The Offer Casting Director John Papsidera on Making the Actors a Godfather Offer They Couldn’t Refuse

The Offer
Image via Nicole Wilder/Paramount+
The Offer
Image via Nicole Wilder/Paramount+

If you were a fan of The Godfather trilogy, then you would certainly remember Marlon Brando‘s famous line, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” which Don Vito Corleone says to Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) as he asks for help in getting into the new movie produced by Jack Woltz (John Marley). The new Paramount+ series The Offer, which chronicles the making of The Godfather, offers numerous parallels to that situation, as producer Al Ruddy (Miles Teller) tries to make the 1972 gangster classic under the watchful eye of meddling Mafia boss Joe Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi) and his criminal counterparts.

The 10-episode series, written by Oscar and Emmy-nominated scribe Michael Tolkin, is based on the experiences of Oscar-winning producer Albert S. Ruddy and his behind-the-scenes account of what it took to mount the movie, from getting author Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola to sit down and focus on the script instead of their next meal, to the myriad headaches of production.

In casting the series, which features all the real-life Godfather players on and off the set, there were several directives from showrunner and executive producer Nikki Toscano that Casting Director John Papsidera needed to keep in mind. For one thing, the actors who auditioned needed to resemble their famous film counterparts as well as sound like them; essentially bringing their essence to the role without miming them.

A former actor himself, Papsidera has a knack for recognizing talent when he sees it. He worked his way up the casting ranks, first as an assistant at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and then moving into features in the ’90s, when he cast big-budget action films such as Clear and Present Danger, The Net, Anaconda, and Cutthroat Island, to name a few. In 1997, Papsidera formed his own casting company, amassing over 200 film and television credits over the past 25 years. Some of the more impressive film projects include Austin Powers, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk, Inception, The Longest Yard, Zombieland, The Grey, and Christopher Nolan‘s next movie Oppenheimer, while his TV credits include Westworld, The Flight Attendant, Ray Donovan, and Casual, as well as Yellowstone and its prequel series 1883.

Below the Line spoke with Papsidera via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, where he was hard at work casting his next project, the Brie Larson-led Apple series Lessons in Chemistry. He talked about the method he used to cast actors as even more famous actors from The Godfather, including icons such as Brando and Al Pacino. Papsidera also recalls a few classic auditions, including his most surprising gets and the actors who blew him away.

The Offer
Image via Paramount+

Below the Line: Forgive the pun, but who got the first offer?

John Papsidera: With our involvement, it would have to go back to Miles. Al [Ruddy] is really kind of the heart, so that would’ve been the first offer. He didn’t audition. He met with the production team and they had conversations, both at the studio level and with (director) Dexter [Fletcher] and Nikki. I think they were all simpatico and thought that Miles could really be a great Al. I never interacted with (the real) Al on the production even though he was certainly around. Most of these guys, especially Miles, interviewed or talked to Al as well. I think it was a multi-pronged process for Miles but I think he’s great in the show and we’re thrilled that we got him.

BTL: What did the casting breakdowns look like?

Papsidera: They were pretty straightforward and did use their real names. We were not allowed to release any photographs with it because of copyright laws. We had to rely on people knowing whether they knew what (Gulf + Western boss) Charles Bluhdorn looked like or not was another thing, or Joe Colombo. My computer screen was covered with mobsters’ pictures and I’d compare the actors constantly to the actual person and go, ‘that’s close, that’s in the ballpark,’ and we went about it that way.

The Offer
Image via Nicole Wilder/Paramount+

BTL: What about casting the other mob counterparts?

Papsidera: Giovanni Ribisi didn’t audition; that was one of the first offers we made for Joe Colombo. I also didn’t want to go down the path of just recasting The Sopranos. It was a very big thing and it’s a hard thing to do. There are not as many Italians in L.A. as there are in New York and so it was a hard thing not to fall into that pattern of ‘they’re known for that.’ We didn’t want people being pulled out by, ‘there’s so-and-so from The Sopranos.’ Jake Cannavale (Caesar) is Bobby’s son and even though he was not in L.A., [he] went through a lot of hoops to join us. I was thrilled that he got the show. Joe Russo was uncanny because he looked so much like Crazy Joe Gallo, it’s wild. Our head of casting, Deb, knew these guys from her neighborhood, and so that was a tall order to find the people that Deb could sign off [on] in her memory of these characters.

BTL: What was your directive in casting the famous film counterparts?

Papsidera: What I wanted to do was try and find people that had the essence of the characters without absolutely doing impersonations. We just started that method of trying to discover and find actors that kind of reminded us of those actors. We tried to find people who were in that ballpark because they’re so identifiable. But we tried not to go down the path of, for instance, a Frank Sinatra impersonator who has done it before and is known for that. So we tried to get the actors that embodied their spirit and their essence, all the way down the list from Dan Fogler (as Francis Ford Coppola). It was tough because he was up for both Ford and Mario Puzo. He could’ve done either. I’m pretty sure he taped for both. Francis was such an integral part and we had a little bit more freedom with Mario because he’s not as ingrained in people’s minds like Francis [and his] look. Coppola had so much drive and passion for this movie, so having somebody with that much life force and creative force, like Dan, was a hand-in-glove [fit] for us.

