Why Jack Nicholson Turned Down The Godfather, Explained


  • Nicholson turned down
    The Godfather
    due to personal preferences, opting for projects he found more intriguing and personal.
  • He believed
    The Last Detail
    had stronger scripts than
    The Godfather
    The Sting
  • Although initially interested in playing Michael Corleone, Nicholson felt he was the wrong choice for the role.

Between 1969 and 1971, Jack Nicholson went from being a great character actor to a great star with his memorable performances in the films Carnal Knowledge, Easy Rider, and Five Easy Pieces. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, Nicholson, who won the first of his three Academy Awards for his unforgettable performance in the 1975 psychological drama film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, emerged as the greatest and most influential actor of his generation.

In contrast to the keen commercial sense that increasingly guided Nicholson’s career in the 1980s and 1990s, Nicholson’s rise to stardom in the 1970s was primarily attributable to the acclaim and cultural osmosis that resulted from Nicholson’s undeniable talent and unwavering artistic integrity. By perfecting the anarchic, anti-hero screen archetype in Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson gained a mythic reputation and redefined the image of film stardom.

Nicholson’s adherence to his artistic principles was tested in 1971, when Nicholson was offered the coveted role of Michael Corleone, the youngest son of Corleone crime family patriarch Don Vito Corleone, in The Godfather, the film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s best-selling 1969 epic crime novel of the same name. Released in 1972, The Godfather became the highest-grossing film of the year and won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Moreover, The Godfather brought major stardom to the previously unknown Al Pacino, who received his first Academy Award nomination for his performance as Michael Corleone, which was a role that Pacino received after Nicholson turned down the role for several reasons.

Jack Nicholson Believed that The Godfather Would Be a Blockbuster Hit

Before Jack Nicholson was offered the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Nicholson, like millions of readers, had read the eponymous Mario Puzo novel on which the film is based and was captivated by it. After reading The Godfather script, which was co-written by The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo, Nicholson was convinced that The Godfather would be a major commercial and critical success.

The Godfather wasn’t the only blockbuster film for which Nicholson turned down a leading role in the early 1970s. In 1972, following the release of The Godfather, Nicholson turned down the leading role of Johnny Hooker in the hit 1973 hit comedy crime film The Sting, which equaled the box-office success of The Godfather and won seven Academy Awards, including for Best Picture. Of course, after Nicholson turned down the role of Johnny Hooker, the role was given to Robert Redford, who received his first and only acting Academy Award nomination for this performance.


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One of the reasons why Nicholson turned down the roles of Michael Corleone and Johnny Hooker is that Nicholson was more passionate about other film projects and roles which would have conflicted with The Godfather and The Sting. Specifically, Nicholson abandoned The Godfather and The Sting in favor of starring in the 1973 comedy-drama film The Last Detail and the 1974 mystery film Chinatown, both of which resulted in Academy Award nominations for Nicholson.

Nicholson believed at the time that Chinatown and The Last Detail had stronger scripts than The Godfather and The Sting. Moreover, Nicholson found Chinatown and The Last Detail, both of which were written by longtime Nicholson collaborator and friend Robert Towne, to be much more interesting on a personal level.

Nicholson Wanted to Work With Marlon Brando

One of the factors that initially interested Jack Nicholson in playing the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather was the chance to star alongside one of Nicholson’s acting idols, Marlon Brando, whose unforgettable titular performance in The Godfather resulted in Brando’s second Academy Award.

Nicholson, who was a neighbor of Brando’s in Beverly Hills for approximately 30 years, first met Brando in 1969, when Nicholson moved to Beverly Hills, and maintained a friendship with Brando until Brando’s death in 2004.


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However, upon Nicholson’s first reading of The Godfather script, Nicholson was dismayed to discover that Michael and his father, Brando’s Don Vito Corleone, have virtually no scenes together throughout the script. Nicholson’s disappointment over not getting the chance to act alongside Brando in The Godfather was a factor in Nicholson’s decision to turn down the role of Michael.

The first and only screen acting collaboration between Brando and Nicholson came in the obscure 1976 Western film The Missouri Breaks, which was a commercial and critical failure.

Nicholson Felt He Was the Wrong Choice to Play Michael Corleone

The primary reason why Jack Nicholson turned down the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather was that the presently retired Nicholson, who identified himself as being Irish throughout his career, felt that the role of the Italian-American Michael should be played by an Italian actor.

Before Nicholson was offered the role and before Al Pacino, who was born to Sicilian Italian-American parents, was cast as Michael, various other non-Italian actors were considered for the role of Michael. These include Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Martin Sheen, and James Caan, who was, of course, cast as eldest Corleone brother Sonny.

While Nicholson undoubtedly would have made a strong impression in The Godfather and the 1974 sequel, The Godfather Part II, it’s doubtful that Nicholson’s performance as Michael would have been as memorable as that of Pacino, whose powerful portrayal of Michael throughout The Godfather trilogy is rightly regarded as being one of the greatest performances in film history. Stream The Godfather on Paramount+


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