Francis Ford Coppola was born in Detroit, Michigan on April 7, 1939. His family consisted of descendants of Italian immigrants that moved to the United States in 1900. His father, Carmine Coppola, was a talented musician that attended the Julliard School and met Francis' mother, Italia Pernnino. When Francis was born, his father was playing in the NBC Symphony as a flautist. Shortly after Francis' birth, the family moved to New York City to seek better opportunity.
When Francis was 10, he contracted polio and became paralyzed on his left side. He was forced to stay in bed for nine months and watched television continuously during the time. Francis refused to give up trying to walk, despite doctors telling him that he wouldn't be able to walk again. After several months of therapy with a physiotherapist, Francis was able to walk once again and returned to school. An allusion to this time of his life was made in his movie "The Conversation" where Gene Hackman talks about being paralyzed for months during his childhood.
After his recovery, Francis enrolled in the New York Military Academy, playing the tuba in the school's band. However, he became disgusted with the school's emphasis on sports and ran away to Manhattan after a year and a half. After returning to his previous high school, Francis continued playing tuba and began to write plays. As a result of his playwright skills, he was given a scholarship to Hofstra University, the same place his brother had studied. He graduated in 1959 with a BA in Theater Arts, but had no desire to become a film director. However, after seeing Sergei Eisenstein's "Ten Days that Shook the World", he changed his mind overnight.
Francis enrolled in the UCLA Film School for master's degree in 1960. There he met Roger Corman and worked with him on short horror films. During his studies, he directed his first film "Dementia 13" about an axe murdering maniac, which was shot in Ireland. While there, he met a woman named Eleanor Neil, who was in UCLA's Art Department. The two were married in 1963 and Francis graduated in 1966, using his film "You're a Big Boy Now" as his thesis.
His next film, "Finian's Rainbow", was made in 1968 with a budget of $3.5 million from Warner Brothers. The film was Fred Astaire's last and Francis made major changes in the production when he fired Hermes Pan, the choreographer. Francis used his camera skills to give the film rhythm and he finished the film for just under $4 million. Unfortunately, it was a box office flop, but he met a USC student named George Lucas on the set.
Francis started a film company called American Zoetrope in 1969 as president and George Lucas as vice president. Francis soon received major recognition when he worked with Edmund North on the screenplay for the movie "Patton" in 1970 and won an Oscar. Francis' success as screenwriter landed him the job of writing the the screenplay for "The Great Gatsby" in 1974.
In 1972, Francis was given the job of directing the mafia epic "The Godfather" by Robert Evans, the vice president of production at Paramount, supposedly because he was the only Italian director in Hollywood. Francis was given the rights to write the movie and direct it for $150,000. However, Francis made it very clear that the film would not be a "gangster flick", instead focusing on the family relations between the Corleones throughout their conflicts. Francis worked closely with the author of the book, Mario Puzo, to write the scripts for both "The Godfather" and "The Godfather 2", efforts which won the team Oscars in 1973 and 1975.
Francis had considered Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Dustin Hoffman for the role of Michael, but instead decided to give it to Al Pacino, a relative unknown at the time. He also begged Paramount to get Marlon Brando as Vito and, after some difficulty, they did so. The hard work on the filming paid off since the Godfather movies were nominated for twenty-three academy awards and received nine Oscars.
In between the Godfathers, Francis directed "The Conversation" and used some interesting filming techniques. The actors were often not told where the crews were hiding and it seemed to make the acting more realistic. When the police saw the crew hiding, they thought that they were snipers trying to kill Coppola and arrested them. He also had to fire the cinematographer, closing down the set for ten days before a replacement could be found. However, the film was nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay.
Francis then began work on his most daring film, "Apocalypse Now". The idea for the film came from an article by Michael Herr about the excess of drugs, violence, and rock music in the culture of US soldiers in Vietnam. Although George Lucas was initially slated to direct the film, Francis took over and decided to film in Cuba. He wrote a glowing letter to Fidel Castro 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." Despite this, he decided to film in the Phillipines when the president offered to put his army and air force at the crew's disposal.
Francis began shooting in 1976 with Harvey Keitel playing Captain Willard, but fired him two weeks later because he didn't like the way Keitel was portraying Willard. In his place, Martin Sheen was chosen to play the role. Other problems erupted, including a civil war, depriving the crew of helicopters. Hurricane Olga destroyed Francis' rented home and a number of sets, delaying filming further. Marlon Brando showed up on the set drunk, obese, and late, without reading the script. Unbelievably, Sheen suffered a heart attack on the set and spent a month in the hospital. The film was finally finished in May of 1977, with the filming taking 248 days instead of thirteen weeks. The budget had exploded to thirty-one million dollars, well above the initial amount of twelve million.
The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. At the Cannes Film Festival, it was awarded the Golden Palm. Francis described the movie as not about Vietnam, but being Vietnam.
However, the 1980s were not so kind to Francis as the earlier years. After directing a series of flops, American Zoetrope was sold and then went bankrupt. Coppola found himself $30 million in debt and emerged from the 80s with some better ideas. His film "The Godfather: Part III" was immensely popular and "Bram Stoker's Dracula" earned $82 million in the first two months of its release. He also directed "Jack" in 1996 with Robin Williams and a movie based on John Grisham's novel, "The Rainmaker", in 1997.
Despite his numerous failed films, Francis Ford Coppola had a number of major successes, the most defining being the Godfather trilogy and "Apocalypse Now".