Interpreter of Tom Hagen, adopted son, lawyer and adviser to the “Godfather”, Robert Duvall tells us about the filming of the film, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the masterpiece signed by his great friend, Francis Ford Coppola.
Paris Match. The beginnings of the “Godfather” were complicated… What are your memories of the early days of filming?
Robert Duval. Amusing !
Yes, we laughed a lot. We made a lot of jokes and nonsense on set, especially with Jimmy Caan. James Caan had been a good friend for a long time. Every time he made a joke, it took Brando more than three seconds to understand (Laughs).
According to legend, the two of you specialized in showing off the moon… in other words, your buttocks!
(Laughs) Yeah, we did that all the time. And Coppola who said to us: “Come on guys, stop it, have to be serious here”… but he knew that with our stupidities, we allowed the team to relax, it put a more relaxed atmosphere on the set. I admired Francis Ford Coppola for working in such conditions, with the constant pressure from the studio for a quick result, and to avoid getting fired!
You toured five times with Coppola, starting with “The Rain People” before “The Godfather”. What makes him a special director in your eyes?
When Coppola is behind the camera, you go. He’s a fabulous director, the best. He always wants to see what you can put on the table. It does not predetermine how you will play. Some directors tell you “you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that”. Coppola, he wants to see how you will interpret what he wrote, your acting within the framework of his writing. I call it “from ink to attitude”.
Francis Ford Coppola had gathered all his actors, at the start of filming, for a big dinner. According to him, it was that evening that he understood that the film was going to work…
Yes, and Coppola had been right, the pieces fell into place that night, the way he wanted, we were a family. Brando was at the end of the table, he chaired like he was the godfather, and in a way he was a godfather to a lot of young actors who were around the table. We all admired him. Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and I used to meet weekly at Cromwell’s drugstore in New York. If we mentioned Brando once, we were only talking about him. He was a hero for us.
Brando was a hero for us, but we spoke to him as equals
You have a very nice scene with him, when your character Tom Hagen has to announce to Vito the death of his son Sonny. What was your relationship with Marlon Brando on set?
Equals. We admired him, but we made sure to talk to him as equals. For this scene, we did two takes. Francis asked us if we wanted a third, we made a third, and that was it. We didn’t do 20 or 25 takes.
What was your approach for the character of Tom Hagen?
Like the assistant to a millionaire golfer. (Laughter) Whatever the godfather wanted, I was there to accommodate him. Lighting his cigarette, pulling out his chair, waiting at the side, like the waiter in a big restaurant. And if someone disrespected her, I had to face the consequences.
What’s interesting about Tom Hagen is that he was adopted into a family where blood counts more than anything. How did you take that into account?
I didn’t want to cross the line in my game, the same way he couldn’t cross the line in the family. He was not of the same blood, he was an outsider no matter what. An adopted child can be raised with a lot of affection and well integrated into a family, but I think he felt he had to stay within a limit.
Maybe it’s also because he is the voice of reason in a clan, let’s say more…blood?
Yes, the Corleones listen to it as long as it suits them. When he gives advice, it is always for the good of the family. The family knows it, that’s why he has their trust, but again, without going overboard. For him, it is also a company, a business. He will never scuttle them. It’s the voice of reason, but he was involved in their illegal business, he was an accomplice. We can romance all we want, but they’re still all outlaws.
Coppola was more concerned about my crab cake recipe, than about my participation in the Godfather 3…
It was your first Oscar nomination. What had been your feeling?
Yes it was good, but whatever you know. James Caan, Pacino and I were nominated for the movie, it was nice. Who doesn’t like prices? It didn’t work out, but that was okay, other days ago…I finally got it years later, and there it is, on the mantelpiece!
Al Pacino was then a relatively new and little known actor. Did you think, at the time, that he was a good choice?
Yes, I had seen him on Broadway playing in “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?”, I knew he had a lot of talent. A lot of people wondered why he was cast, and Coppola had the smarts, the foresight to give him the part, and he was right.
Do you sometimes regret not having taken over the role of Tom Hagen in the third film?
No, that’s enough for me with the first and second film. This was Coppola at his peak.
Why didn’t you agree to do the third one?
Money. I said: “if you want to pay Pacino two or three times more than me, ok, but not 4 or 5″… Coppola had come to see me on my farm, in Virginia, to ask me to participate in “Godfather 3” . My mother was a good cook, and he especially wanted her recipe for Maryland crab cakes. I wrote to him on a piece of paper but he forgot it. Then he kept calling me back, but I think he was more concerned that he forgot the recipe than that I wasn’t going to be in his movie. It always made me laugh (laughs)!