Debt-ridden Coppola got an offer he couldn't refuse: Making 'Godfather III'

December 27, 1990|By Larry Rohter | Larry Rohter,New York Times News Service

Rutherford, Calif. It is a crisp and windy afternoon in late November, exactly a month before the long-awaited opening of "The Godfather Part III" in 1,800 theaters across the country, and the director Francis Ford Coppola is rushing to complete the movie he hopes will restore his reputation, his autonomy and his finances.

As he strolls into the garage cum commissary of the Napa Valley estate and vineyard where he lives and works, a team of film editors who have been mixing the sound are already eating lunch and loudly discussing the work that lies ahead of them.

"What reel is being worked on?" Mr. Coppola calls out as he serves himself a heaping platter of food. From the table comes an answer. "What?" he replies with feigned surprise. "You're going backward?"

This time, the response is laughter. "That's right," one of the editors says. "And when we're finished, next will be 'Godfather I.' " In mock horror and resignation, Mr. Coppola throws up his arms, shakes his head and walks away.

No matter how he tries, the director, 51, seems unable to escape "The Godfather" saga, which is at once his greatest pride and source of insecurity.

More than 15 years after the first two chapters of "The Godfather" became the only motion picture and sequel to win Academy Awards as best picture, "The Godfather" movies are still regarded as two of the finest films in the history of the American cinema and the undisputed pinnacle of Mr. Coppola's turbulent career, overshadowing everything he has done before or since.

It remains to be seen whether "Godfather III," which opened Tuesday with Al Pacino and Diane Keaton returning to their roles as Michael and Kay Corleone and Andy Garcia playing the new heir apparent to the family's Mafia holdings, will take its place in the pantheon on great films.

But the early box-office returns look promising. The film grossed $6.4 million at the box office to set a record for a Christmas Day film opening, Paramount Pictures said yesterday.

Still, creating the $60 million film remains a risk for Mr. Coppola, whose career has been characterized by gambles both successful and disastrous.

"Why did I make 'Godfather III'?" Mr. Coppola asked, now in his office. "For the same reasons I made the second one: It didn't go away, and they basically promised me carte blanche."

His finances have been in a shambles for nearly a decade, ever since the 1982 musical "One From the Heart" flopped at the box office and brought his ambitious Zoetrope Studios crashing down with it.

Rather than declare personal bankruptcy, Mr. Coppola spent most of the 1980s trying to repay his creditors and keep ahead of debts that eventually ballooned to well over $30 million.

Early this year, as "The Godfather Part III" was being filmed in Sicily, he finally filed for bankruptcy, a step his studio operation had taken years earlier.

At the moment, Mr. Coppola said, he probably owes creditors "$6 [million] or $7 million" and should emerge free and clear only if "The Godfather Part III," which also features Talia Shire, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna and George Hamilton. is a hit at the box office.

"In another month, many of my problems will be over," said Mr. Coppola. "Or they will be doubled."

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