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Francis Ford Coppola
A Biography by Jon Matthew

Francis Ford Coppola is a director, producer, composer, and writer who has had more failures (One From The Heart, The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone, Finian's Rainbow, and Jack) than successes (Patton, The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now). He has survived because his successes, while few in number, have been profitable and have thus outweighed his failures at the box-office. In addition to money Patton, The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now have earned fourteen Academy Award nominations and five Oscars for Coppola. Coppola also has three films on AFI's Top 100 Films with The Godfather: Part II at number 32, Apocalypse Now at 28, and The Godfather at 3.

Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1939, Coppola's Italian-American family moved to New York after his birth. His grandparents emigrated from Southern Italy circa 1900. His father, Carmine Coppola, showed the most promise out of a family full of musical talent. Coppola's father attended the prominent Julliard School where he met, dated, and married Italia Pernnino, who's father came to America as Enrico Caruso's pianist. Six years after graduation, the two of them had their first child, August Floyd, in 1934. Coppola arrived five years later at roughly the same time his father was garnering a job as first flautist in the NBC Symphony. His middle name came from his father's work as the official arranger for the Ford Sunday Evening Hour on CBS radio. Later in life, Coppola commissioned some of his fathers music for his films (The Godfather: Part II, Apocalypse Now, and Tucker: The Man and His Dream). His younger sister Talia was born in 1946 and eventually became Talia Shire the actress (Adrian in Rocky and Connie Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy). Coppola often casts his family, including his nephew Nicolas Cage, in his flicks. At age 10, Coppola contracted polio while on a Cub Scout trip and was paralyzed on his left side. Bedridden for nine months, he watched TV continuously and turned to making puppet shows as entertainment. More than two decades later an allusion to Coppola's polio is made in The Conversation (1974). Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) talks about being paralyzed for months as a child in the film. Coppola was told he would never walk again, but his father refused to accept this fact and hired a physiotherapist. Gradually Coppola recuperated and was able to return to school

After recovering, he enrolled and was accepted to the New York Military Academy at Cornwallon-Hudson based on his proficiency in playing the tuba. He detested the schools emphasis on sports and ran away to Manhattan after eighteen months. Returning to high school, he continued to play the tuba and commenced writing plays. His aptitude as a playwright gained him a scholarship to Hofstra University where his brother had studied. As one of the Hofsta's top students he earned a reputation as a loudmouth. He graduated from Hofstra with a BA in Theater Arts in 1959 but still had no desire to be a director. His attitude changed quickly when he saw Sergei Eisenstein's Ten Days That Shook The World (1927). He later said of the film, "On Monday I was in the theater, and on Tuesday I wanted to be a film-maker" (Bergan, Francis Ford Coppola p. 16).

After seeing the aforementioned inspirational film, Coppola entered UCLA Film School to get a master's degree in the fall of 1960. While at UCLA, he met Roger Corman an independent auteur and became his right-hand man. Assisting Corman in the production of his horror quickies, Coppola became a script editor, production assistant, associate producer, dialogue director, sound recorder, and second unit-director. As an assistant he directed his first feature film Dementia 13 (1963) about an axe murderer. While shooting the film in Ireland, he fell in love with Eleanor Neil. Neil was a graduate of the UCLA Art Department and was on a break from teaching design classes. They were married in Las Vegas in 1963. As his thesis for his Master of Fine Arts degree from UCLA Coppola directed You're A Big Boy Now (1966).

Over the next several years Coppola directed Finian's Rainbow (1968) and The Rain People (1969). Finian's Rainbow was Fred Astaire's last film and a box-office flop. Midway through the film, Coppola fired the choreographer, Hermes Pan, and creatively shot the rest of the film himself. The camera ended up being more choreographed than the dancers as Coppola used rapid montage to give the production numbers a rhythm. Warner Brothers supplied the musical with a lackluster $3.5 million budget, and Coppola was still able to finish the film for under $4 million. One of the few good things to come out of directing the film was that Coppola met USC film student George Lucas (Star Wars) on the set.

The box-office flop of Finian's Rainbow didn't stop Coppola financially as he founded American Zoetrope in 1969. He was president of the company with George Lucas as vice-president. Coppola's first major recognition came in 1971 when he won an Oscar with Edmund North (The Day the Earth Stood Still) for writing the screenplay for Patton (1970). The film features great dialogue but the best part of the screenplay is Patton's (George C. Scott) opening speech about the fighting spirit of Americans in front of a United States flag. North and Coppola began the film with Patton stating his philosophy by saying, "Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country" (Greatest Films, http://www.filmsite.org/patt.html). Patton was a tremendous success for Coppola and eventually led to the job of writing the screenplay for The Great Gatsby (1974).

