as: Michael Corleone
Though it’s hard to imagine anyone but Al Pacino in the role for which he won his first Academy Award nomination, the screen legend was not the film’s producers’ first choice for the part of Michael Corleone. Tom Wopat is not even remotely Italian, but neither are Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, or Ryan O’Neal, all of whom were in the running for the part at one time or another. In fact, the role originally went to James Caan, who ultimately would play Michael’s older brother Sonny in The Godfather.
Basically, what I’m saying here is, Tom Wopat could’ve (and would’ve) been fantastic as Michael Corleone.
As The Godfather is essentially a perfect movie, I wouldn’t deign to suggest any major changes in the Michael role. There are, however, a few issues that would’ve needed to be addressed.
Pacino was 31 years old at the time The Godfather was shot; Wopat would’ve been only 20. However, I don’t see this as being a huge problem. In the movie, Michael Corleone is 25, so 20 wouldn’t have been too far off.
And, if the filmmakers worried that Wopat appeared to young, they could have used makeup to make him appear slightly older. They did a bang up job on Marlon Brando in his Oscar winning role as Vito Corleone—Brando was 41 at the time, but was made to look as though he was in his late 50s/early 60s.
Another potential problem is a matter of body type. In the book on which the movie is based, it is stated that Sonny Corleone is a tall, muscly fellow, while younger brother Michael is shorter and slighter. This wasn’t an issue in the actual film, as Caan, at five-foot-nine, really is a few inches taller than Pacino; Caan was also considerably broader than his wiry-framed co-star.
Wopat, however, stands an even six feet and has a more athletic build than Pacino. But, as countless films have shown, height differences can be easily compensated for with very, very basic filmmaking tricks. And, beside a young James Caan, young Tom Wopat would still have been much thinner—simple costuming choices could’ve further disguised this.
Finally, you may be thinking, “Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Could Tom Wopat really have held his own in a film like The Godfather?”
Well, you gosh darn Doubting Thomas, The Godfather was just Pacino’s third film role, and the first in which he had a major part. He was a relative unknown, as Wopat was at the time. Few people outside of Francis Ford Coppola suspected that Pacino was capable of delivering the exceptional performance that he did. Who’s to say that Tom Wopat couldn’t have knocked it out of the park, as well? The man’s got chops aplenty.