The 'Godfather' Fan Army Is Still Going Strong 50 Years Later
The new Paramount+ miniseries ‘The Offer,’ depicting the making of the classic film, hopes to draw in ‘Godfather’ obsessives. But is recreating the past enough?
In recent weeks, a swirling portal to the Godfather multiverse opened up, beckoning the faithful into an uncanny world of scheming studio executives, fuming mafia bosses, and peacocking actors dressed to resemble famous stars of the '70s. Fifty years after the release of the 1972 original and three decades since the controversial third entry ended the trilogy in 1990, the streaming service Paramount+ invites you to return to The Godfather's extended universe. Wedding-day favors delivered in the shadows, cotton wool in the mouth, and horse heads in the sheets—for a certain type of person, it's enough to make you say "Clemenza, we're home." If properties like Star Wars and Marvel can send subscribers flocking to Disney+, why can't The Godfather do the same for Paramount Global's fledgling platform?
Unquestionably, The Godfather has muscle. "It was one of the first great blockbusters," says Dexter Fletcher, the English filmmaker tasked with directing the first two episodes of the miniseries, when asked about his memory of first seeing the original. "For me personally, I loved it like everyone else loved it. As a young man, I was like, 'Give me more of this world, this is great.'"
For generations, The Godfather has inspired that exact reaction of recognition and belonging. Now, Fletcher, the director behind 2019's Elton John biopic Rocketman, had his chance to fully immerse himself in the world of a movie he remembers first seeing in a smoky room in North London with his mates. Working alongside creator Michael Tolkin (Escape at Dannemora) and drawing on the memories of 92-year-old Godfather producer Al Ruddy (portrayed by Miles Teller) as inspiration, Fletcher helped to craft a series that lets fans luxuriate in every C-suite factoid, morsel of gossip, and amusing on-set anecdote about the making of the classic. With a similar sense of showmanship as the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which Fletcher climbed aboard after the departure of director Brian Singer, The Offer wants to play the hits: The casting of Marlon Brando, the controversy surrounding Frank Sinatra, and the real-life mafia intrigue involving all take up ample amounts of screen time across the 10 episodes. As if to signal its intentions, the show begins with a rather unsubtle nod to one of the movie's most famous lines: "Take the cannoli."
For a certain type of viewer, gazing at The Godfather through the distorting lens of standom might sound like sacrilege. Given the critical stature of the original, a Best Picture winner routinely cited as one of the greatest films ever made by institutions like AFI and Sight & Sound, it's perhaps odd to consider it a fan phenomenon in the same way one might discuss Star Trek, Dr. Who, or One Direction. Being an appreciator of The Godfather isn't like being a fan of the Lakers, also the focus of another recent behind-the-scenes saga. At least in theory, there's something a little more respectable. A little more dignified. Maybe even prestigious.
But, like almost any pop artifact of the late 20th century, the series has attracted all the trappings of the modern franchise: kitschy cookbooks, guided location tours, shelf-ready Funko Pop dolls, reams of fan fiction, hyper-targeted podcasts, an extensive online wiki with over 2,000 pages, message boards devoted to unpacking questions like "Is anyone else annoyed with how Luca Brasi was depicted?," and even a Godfather AI that lets you get advice from a digital Vito Corleone. It may not appeal to the terminally online with the same intensity as HBO's more recent mob drama The Sopranos, but it has inspired at least one enduring meme in recent years ("Look how they massacred my boy.") and a Twitter account that tweets out individual frames of the films (not to be confused with the canonical "mustache turns into a tree" tweet).
As chronicled in the miniseries, which follows Ruddy as he works tirelessly with his resourceful secretary Bettye McCartt (Juno Temple) and soon-to-be-legendary producer Robert Evans (Matthew Goode) to get the project off the ground, The Godfather was a literary sensation first and then quickly became an even larger cultural juggernaut as a film, grossing more than $100 million after 18 weeks atop the box-office charts. The film's creators were widely celebrated and admired in the press. The writer Eve Babitz, reflecting on Coppola from the set of The Godfather Part II, put it like this in her piece "All This and The Godfather Too": "My main feeling about him, which gets stronger and stronger as time goes by, is simply abject belief in his greatness. I want to be on his side."
As played by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them's Dan Fogler in The Offer, Coppola is a creative genius who inspires and exasperates in equal measure. Described by other characters as "a true artist," he speaks passionately about his connection to the material, describing it as "a metaphor for American capitalism." At the same time, his meticulousness concerning the script and his insistence about key aspects of the production, like the casting of the then-untested Al Pacino in the lead role of Michael Corleone, made him a headache for the studio heads and producers tasked with thinking about the bottom line. For Tolkin, also the screenwriter of 1992's cutting Hollywood satire The Player and the book on which it's based, that unresolvable tension between art and commerce is key to the creative process. "You have a vision," he tells Thrillist. "And that vision goes against reality, and sometimes that reality enhances and sometimes it destroys."
