Paths Crossed: When Al Pacino became Michael Corleone

In the 1970’s Hell’s Kitchen, there was an Italian restaurant on 39th Street, so far west, in such an area of dark nothingness, you’d wonder if your cab driver was about to slip you into the Lincoln Tunnel for an adventure in Jersey.

But no, there it was, on a block with no light or life of any kind. Just that one restaurant on the north side of 39th.

Giordano’s. That was its name. It wasn’t a famous place, at least not among the sort of people who thought they knew all the great restaurants in New York. Not famous, no, but exclusive, a well-kept secret among certain people.

One of those certain people was Francis Coppola, who was responsible for my only visit to Giordano’s on a night which proved to be somewhat significant, to me, at least, since it was when Francis Coppola made a low-key declaration in a characteristic fashion — over an Italian meal and vino.

There were many joys to being Francis’ friend. If you wandered into his orbit, you’d find yourself swept up in the delightful whirl around him, and be wafted off to unexpected places accompanied by unexpected people you’d never met.

Francis told me he once himself wondered,”Why do I wind up in weird situations?” and answered his own question by telling me about a serendipitous cab ride he’d once had, when the cab driver pulled over to a building, told Francis he had to run upstairs for a minute, did Francis want to come upstairs with him? Or maybe Francis asked the driver if he could come with him, I’m not completely sure.

Francis went upstairs with the cab driver — which led to a strange incident the essence of which I’ve forgotten. “That’s how I wind up in peculiar situations,” Francis said. “When someone asks if I want to come along, I say, ‘Yes!'”

Therefore, I was in that cab with Francis, his brother Augie, and at least one other person going to Giordano’s that night.

Someone had reserved a long table at the back of the restaurant. (With Francis, it was always a mystery how things like a welcoming restaurant table happened.) After a short time (and some wine), Al Pacino joined us.

Until I read Pacino’s charming interview in the Times, I had not realized Francis had been regularly in touch with him over the past few years.

So, when Francis announced in a conscientiously off-hand way that Al was going to be Michael, I had the impression this was a semi-formal event. Not that I thought it came as a surprise to Al, but still it had moment to it. It did.

We ate, we drank, we talked. Laughed, too, I’m fairly certain.

Around 11 pm, Jill Clayburgh, Al’s girlfriend, came in from the theater where she was appearing in the musical, The Rothschilds. A little breathless, she hadn’t deconstructed her elaborate hair style of the early 1800s, or removed her make-up.

In the Times interview, Al talks about how Francis had to fight for Al as Michael, as he did for virtually everyone else in the cast. Bob Evans, Paramount’s production chief and Francis’s chief adversary, once made drama out of it. “I’ll see Al Pacino in Sicily before I see him as Michael!”

Out of those and many other battles emerged The Godfather.

Last Sunday night at the Academy Awards, to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, Francis appeared with Pacino and De Niro. He spoke briefly and mentioned the difficulties in getting the film done.

There were two people Francis said he wanted to thank. After Mario Puzo, Francis said he would mention someone he’d never thanked previously for his role in making The Godfather — Bob Evans.

I loved it.

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