Nineteen seventy-two marked the beginning of Coppola's rise to prominence with The Godfather Trilogy. The films tell the saga of the Corleone crime family over many years and were originally titled Mafia. The films are a character study of Don, Michael, and the Corleone family that featured the amber toned cinematography of Gordon Willis. Robert Evans, vice-president in charge of production at Paramount, chose Coppola to direct the saga because he was the only Italian director in Hollywood. Coppola finally agreed to write and direct the movie for $150,000 with the understanding that it would not be about gangsters. Coppola clearly got his intentions across to the audience as we view it as a family chronicle. Coppola collaborated with author Mario Puzo on the script. Puzo said of their partnership that he was the "practical" side and Francis was the "literary" side of the screenplay for the film (The Godfather: Part II). This technique was successful and they went on to win two Oscars, for Best Screenplay in 1973 and 1975. Casting was the next task Coppola focused on after completing the screenplay. Warren Beauty, Jack Nicholson, and Dustin Hoffman were all offered the part of Michael Corleone, but the role eventually went to Al Pacino. Coppola virtually begged Paramount to cast Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. While Coppola struggled to obtain Al Pacino and Marlon Brando the films would not be the same without them. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) starts out as the only son in the saga who is not involved in the family's crime business. Michael eventually becomes involved after the Don is shot while buying fruit, with his recuperating father backing his word for business partners. In the second film Michael continues the family business while Vito Andollini comes to New York as an immigrant from Italy. He lives in New York City and gets a job at a store. This film features authentic looking recreations of an Italian vaudeville show that Vito attends while in Italy. An assassination attempt is made on Michael while he is in bed with his wife and he sums it up by shouting, "In my home! In my bedroom, where my wife sleeps!" (Greatest Films, http://www.filmsite.org/godf2.html). The film switches between Michael and Vito throughout the three-hour saga. The story makes its way towards a conclusion as vengeful Vito stabs Don Cicco in Italy. The film ends in America with Michael Corleone estranged from his wife and kids. Cinematographer Gordon Willis does a magnificent job filming the saga particularly the second film. He zooms in on Michael and stops once the audience's view is close enough to see the features of his face. As Michael puts his hand on his face mulling over what is next for the family we see his loneliness.

The films were an arduous process for everyone involved. Dick Smith the makeup artist did a brilliant job making the forty-seven year old Marlon Brando look and sound like the old mob boss he played by adding liquid latex to his skin. Brando also wore hearing aids and weights on his feet to give him the appearance of an elderly man. Robert De Niro's performance as Vito Corleone and Robert Duvall's performance as Tom Hagen add extraordinary texture to the film. After all the tiresome work on shooting, Coppola returned to San Francisco with ninety hours of film. He eventually cut the film down to the 175-minute version we see today that has garnered many awards. The Godfather Trilogy acquired twenty-three Academy Award nominations and nine Oscars to buttress critics quickly acclaiming it as a classic. There were many scenes in the first two films that were memorable. A graphic scene occurs in the first film when Mr. Woltz wakes up in his bed and sees that his prized horse's head has been severed. A great scene in the first film occurs when Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) visits the Don's office and asks the Don to get him a part in a movie. Johnny whines and the Don slaps him on the face. After telling Johnny that a real man is a family man, Don Corleone says, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" (Greatest Films, http://www.filmsite.org/godf.html). This was one of many great moments of dialogue and acting in the films but my favorite occurs in the second the film when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) slaps his wife Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in a rage. They start arguing about custody of the kids and Kay says, "There would be no way, Michael, that you could ever forgive me. Not with this Sicilian thing that's been going on for two thousand years." Michael then strikes her in a brilliant scene of direction and cinematography. Michael's reply, "You won't take my children." "I will." Michael in rage shouts, "You won't take my children" (Greatest Films, http://www.filmsite.org/godf2.html). If you like the scene where Charles Foster Kane slaps his wife because he knows it's the truth, you will like this scene in The Godfather: Part II despite the spousal abuse. This trilogy is a classic for anyone who likes a drama with the Mafia as its character study.