What is it about the vision of The Godfather that's allowed it to endure for so long? The lofty themes? The shocking violence? The gripping performances? Tolkin thinks it's fundamentally a "mystery," the type of creative alchemy that could have only occurred at that time and place. Mark Seal, a veteran journalist and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, wrote a whole book about making of the film, last year's Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather, and he believes its continued success relies on a mix of the subject matter, the critical distance Coppola and Puzo brought to the material, and the high level of execution.
"It broke new barriers in film: Not only was the movie about gangsters, but it was also about their families," Seal explains via email. "This is what gives The Godfather its heart. Secondly, Francis Ford Coppola insisted that it be a period film, true to Mario Puzo’s 1940s setting. This makes the movie timeless, as fresh today as it was 50 years ago. Thirdly, it’s just a fantastic movie."
Everyone who loves The Godfather eventually throws up their hands and says some version of what Seal wrote: It's just great. I mean, it's The Godfather, dude—don't you get it? And yet, there are plenty of fantastic movies, praised by critics and showered with awards, that don't have the same grip on the popular consciousness. For example, you probably won't see a 10-episode series about the making of 1978's Best Picture winner, The Deer Hunter. However, the list of Best Picture winners of the '70s includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which got the spin-off treatment with Netflix's Ratched, and Rocky, which obviously remains a valuable piece of IP. The '70s, perhaps the most over-mythologized period of Hollywood history, will always be fertile ground for an art form so addicted to recreating its own recent past.
Still, the devotion of Godfather fans, particularly their ability to wax rhapsodic about the movie and speak entirely in quotes from its script, remains singular. When The Rewatchables, the popular movie podcast hosted by sports-media personality Bill Simmons, devoted an episode to The Godfather Part II, the hosts brought on Billions co-creator Brian Koppelman, a noted Godfather devotee who peppers the pages of his Showtime drama with references to the films. They talked about the movie for nearly two-and-a-half hours, almost the length of time it would take to watch the actual movie.
Another podcast, The Godfather Minute, pushes that level of scrutiny even further. As the title suggests, hosts Alex and Andy Robinson work their way through the series by focusing each episode on a single minute. Alex, a cartoonist by trade, also hosts Star Wars Minute, which attacks (Coppola's director pal) George Lucas's creation with a similar level of rigor and humor. Though he's spent hours thinking about and discussing both properties, Robinson views them as distinct fan phenomena with their own quirks.
"Star Wars fandom at this point is a wing of Disney's publicity department," he writes in an email. "Godfather fandom (if you can even call it that) isn't the social thing that Star Wars fandom is. No public gatherings, no conventions, etc. I feel like being a fan is a more personal experience. It reminds me of the time before the internet where as far as you knew you were the only person you knew into, say, comic books. It's a different quality to be drawn to something because of its qualities, rather than because of exhaustive (and exhausting) marketing or because it will make you part of a tribe."
That personal connection to The Godfather was evident in every conversation I had while writing this piece. As a filmmaker, Fletcher, who knows how persnickety enthusiasts can be from his experiences with Queen and Elton John fans, recognizes that some parts of the movie are more important to some than to others. "The fan experience, being someone who loves that film, it's always going to be a collective experience and a personal one as well," he says. The toilet system that Michael gets the gun from was essential to him. ("I absolutely replicate it," he explains.) For others, that detail might not even register. Instead, they might take issue with the show's occasionally fast-and-loose relationship with time and chronology. A student of both Star Wars and Godfather fandoms, Robinson notes that Godfather fans tend to be a little more low-key. "The Godfather is a popular movie obviously, but it doesn't have the same intensity of fandom that something like Star Wars does. I wish there was, if only to see Lucca Brasi cosplayers."
Facing mixed reviews and a wave of other "based on a true story" series to contend with, The Offer arrives at a peculiar moment of change in Hollywood. The making of the show was hardly without its own intrigue. It was filmed amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and its original star, Armie Hammer, who was cast in the role Teller now plays, left the project in the midst of sexual assault allegations. Besides simply hoping Godfather fans subscribe to Paramount+, the creators must also contend with an increasingly fractured media landscape where shows and movies speak directly to a niche audience of self-identifying insiders. For a good portion of the audience, part of the fun is spotting the references and seeing the SparkNotes version of history play out before your eyes. Every consumer choice is microtargeted, an attempt to push a nostalgic pleasure button in the brain, and individuals are marketed to by algorithms that scan your preferences and track your behavior. The streaming ecosystem, with its promise of infinite choice and an endless sea of content, only asks for your time.
If The Offer fails to entertain, the ever-comforting 1972 version of The Godfather is a click away. (Streaming now on Paramount+, of course.) The grunt work required to seek out the movie or show you love is mostly a relic of the past. In March, Coppola released a new restoration of the trilogy on DVD.
Michael Tolkin remembers when he saw The Godfather: He was a student at Middlebury College in Vermont and drove up to see it in Burlington in the late winter. When he got there, the screening was sold-out, so he had to sit outside in the cold for three hours while waiting the next showing. Finally watching the story unfold, seated at the front of the theater, he was mesmerized. He estimates he's seen it about 10 times over the course of his life.
"It's one of those movies where if you're changing channels and you hear, 'Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,' you're in for the rest of it," he says. "It just grabs you." Time will tell if The Offer is similarly impossible to refuse.