Marlon Brando was 47 years old when The Godfather was released in March of 1972, so how was he able to turn into such a believable senior citizen to play Vito Corelone? With the help of makeup artist Dick Smith, who transformed Brando from his youthful self to the old-time gangster.
Dick Smith (June 26, 1922 – July 30, 2014), one of the first makeup artists to win an Academy Award when the category of Best Makeup was introduced in 1985, was a leading practitioner of his craft since joining NBC Television in 1945 as its first staff makeup artist. His experience in live television, and his mastery of old age makeups, led to a remarkable film career that includes such outstanding work as The Godfather, The Exorcist, Little Big Man, and his Academy Award-winning old-age makeup designs on Amadeus.
If you get right down to it the makeup for the Don Vito Corleone wasn’t really what amazed during the role. His heavy jowls, the way he spoke, and the manner in which he kept himself was mostly a product of Marlon Brando to be honest. His audition wasn’t much to think about since he used some shoe polish to turn his hair black and stuffed his cheeks with tissue in order to get the heavy jowl look and the gravelly voice that the Don was known for. But obviously once he was cast for the movie he had to have more professional services to make him look the part. So of course he had his hair cut, slicked back, and colored, and he had to speak with the same voice that won him the audition. He even had to have his mannerisms down, though to be honest the scene with the cat in his office was largely improvised and wasn’t in the script to start with.
Brando and the rest of the cast were prepped for just about anything when it came right down to it and the process they went through with makeup wasn’t much more than many movies you see now, less even if you want the truth. The real preparation came in the form of getting along with each other each day and trying to quell the anxiety that came from realizing that the movie could flop at any time. Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t the first choice of directors and many of the actors, including Brando, weren’t the first choice for their roles. In fact if not for Coppola standing his ground and demanding that the actors he picked be left the movie might have turned out very differently. As it was the writer of the book, Mario Puzo, was quick to like Coppola and Brando and Pacino were adamant about walking off if Coppola was fired from the movie. Despite walking on eggshells a lot of the time there was some solidarity to be found.
But preparing Don Corleone was more about getting him in the right frame of mind than it was about getting him done up as was necessary. He had to look the part of course, which meant that he had abandon his otherwise well-known good looks and affect something more along the line of a man that had seen and done many things in his life, but it worked. Don Corleone came to life perfectly as an icon that would entertain the masses and continue to do so long after the movies had been released. It didn’t take as much in those days to really transform someone as it does now, though Coppola was also on a strict budget and had to conform to it. Al Pacino only received $35,000 for this movie and you can imagine that the others didn’t receive a whole lot more. Brando however received the lion’s share, around $2 million when all was said and done.
It wasn’t any more fair back then than it is now, but the bigger the star, the more the money as always.
Below is a gallery of some of amazing behind the scenes photos of Marlon Brando getting his make up to be Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.