In between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II Coppola wrote and directed The Conversation (1974). As a child he had always had a fascination with gadgets and this undoubtedly influenced the making of The Conversation. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the foremost expert on surveillance, and the film opens with him taping a couple in San Francisco's Union Square using his own gadgets. Harry is a loaner who refuses to discuss his business with his girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr). He is seduced by a call girl that steals his tapes, and he thus believes a murder will occur. In the end Harry finds out that he has been bugged and destroys his apartment. The film ends with Harry playing a saxophone in his lonely apartment. Filming The Conversation posed several major predicaments for Coppola, cinematographer Bill Butler, and sound editor Walter Murch. The trio had to film the opening sequence in Union Square with passers-by that had no idea a film was being made. In order to execute this Coppola had six camera crews and sound technicians working simultaneously trying to film the actors in the middle of Union Square. When directing these sequences, Coppola would point out the actors to the cameramen and tell them, "Try to find them and keep them in focus" (Bergan, Francis Ford Coppola p. 45). The actors never knew when they were being filmed because the crew was clandestinely hidden. In fact some of the soundmen were so hidden armed policemen thought they were snipers trying to assassinate Coppola and arrested them. Coppola had other difficulties as well when he had to fire his original cinematographer and production designer because of differences in opinion (Bergan, Francis Ford Coppola p. 45). The set was thus closed down for ten days until Coppola was able to bring in Bill Butler. Despite all the problems, The Converstion was Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay.

After finishing The Conversation, Coppola moved on to Apocalypse Now (1979). This was by far Coppola's most daring and controversial film. The idea to make the film came from an article by Michael Herr entitled "The Battle for Khe San" which depicted the excess of drugs, violence and rock n' roll inherent to the culture of American soldiers in Vietnam. George Lucas was originally slated to direct the picture on 16mm, using a cast of unknowns, for a cost of $1.5 million. Coppola came to produce and direct the film after John Milius didn't want to direct the film due to other projects. Cuba was Coppola's original choice as a shooting location for the Vietnam epic. He even wrote Castro a letter saying, "Dear Fidel, I love you.... We have the same initials. We both have beards. We both have power and want to use it for good purposes...." (Bergan, Francis Ford Coppola p. 53). However when Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos offered to put his army and airforce at Coppola's disposal he chose to shoot the film there. Marcos also agreed to provide M16's and explosives for an undisclosed sum. Coppola began shooting of the epic in March of 1976 with Harvey Keitel playing Captain Willard. From the start of filming the movie was affected by predicaments and delays that wouldn't stop until it made its way to theaters in 1979. After two weeks of shooting in the Philippines, Coppola fired Keitel because he didn't like the way Keitel portrayed Willard. Coppola then flew back to Los Angeles where he gave Martin Sheen the script. Back in the Philippines, Coppola found many of the scenes with helicopters and airplanes hard to control as director. He said of the difficulties, "I had fifteen helicopters up in the sky and no way to tell them if they didn't fly another ten feet they wouldn't be in the picture" p. 55). Calamities occurred when Coppola directed an attack from a helicopter in a scene that included 450 actors, extras, and technicians. During the attack, the film's prop and paint shop was exterminated. Production was delayed further by the eruption of a civil war, which deprived Coppola of necessary helicopters for filming and thus compounded problems. In May Hurricane Olga demolished the film's sets and the Coppola's rented house and caused another delay. The only good that came out of all the disasters is the fact that it provided Coppola with time to change the ending of the John Milius script. "I wanted to explore the moral side," (Bergan, Francis Ford Coppola p. 56) Coppola said of his decision to change the ending. To make matters worse, Marlon Brando showed up late, drunk, obese, and he hadn't even read the script. When the crew thought nothing worse could happen Martin Sheen, who had been drinking, suffered a heart attack. He returned to the set after more than a month's stay in a Philippine hospital. Coppola was forced to mortgage all of his assets as a guarantee on a $10 million loan. Shooting of the film finally ended in May of 1977, with the film's original shooting schedule of thirteen-weeks having expanded to 238 days. Coppola summed up the feelings of the entire cast at the wrap up party when he said, "I've never seen in my life so many people so happy to be unemployed" (Bergan, Francis Ford Coppola p. 57). The budget for the film started at $12 million and finally ended at $31 million.

