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Early Francis Ford Coppola
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Early Francis Ford Coppola - 7/18

One of America's most erratic, energetic and controversial filmmakers, Francis Ford Coppola enjoyed stunning triumphs and endured monumental setbacks before resurrecting himself, Phoenix-like, to begin the process all over again. Known primarily for his successful "Godfather" trilogy - "The Godfather" (1972), "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) and "The Godfather, Part III" (1990) - Coppola was the most celebrated of the Young Turks - a group of filmmakers who emerged in the early 1970s that included George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and William Friedkin. Unbridled by his ambition and enthusiasm, and perhaps obsessive to the point of being manic, Coppola infused a fervent creative energy into his early work, culminating in "Apocalypse Now" (1979), a journey into his own heart of darkness that irrevocably altered his career and may have even caused permanent psychological damage. Renowned for his generosity with other filmmakers, Coppola served as a fierce promoter of others' films, championing the work of Wim Wenders, Paul Schrader and Akira Kurosawa, while playing an important part in the restoration of Abel Gance's classic silent film, "Napoleon" (1927). The quality of his directing fell off throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, and the big studios - remembering his colossal box-office failures - became leery of backing his more personal projects, preferring instead to employ him as a hired gun on the likes of "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992) and "The Rainmaker" (1997), which helped the director pay off his enormous debts. Nonetheless, Coppola - having been responsible for directing three of the greatest films in cinema history - remained forever a legend.

Born on Apr. 7, 1939 in Detroit, MI, Coppola was raised in a creative, supportive Italian-American family. His father, Carmine, was a flutist and composer who played in several orchestras, including Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra, which he often conducted when on tour, while his mother, Italia, was an actress. Because of Carmine's tenure with Toscanini, Coppola moved with his family to New York City when he was two and spent the remainder of his childhood growing up in Queens. When he was nine years old, Coppola suffered from polio, which kept him confined to his bed for a year, with his left leg and arm paralyzed. Separated from his friends, Coppola occupied himself with puppets and mechanical devices, which intensified an already developing fascination with film. At age 10, he began making movies with his father's 8mm camera and tape recorder. After graduating Great Neck High School, he pursued a bachelor's degree in drama at Hofstra University, alongside actors Lainie Kazan and James Caan. Once he wrapped his student career at Hofstra, Coppola attended the University of California at Los Angeles, where he brushed elbows with future Doors singer Jim Morrison and earned his Master of Fine Arts in film direction from UCLA Film School.

Coppola spent the better part of the 1960s trying to obtain his degree, thanks to his general discontent with the classroom. He gained some real world experience directing soft-core porn films like "Tonight For Sure" (1962), then hired himself out to low-budget king Roger Corman. His first job for Corman was to dub and re-edit a Russian science fiction film, which he turned into a sex-and-violence monster movie entitled "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1962). Coppola directed his first feature, the unremarkable Corman-produced "Dementia 13" (1963), while in Ireland that summer. Then on the strength of his Samuel Goldwyn award-winning UCLA screenplay "Pilma Pilma," he secured a job as a scriptwriter with Seven Arts. Coppola made significant contributions to "Is Paris Burning?" (1966) and "This Property is Condemned" (1966); eventually winning his first Oscar for co-writing Franklin Schaffner's war epic, "Patton" (1970). Frustrated at not seeing his vision on the big screen, however, Coppola bought the rights to a David Benedictus novel and fused it with a story idea of his own, resulting in "You're a Big Boy Now" (1966), his UCLA thesis project that also received a theatrical release via Warner Bros. Critics praised the funny and fast-paced film about a young, naïve suburban man (Peter Kastner) moving to the big city, as well as applauded the appearance of a new director of great talent and promise. Unfortunately, the film failed at the box office.

An unbowed Coppola agreed to direct a screen version of "Finian's Rainbow" (1968), a musical starring Fred Astaire. Though the movie bombed on release - the studio blew it up from 35mm to 70mm, effectively chopping off Astaire's feet - it did introduce him to a young George Lucas, who went on to work as a production assistant on Coppola's next effort, "The Rain People" (1969). Written, directed and financed by Coppola - until his money ran out and the studio had to help out - the film starred Shirley Knight as a distressed housewife who takes to the road, and along the way, befriends the brain-damaged football player (James Caan). In 1969, an idealistic Coppola sought to subvert the studio system which he felt had stifled his visions by launching American Zoetrope as an alternative to the way movies were then made. The company intended to produce mainstream pictures to finance off-beat projects and give first-time directors their chance to direct. But when Warner Bros. so disliked Zoetrope's initial offering, Lucas' futuristic "THX-1138" (1971), that they demanded their money back, Coppola found himself $300,000 in debt and unsure of his future as a filmmaker - a small sign of bigger financial calamities to come.

With "The Godfather," however, everything changed, but only after Coppola fought tooth and nail for the cast of his choice - namely Marlon Brando - and narrowly avoided dismissal by a skittish Paramount brass who feared the young director was in over his head. Thanks to the ever-faithful producer Bob Evans and a timely Oscar for "Patton," Coppola survived to bring his monumental epic to the screen, earning his second Oscar for the screenplay he co-wrote with Mario Puzo, author of the bestselling novel the film was based on. The early phase of Francis Ford Coppola's career was now officially behind him.

Biographical data courtesy of TCMdb

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