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Paramount’s Epic ‘Godfather III’ Struggle : The Studio’s Mancuso Pushes the Film to Completion; 18 Coppola Scripts Later, the $55-Million Sequel Opens

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the end of “The Godfather Part III,” which opens in nearly 2,000 theaters across the country today, Michael Corleone blows his brains out.

Scratch that. He dies in a diabetic coma.

No wait. He gets shot, then his nephew murders the archbishop . . . .

Well, actually, none of the above occurs at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s third entry in the Corleone family saga, but those endings were among many written in the 18 versions of the screenplay during the last two years. Two versions were filmed.

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Even as late as September, Coppola was shooting new scenes that he had just completed writing. All that frantic, sometimes chaotic, composition has finally been condensed into the two-hour, 41-minute “Godfather III,” which arrives 16 years after the second, Oscar-winning installment, in 1974.

The film marks the close of an epic struggle by Paramount Pictures and its chief executive, Frank Mancuso, to breathe life into this long-awaited sequel to two of the most popular and critically acclaimed movies of all time.

Mancuso and his studio have more than a $55-million production bill and an estimated $20-million-plus marketing tab riding on this movie: Their prestige is deeply wrapped up in the production. "(The first two ‘Godfather’ movies) were the pinnacles of achievement--motion pictures that did tremendously creatively, as well as being commercial successes,” said Mancuso, who had made “Godfather III” a top priority of his regime. “You always attempt to achieve that combination.”

The latest episode brings back some of the original cast--Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire--in a story about a Corleone family gone “legit” being drawn back into the violent underworld by Michael’s attempt to take over a Vatican-connected conglomerate.

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Andy Garcia plays Vincent Mancini, Michael’s nephew and unlikely heir apparent. Michael’s daughter--Vincent’s lover and first cousin--is played by Coppola’s own daughter, Sofia; it’s a key performance, originally cast with Winona Ryder, that has met with derision from many critics.

This wasn’t always the cast or story line for “Godfather III.” Not even close. Before Coppola and author Mario Puzo got involved, Paramount commissioned 15 treatments and screenplays by at least nine writers. Even former Paramount chief Michael Eisner once tried his hand at writing a story line.

At various times, the movie was to star Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta and Eddie Murphy, and Coppola wasn’t the only director the studio considered. The names of Martin Scorsese, Richard Brooks and Dan Curtis were all mentioned. The story’s various backdrops included CIA plots, Colombian drug rings and the Las Vegas casino scene. Even the original story that Coppola and Mario Puzo finished in the spring of 1989 changed markedly over the course of pre-production, production and post-production.

The scripts accommodated major cast changes, most notably the loss of Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, the trusted consiglieri of Vito and then Michael Corleone in Parts I and II, when Paramount refused to meet Duvall’s salary demands. And there was Coppola’s own frenetic style, his penchant for writing as he goes, that caused even some of the new film’s fans to lament the muddled complexities of the story and to acknowledge that it is far from the level of perfection reached by its predecessors.

“Godfather III” is dedicated to Charles Bludhorn, the late chairman of Gulf and Western (which owned Paramount), who made the second sequel a kind of guiding mantra for the company. “He felt it was a brand name, a valuable asset, that you had to do it,” said Mancuso.

Mancuso worked in Paramount’s distribution department when Parts I and II were released and got caught up in Bludhorn’s passion for the series. Mancuso was along when Bludhorn flew Richard Brooks to Paramount’s Dominican Republic resort and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to direct the project.

But Paramount’s West Coast office made its own attempts. In June, 1977, Michael Eisner, then head of the studio, proposed a plot for “Godfather III” involving a new Mafia family’s offers to aid in a CIA assassination attempt in return for drug-trafficking support. Eisner’s regime also solicited screenplays --all of them focused on the next generation of the Corleone family.

In a 1978 screenplay by the late Alexander Jacobs (co-writer of “The French Connection II”), Michael’s son, Anthony, tries to legitimize the empire, but his cousin embroils the family in renewed family warfare and a stock fraud scheme. That same year, Puzo--author of the novel that inspired the series, and Coppola’s co-writer on all three--wrote a 53-page treatment in which the CIA recruits Michael’s son to assassinate a Latin-American leader, while Michael, posing as a mentally ill recluse, actually runs the family business behind the scenes.

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Dean Reisner (co-writer, “Play Misty for Me,” “Dirty Harry”) then wrote a treatment that appeared to build on Puzo’s work. In his story, Michael is killed by a bomb, and an innocent Anthony is drawn inexorably into family affairs--much as Michael was when his father was shot in “Godfather I.” The son of Sonny Corleone, Michael’s hot-headed and doomed older brother in Part I, turns out to be the mastermind behind Michael’s killing.

An illegitimate son is invented for Michael in a 1982 treatment by Vincent Patrick (“The Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Family Business”). A big-time Mafia don in Sicily, the son returns to the Corleone fold after Michael’s death and eventually tries to have the sons of both Michael and Sonny killed. Dan Curtis, perhaps best known for directing TV’s “War and Remembrance” and “Winds of War” miniseries, was attached as the director at the time, Patrick said.

In 1983, Bruce Kawin, a University of Colorado professor and author of the book “How Movies Work,” wrote a treatment for then-Paramount production executive Ricardo Mestres, in which Anthony becomes a corrupt senator from Nevada.