Apocalypse Now is loosely based off Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness and features lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." The film commences with Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) in a Saigon Hotel room when he receives orders from the CIA to "terminate with extreme prejudice" Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Colonel Kurtz leads a cult of natives in the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam War. Willard leads a group of drug using rockin' rollers on a Navy boat up the river to Kurtz's Angkor Wat-style temple. Along the way the soldiers dance to The Rolling Stones "Satisfaction," watch Playboy Bunnies as a stage is stormed, slaughter a boat full of Vietnamese civilians, and witness Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) get hit and killed by a spear. These scenes capture the rock n' roll, sex, violence, and gore of the experience of American soldiers in Vietnam respectively. There were many memorable scenes in this film including the graphic sequence that take places when Kurtz places the severed head of Chef (Frederic Forrest) in Captain's Willard lap. This scene is similar to the aforementioned one in The Godfather when Mr. Woltz finds a severed horse's head in his bed. Despite all the graphic violence, Apocalypse Now was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won for Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and Best Sound. Coppola entered Apocalypse Now in the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, as a work in progress, and it garnered the Golden Palm. While at the festival, Coppola said of his film, "My movie is not about Vietnam... my movie is Vietnam."

As Coppola moved into the 1980's more calamities occurred. He directed the musical One from the Heart (1982) which featured Gene Kelly as a consultant. The film was shot entirely on sound stages that Omni Zoetrope had recently purchased. Coppola was forced to borrow $4 million to finance the picture, which returned only $2 million at the box-office. After the box-office flop of One from the Heart, Coppola was $30 million in debt. Meanwhile Zoetrope was going broke and financiers were threatening foreclosure. Finally in 1984, Zoetrope Studios was sold to a Canadian financier for $12.3 million. However, problems worsened when The Cotton Club (1984) became a $48 million box-office catastrophe.

Financial disaster forced Coppola to become a director for hire. He soon was hired to direct Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). The film, also the title of a Buddy Holly song, is a comedy about a thirty something woman who revisits her years in high school. She goes to her the 1960 class reunion, is crowned queen and faints. The rest of the movie deals with her dreams, but the major theme of this movie is how she deals with men such as Michael Fitzsimmons (Kevin J. O' Connor), Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage), and Richard Norvik (Barry Miller). After being thrust back in life she finds herself making the same choices. This movie features up and coming actors such as Nicholas Cage (Coppola's nephew), Helen Hunt (Beth Bodell), and Jim Carrey (Walter Getz). In the end the movie turned out to be box-office gold for Coppola financially, more than any other film he released in the 1980's. This good news was overshadowed by a family tragedy occurred when his son Gio was killed in a boating accident. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) followed two years later. The film's executive producer was George Lucas. Lucas was reeling from two box-office flops (Howard the Duck and Labyrinth) following the success of Star Wars but accepted the fact that Tucker would need a budget of $25 million. Coppola has several family connections to this film. During the 1940's, Coppola's father invested $5,000 in the Tucker Tornado. Coppola's father also composed some additional music for the film. Tucker (Jeff Bridges) is a forty something father who designs a new car with multiple safety features and extraordinary design details that have never been included in an automobile. He then takes out loans and hires personnel to manufacture his vehicle. His new car touted such features as a rear engine, padded seats, shatter proof glass, and seatbelts that Ford and other leading car companies didn't offer. This radically new design draws attention and conflict arises when charges are filed in court by the SEC. Although the film is entertaining, it so did poorly at the box-office that American Zoetrope was eventually forced into bankruptcy two years later.

Coppola ended the 1980's on a bad note but good things were to come his way in the 1990's. The Godfather: Part III (1990) was Coppola's first project of the 1990's followed by Bram Stoker's Dracula which earned $82 million at the U.S. box-office in its first two months. The revenue from Dracula (1992) helped Coppola back on his feet financially. His two most recent films are Jack (1996) and John Grisham's The Rainmaker (1997). Coppola has produced and directed more failures than hit films but the awards he has won have overshadowed this. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director for The Godfather and finally won the Oscar for The Godfather: Part II. He has won an Oscar twice for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. The Conversation (1974), made in between the two aforementioned films, received a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination and won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. He has also won a BAFTA Film Award for Best Direction for Apocalypse Now. Coppola has had an erratic but prodigious film career over the past four decades, which include films that have a broad scope of content and genre.

