The Classic Gangster Movie Jack Nicholson Turned Down (It Would Have Rewritten Hollywood History)

The Classic Gangster Movie Jack Nicholson Turned Down (It Would Have Rewritten Hollywood History)

Michael Corleone in The Godfather

In hindsight, it seems impossible that any actor would have turned down a role in the iconic gangster film, The Godfather, and yet one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Jack Nicholson, absolutely did do that, and with an interesting reason attached. In the early 1970s, Nicholson and The Godfather were both on the cusp of becoming not just successful, but quintessential. Nicholson was riding high on his early films such as Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, while The Godfather’s 1972 release was met with immediate praise. So, why did these two influential pieces of Hollywood history never mix?

For those who don’t know, The Godfather is a crime epic following the Italian-American Corleone family members, and their mobster pursuits. In particular, the family is led by Don Vito Corleone, played by the unforgettable Marlon Brando. However, the film’s true protagonist is Michael Corleone, the Don’s youngest son who has just recently joined the family business and is struggling to balance his life with his crime. This part in particular is where The Godfather and Jack Nicholson connect. Despite being offered the role of Michael, Nicholson said no, and ultimately the part went to Al Pacino. But, once again, why did he decline on such a massive role?

Why Jack Nicholson Turned Down The Godfather’s Michael Corleone
Ultimately, Jack Nicholson’s reason for turning down Michael Corleone is somewhat unexpected considering the time. In a 2004 interview with MovieLine, Nicholson explained that, “Back then I believed that Indians should play Indians and Italians should play Italians. Mario Puzo had written such a great book that if you go back to it, you’ll see so much of what was special about the movie.” Therefore, Nicholson declined being the lead in The Godfather because he didn’t feel that he was right for the part. Nicholson also went on to say that, “There were a lot of actors who could have played Michael, myself included, but Al Pacino was Michael Corleone.”

So, it seems that Nicholson had a strong view on who exactly should play Michael Corleone, and in the end, he felt that Al Pacino was ideal for the part. Looking back, Nicholson’s reasoning has some solidity to it. When it comes to The Godfather, the Italian identity is not just a minute detail, but in reality, is the characters’ whole lives. Though Nicholson easily could have put on a more Italian persona, it likely wouldn’t have been as powerful as Al Pacino’s performance. While these types of arguments are commonplace nowadays, the fact that Nicholson was thinking in those terms in the early 1970s is very interesting.

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