Two years later, Thomas Lee Wright, then a junior Paramount production executive, teamed up with former theater owner Nick Marino to write a screenplay that explored the near breakdown of the Corleone family, circa 1972. Michael--solidifying his business as a legitimate operation through a real estate deal--becomes the target of both his own family and outside mobsters. Connie, grooming her son, Victor, to take over the family, seeks revenge on Michael for murdering her husband (in “The Godfather”) by masterminding his poisoning.

Mancuso, who had become Paramount chief executive the previous year, didn’t like the Wright-Marino script, telling associates that it de-romanticized the Corleones. Mancuso felt Michael should be redeemed in Part III.

Although their script was not produced, Wright and Marino earlier this year sought story credits for the final “Godfather III” under the Writers Guild arbitration process, claiming that much of the Coppola-Puzo script borrowed from their work, particularly from the first act.

Under the union’s guidelines, writers must prove that they contributed at least one-third of the script in order to receive story credit. Wright and Marino argued that there were 55 scenes with significant similarities. They point out that they created the Andy Garcia character, Vincent (though he is Sonny’s son by a different mother in the Coppola script), and they contend that the mobster Joey Zaza in the movie is a composite of three characters in their draft. They also note that their script, like the movie, explored a tawdry business transaction by Michael Corleone as he tries to leave behind the mob and solidify his financial holdings as a legitimate businessman.

The guild ruled against Wright and Marino earlier this year, a decision that Marino is now challenging in Los Angeles Superior Court.

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In 1985, Mancuso continued the search for a workable “Godfather III” story. He told his creative staff that he wanted the plot focused inward, on the family relationships.

“One of the things about ‘The Godfather’ was that there was a real model family there at one time,” said Mancuso. “How close they were, how supportive they were of each other, in contrast to how they operated outside the family. That was an important part of this: From the Corleones’ point of view, the family is often what drives the enterprise. They often think they are acting to protect the family from forces outside. . . . Some of these scripts I read along the way weren’t ‘Godfather,’ they were nothing more than gangster films.”

Despite all the past attempts to make a “Godfather III” without the original cast and creators, Mancuso refused to give up hope that he could get Coppola on board.

“Every once in a while, I would see Francis,” Mancuso said, “and I’d always bring up the subject. But I noticed that something was very consistent throughout: He never said no. He always had some reason why he couldn’t do it now.”

But there were others at the studio who didn’t want Coppola to come back, principally Paramount production chief Ned Tanen. Apparently, there was bad blood between the two, sources said, and Tanen wanted to hire instead the respected Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky.

Still, hoping to spark Coppola’s interest, Mancuso in 1987 hired Puzo to write a screenplay based on a treatment by former New York Times reporter Nicholas Gage. (Gage then rewrote that script.) Much like “Godfather II,” the script they wrote included flashbacks to the 1930s, when Vito Corleone was building his power base, interspliced with contemporary scenes of Michael’s battles with drug cartels and other Mafia families.

In mid-1988, Mancuso asked Shire, Coppola’s sister, to deliver the Puzo-Gage script to Coppola at his Napa Valley home. “When I talked to him, he said this was wrong and that was wrong,” Mancuso said, “and then he started to articulate what the story should be, that it should be the personal story of Michael Corleone. . . . I said, ‘If you think that’s what it should be, why don’t you do it?’ ”

Fortunately for Paramount, Coppola at the time needed money. His Zoetrope Studios was heading for bankruptcy and he faced a potential $8-million bill from one of his lenders, Canadian industrialist Jack Singer. Sources say Paramount offered Coppola $6 million, plus a percentage of the receipts to direct and co-write the movie.

“I think two things came together” to persuade Coppola to agree to the project, said Mancuso. “The fact that, yes, he had money troubles. . . . But also, one of the reasons Francis never said no to me all those years was that if everything else went wrong for him, ‘Godfather III’ was something he could achieve, create. . . . The one risk he had was that we would do it without him. What came together at one time was his understanding of my determination to get it done.”

Mancuso persuaded Coppola to outline his story, spent $50,000 on a feasibility study and, in February, 1989, Coppola and Puzo began writing “Godfather III.” There is a widespread belief that the pair wrote the first draft in just six weeks. Mancuso estimates that it was eight weeks, and Writers Guild records obtained by The Times show that the pair submitted their first, 133-page draft to the union May 10.

But that, of course, was only the beginning. Before Coppola began shooting in November, the pair completed seven scripts, ranging from 113 to 145 pages. (The final shooting script was 120 pages.) Even after production began, Coppola held true to his reputation for improvising on the set and rewrote the script nine more times.

Part of the reason the movie was released on Christmas instead of at Thanksgiving--as originally planned--was Winona Ryder’s 11th-hour retreat from the project due to poor health. But Coppola’s tinkering also appears to have accounted for some of the delay. In September, the director shot 20 more pages of screenplay, including scenes involving the film’s stars and the coda ending, which the director did use.

Intentionally or not, that ending raises the specter that there might be a “Godfather IV,” with one of Paramount’s favorite rising stars, Garcia, leading the Corleone family into the Mafia’s rocky future. Whether Mancuso pursues yet another sequel largely depends on how much his difficult, 14-year-effort to get “Godfather III” to the screen pays off.


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