Films Year Awards Credited with
Jeepers Creeper 2001 Producer
Monster 2001 Executive producer
Pumpkin 2001 Executive producer
Untitled Frida Kahlo 2001 Producer
Grapefruit Moon, 2000 Producer
Sleepy Hollow 1999 Executive producer
Goosed 1999 Executive producer
The Third Miracle 1999 Executive producer
The Virgin Suicides 1999 Producer
The Florentine 1999 Producer
Lanai-Loa 1998 Producer
Buddy 1997 Executive producer
The Rainmaker 1997 Director, writer
Jack 1996 Director, producer
Haunted 1995 Executive producer
My Family 1995 Executive producer
Don Juan Demarco 1995 Producer
Frankenstein 1994 Producer
The Junky's Christmas 1993 Producer
Wind 1992 Executive producer
The Secret Garden 1993 Executive producer
Dracula 1992 Director, producer
The Godfather: Part III 1990 AA noms for Best Picture and Best Director, GG noms for Best Picture and Best Screenplay Director, writer, producer
Tucker: The Man and His Dream 1988 Director
Lionheart 1987 Executive producer
Tough Guys Don't Dance 1987 Executive producer
Gardens of Stone 1987 Director, producer
Captain Eo 1986 Director
Peggy Sue Got Married 1986 Director
The Cotton Club 1984 GG nom for Best Director Director, writer
Rumble Fish 1983 Director, writer, executive producer
Koyaanisqatsi 1983 Executive producer
The Black Stallion Returns 1983 Executive producer
The Outsiders 1983 Director
Hammett 1982 Executive producer
The Escape Artist 1982 Executive producer
One from the Heart 1982 Director, writer
The Black Stallion 1979 Executive producer
Apocalypse Now 1979 AA noms for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay from another medium; BAFTA Film Award for Best Direction; Golden Palm; GG for Best Director and Best Original Score, AFI's Top 100 Films-#28 Director, writer, actor, composer, producer
The Godfather: Part II 1974 AA's for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay; GG noms for Best Director and Best Screenplay, AFI's Top 100 Films-#32 Director, writer, producer
The Great Gatsby 1974 Writer
The Conversation 1974 AA noms for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture, BAFTA Film Award for Best Direction and Best Screenplay, Golden Palm, GG noms for Best Director and Best Screenplay Director, writer, producer
American Graffiti 1973 AA nom for Best Picture, AFI's Top 100 Films-#77 Executive producer
The Godfather 1972 AA nom for Best Director, AA for Best Screenplay from another medium, GG's for Best Director and Best Screenplay, AFI's Top 100 Films-#3 Director, writer
Patton 1970 AA for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay based on factual material (with Edmund North), AFI's Top 100 Films-#89 Writer
THX 1138 1970 Executive producer
The Rain People 1969 Director, writer
Finians's Rainbow 1968 Director, writer
You're A Big Boy Now 1966 Director
This Property Is Condemned 1966 Writer
Paris brule-t-il? 1966 Writer
Dementia 13 1963 Director, writer
The Terror 1963 Director, associate producer
The Playgirls and the Bellboy 1962 Director, writer
Tonight for Sure 1961 Director, writer, producer

Nebo sovyot 1960 Director, producer, dubbing director, scenarist
Sadko 1953 Writer


Suggested Readings

1. Bergan, Ronald. Francis Ford Coppola: Close Up the Making of His Movies. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1997.

2. Schumacher, Michael. Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's Life. Crown Publications. 1999.

3. Cowie, Peter. Coppola: A Biography. Da Capo Press. 1994.

4. Francis Ford Coppola. 23 Jan. 2001. The Internet Movie Database. 23 Jan. 2001. http://us.imdb.com/Name?Coppola,+Francis+Ford.
This website is the World Wide Web's best resource for anything about films. Information on Coppola includes the following: a filmography, biography, photo, gallery, awards and nominations, and much more.

5. Francis Ford Coppola. 29 Jan. 2001. All Movie Guide. 29 Jan. 2001. http://allmovie.com/cg/x.dll?p=avg&sql=B85868.

6. Patton. 28 Jan. 2001. Greatest Films. 28 Jan. 2001. http://www.filmsite.org/patt.html.
This website provides background on the film, an extensive plot summary, dialogue, and much more.
7. The Godfather. 28 Jan. 2001. Greatest Films. 28 Jan. 2001. http://www.filmsite.org/godf.html.
This website provides background on the film, an extensive plot summary, dialogue, and much more.

8. The Godfather, Part II. 28 Jan. 2001. Greatest Films. 28 Jan. 2001. http://www.filmsite.org/godf2.html.
This website provides background on the film, an extensive plot summary, dialogue, and much more.

9. The Conversation. 28 Jan. 2001. Greatest Films. 28 Jan. 2001. http://www.filmsite.org/conv.html.
This website provides background on the film, an extensive plot summary, dialogue, and much more.

10. Apocalypse Now. 28 Jan. 2001. Greatest Films. 28 Jan. 2001. http://www.filmsite.org/apoc.html.
This website provides background on the film, an extensive plot summary, dialogue, and much more.