The Offer
Image via Nicole Wilder/Paramount+

BTL: What were some of the memorable auditions?

Papsidera: Burn Gorman was really memorable as Bluhdorn. He’s a wild-looking character to begin with, and on top of that, adding the Austrian accent and finding the humor in the role, and not just an actor screaming at the camera, which the sides tended to lead some people in that direction. One of the audition scenes was when he throws something into the television in his office. You had a lot of guys going way over the top and you had to find the right balance between the look and the performance and not just being a caricature but filling in that life underneath it. Burn certainly did that.

BTL: For the actor that played Al Pacino, was there a parallel in fighting for him as there was in The Offer?

Papsidera: What’s fascinating about that is we had cast another actor [in] that role. As he read the first or second script, he called his manager and said, ‘I can’t do this because there’s sexual content in the material.’ It had nothing to do with his character, it was just in the show itself and there’s not a lot of sexual content in the piece by any means. But he felt it was against his religion to be associated with anything in that realm. That was a huge blow because we thought we had a great Pacino. But as it turns out to be there’s always someone else and I think across the board people were thrilled with Anthony Ippolito as Al Pacino. Again, not an exact duplicate, but his eyes did a lot of the heavy lifting and more people commented about him than almost any other role.

The Offer
Image via Nicole Wilder/Paramount+

BTL: The choice for Marlon Brando was an inspired one because we know Justin Chambers from Grey’s Anatomy.

Papsidera: That was an absolute shocker. What’s interesting too, and even when I was watching it with my wife, she was [like] ‘oh, he’s younger.’ Everybody’s mindset about Brando was how he looked in The Godfather. Well, he was much younger than what he actually played in The Godfather, so we were trying to match the look for the film that he did, but also match Brando in real life, which is not how most people picture him. He’s not going up the river in Apocalypse Now yet. So that was a real challenge. We had some great reads and known actors [who] really campaigned and wanted to do it because they knew Marlon and felt like that was an access point. But when Justin’s tape came in, I was just blown away. He did a little bit with his voice and his mannerisms, but didn’t go full-on Marlon (with any cotton in his mouth), but hinted at it. It’s the right age. It’s the right vibe. It’s not a rendition of Brando that we’ve seen and I thought he was fantastic and we were thrilled.

BTL: Who was the biggest surprise in terms of someone you would never have thought of for the role?

Papsidera: Matthew Goode as Robert Evans was phenomenal. We talked about a lot of different guys for Bob Evans and there were other actors attached before I was involved. I cannot say enough about Matthew. He came rather late to the party because there was so much discussion about who that could be. We got to Matthew and the fact that he embodied that in his own unique way is phenomenal. I knew Bob briefly. I did a movie [called] Jade with Bob Evans, who was a producer. Bob was a character and was unbelievably idiosyncratic. Matthew nailed his inflection and his tonality; all of that stuff I was just blown away. It was a magical performance where he had fun and allowed us to have fun. I was thrilled with Lou Ferrigno for Lenny Montana, which was a hard role to find.

The Offer
Image via Nicole Wilder/Paramount+

BTL: Were there any crazy things that the actors did for their role that you came across?

Papsidera: Meredith Garretson as Ali McGraw went through so many hoops, so much so that she had to get a tooth filed down so that was not distracting. I owe a debt to and I’m really appreciative of the lengths that they went through to be part of this important piece. This wasn’t crazy, but I cast Juno Temple for [The Dark Knight Rises] so many years ago and she’s just phenomenal as Betty; just lovely and spunky and all of those things that Bettye McCartt was.

BTL: Did you get any feedback from any of the real people?

Papsidera: I knew Andrea Eastman (casting director for Robert Evans) from back in the day. She is not in the business anymore. I cast Stephanie Koenig in a little movie that I was casting. I did hear that Andrea went up to Stephanie at the premiere and told her that she was thrilled that she got to portray her and she was really happy with her portrayal. Those little bits are fantastic to hear.

BTL: How great did you feel making these actors an offer they couldn’t refuse, so to speak?

Papsidera: Believe me, it was tough. There were tight budgets and a lot of people did stuff they wouldn’t do to be part of this project. To touch history in that [way]. If you’re interested in film and entertainment, it is such a touchstone for so many people and so many performances. I can’t say enough or thank the actors enough, or the agents and managers who bent over backward to allow their clients to participate in the process of making this show, [because it was a real challenge]. I have a friend who loved The Godfather and did a paper on it when he was in school and had seen it 20, 30 times, and [he] knew nothing about any of the backstory. Al Ruddy’s stories and memories and antidotes are just so rich about what happened behind the scenes. It’s just a glimpse of something told in a real and authentic way that you don’t get to see very often. I think it was such a fantastic way to pay tribute to the movie, from being a passion project down to [casting] every actor. There were so many special moments and performances for me and I’m really proud of the cast and the creators and what they pulled off.

The Offer is now streaming in its entirety on Paramount+.