not immigrant Italian) speech patterns. He recalled:

Although I had no experience or knowledge of the Mafia, in the end, they were just an Italian-American family. I based the film all on my uncles and my relatives. Now, they were musicians, or they were little businessmen or tool and die makers, but they were true first- and second-generation, third-generation Italian-Americans. I used my memories of what it was like in my family. How they sat around the table. How my uncles would get Chinese food. What the family dinner table was like. How my sister would serve and how the uncles would discuss world events. All I did was take another profession of Italian-Americans, which was what my family was like. In acting they call it substitution.... All I did was apply what I knew intimately, which was my own family. All that detail, and I just said, 'Oh, the gangsters were probably just like that.'

Granted, there's an autobiographical element to many of Coppola's films, not just the "Godfather" trilogy. Anyone who's seen his wife Eleanor's documentary "Hearts of Darkness" knows that "Apocalypse Now" isn't just a Vietnam War drama; it's also the chronicle of Francis' own decent into madness and megalomania in his effort to complete the notoriously trouble-cursed production. Even "Bram Stoker's Dracula" is an homage to the origins of Coppola's own craft, from the nickelodeon that Dracula and Mina visit to the deliberately old-school special effects (there are no effects shots in the movie that use techniques unavailable to silent-era filmmakers). And the director's tendency toward nepotistic casting includes such movies as "Peggy Sue Got Married," which features both his daughter Sofia and his nephew Nicolas Cage. Guess we should be thankful he didn't cast Cage as Mary's cousin Vincent in "The Godfather Part III."

Of course, Coppola's casting Sofia in "Godfather III," an action that earned him widespread ridicule, occurred only because Winona Ryder dropped out of the part due to illness. And he hadn't wanted to cast Shire as Connie, thinking she was too pretty to play a mob kingpin's daughter, a woman who seemed to attract opportunists less interested in her as a woman than as a member of a wealthy and powerful family. But Shire wanted the part, and Evans liked her, so she got the part.

In fact, Coppola has often spoken of his reluctance to make both the first movie and its two sequels, suggesting that he made them primarily for the money (especially "Part III," made when he was, once again, broke), and that only the family dynamics of the Corleone saga kept the job interesting for him. Still, he must feel some attachment to the "Godfather" films, given how many times over the past 40 years he's continued to tinker with them, re-editing them, adding and subtracting footage, restoring them for Blu-ray, and talking about them in interviews. Just like Michael, every time he thinks he's out, they pull him back in.

As viewers, we're always pulled back in as well. There's something timeless and universal for many Americans in the story of an immigrant family's rise from the slums to the suburbs (including, perhaps, an accounting of what was sacrificed along the way). As George De Stefano wrote in his book "An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America," "'The Godfather' presented us with a paradox: the most vividly realistic and lovingly detailed depiction of Italian American life in the history of the movies was framed through the singular experience of an atypical group, a secret society of outlaws."

Yet it's possible to ignore, as Coppola did, the outlaw aspect and just focus on the dinner table. As "Godfather" producer Al Ruddy said in a 2009 interview, "There's one reason that movie is successful and one reason only: it may be the greatest family movie ever made," Al Pacino, Michael Corleone himself, seemed to agree; explaining in 2009 the movie's durability, he said, "I would guess that it was a very good story, about a family, told unusually well by Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola."

categories Movies