• Jack Nicholson turned down the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather because he believed that Italians should play Italians and Indians should play Indians.
  • Nicholson felt that Al Pacino was the ideal choice for the role of Michael Corleone and acknowledged that Pacino became the face of the gangster genre because of his performance.
  • If Nicholson had accepted the role, the gangster genre and his own career would have been significantly different, potentially affecting iconic roles such as The Shining and Batman.

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

Michael Corleone in The Godfather

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.

Jack Nicholson Playing Michael Corleone Would’ve Changed The Gangster Genre

Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface

If Jack Nicholson had accepted the role of Michael Corleone, there’s no doubt that the gangster genre audiences know today would be entirely different. First and foremost, Al Pacino likely would not have become the face of the gangster genre without The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather, took notice of Pacino after his performance in the 1971 film, The Panic in Needle Park. Though executives were seeking a well-known actor to embody Michael Corleone, Coppola chose Pacino, and as a result, the iconic actor was catapulted into major fame, starring in films such as Carlito’s Way, Serpico, and Scarface

Another possibility is that The Godfather may not have succeeded as it did without Al Pacino. Nicholson’s performance likely would have been good, and his rising popularity might have garnered some interest from audiences, but he might have lacked the power that Pacino brought. Although Pacino was an unknown at the time, this most likely helped him when portraying The Godfather’s Michael Corleone. If anything, Pacino was able to truly become the character, which would explain why his performance is still so pervasive. Additionally, as Nicholson said, his lack of Italian heritage could have been a major shot against the film and his performance, making Pacino a much better choice.

How The Godfather Would Have Changed Jack Nicholson’s Career

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance looking off into the distance in The Shining

Just as Al Pacino’s career would have been changed, Nicholson’s would have as well. If Nicholson had succeeded in playing Michael Corleone, it’s possible that he would have become the face of the gangster genre rather than Pacino. Though Nicholson is an amazing actor, it is definitely strange to replace him with Al Pacino in gangster cinema. More than that, Nicholson’s best roles might have also been lost including The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and 1989’s Batman. Therefore, in the end, Jack Nicholson is an icon in his own right, but it is for the best that he never played Michael Corleone in The Godfather.

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