One of the most acclaimed directors of the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola spearheaded a renaissance in American filmmaking, heralding a golden age which he defined through masterpieces ranging from The Conversation to Apocalypse Now to his crowning achievement, The Godfather. One of his era's most impassioned talents, Coppola was also one of its most erratic; in both his career and his personal life, he experienced euphoric triumph and shattering tragedy, pushing the limits of the cinematic form with a daring and fervor which became the hallmarks of not only his greatest successes but also his most notorious failures.
The son of composer Carmine Coppola, he was born April 7, 1939, in Detroit, MI. Raised in New York, he began making amateur films while still a child and later enrolled in the famed U.C.L.A. Film School in 1960. Upon entering the film industry by helming a number of softcore porn flicks, Coppola was approached by B-movie mogul Roger Corman to direct his first feature, Dementia 13, in 1963. While his Samuel Goldwyn Award-winning student screenplay Pilma, Pilma went unproduced, Coppola's 1966 U.C.L.A. thesis project, a freewheeling comedy titled You're a Big Boy Now, was distributed theatrically by Warner Bros., and that same year he collaborated on the screenplays of the features Is Paris Burning? and This Property Is Condemned. In 1968 he completed his first studio film, the box-office bomb Finian's Rainbow, followed the next year by The Rain People.
When he was just 31, Coppola won his first Academy Award for his work on the screenplay of 1970's Patton. Despite his recent success, however, he was on the edge of financial ruin after sinking his money into an ill-fated venture called Scopitone, a device which enabled short movies to be run on a jukebox. On the verge of bankruptcy, he was approached by Paramount to adapt the Mario Puzo best-seller The Godfather. The film was released in 1972 to unprecedented critical and commercial success, emerging as one of the highest-grossing films in Hollywood history and netting a total of four Oscars, including awards for Best Actor (Marlon Brando) and Best Picture. A majestic Mafia epic starring Brando as well as Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, The Godfather was declared an instant classic, and its stature only grew in the years following its initial appearance.
Coppola's next move was to write the screenplay for the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. He then turned to the masterful The Conversation, a taut political thriller which mirrored the events of Watergate and earned the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. At the peak of his powers, Coppola closed out 1974 by premiering The Godfather, Pt. 2, a powerful and ambitious follow-up built around a complex parallel narrative structure spanning a period of 30 years. The second film's success was perhaps even more staggering than the first: The Godfather, Pt. 2 garnered six more Oscars, including a win for Coppola in the Best Director category; Robert DeNiro won his first Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor field; and the movie itself became the first and only sequel ever to win Best Picture honors.
Next, Coppola began adapting the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, transferring its story to the heart of the Cambodian jungle at the height of the conflict in Vietnam. The result was Apocalypse Now, a grandiose work of flawed genius which nearly destroyed the lives and careers of all involved. Beginning with the heart attack of star Martin Sheen, the film suffered catastrophe after catastrophe, quickly going over budget and over schedule; as Coppola himself later noted, "little by little we went crazy." Begun in 1976, Apocalypse Now was not completed until three years and 30 million dollars later, where it premiered at Cannes as the winner of the Palm d'Or. It was subsequently released to wildly mixed reviews, despite garnering a pair of Oscars.
Whatever its artistic merits, Apocalypse Now marked the beginning of a long downward spiral, as Coppola's brand of filmmaking grew more and more out of control; its follow-up, 1982's One From the Heart, was an extravagant commercial and critical bust which left him some 30 million dollars in debt. He also agreed to finance film adaptations of the S.E. Hinton novels The Outsiders and Rumble Fish; neither picture found favor with audiences or reviewers, but together they launched a new generation of movie stars, offering early screen appearances by the likes of Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage (Coppola's nephew), Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, and Emilio Estevez.
Coppola next mounted The Cotton Club, an ambitious musical centered around the legendary Harlem jazz venue of the 1920s. After nearly 40 script rewrites, production finally began, but the director's passions again got the best of him and the project spun out of control, resulting in a 48-million-dollar box-office disaster. With his back against the wall, Coppola became a work-for-hire filmmaker for the first time in over a decade, agreeing to helm the frothy 1986 time-travel comedy Peggy Sue Got Married. The film was a popular success, and he soon accepted an offer to direct the Vietnam War-era drama Gardens of Stone, which failed to find an audience, a disappointment which barely registered in light of the 1986 death of his son, Gio, in a boating accident.
Ultimately, the poor showing of 1988's Tucker: The Man and His Dream -- a long-planned biography of another maverick, a real-life automotive visionary who had dared to take on the Big Three during the 1940s -- proved a fatal blow, and two years later Coppola's American Zoetrope studio was forced to declare bankruptcy. In desperate need of a hit, he agreed to direct The Godfather, Pt. 3, the long-awaited concluding chapter to the trilogy begun nearly 20 years prior. Despite garnering a Best Picture nomination, the 1990 film was widely considered a failure, barely recouping Paramount's 50-million-dollar investment. However, 1992's lavish adaptation Bram Stoker's Dracula was a hit, restoring much of Coppola's box-office lustre; in a similar vein, he agreed to co-produce Kenneth Branagh's 1994 effort Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. His next directorial effort was The Rainmaker, based on the courtroom drama by novelist John Grisham. The 1998 film drew a number of positive reviews, further helping to restore the director to good standing. The following year, he concentrated his efforts on producing, serving in this capacity on a number of projects, including Nick Stagliano's The Florentine.
Coppola would remain in the role of producer for years to come, overseeing films like Pumpkin and Kinsey. Finally, in 2007, he emerged from directorial retirement for the drama Youth Without Youth. Critics were disappointed with the film, but Coppola was undeterred, going on to direct Tetro, a drama about the struggles of an immigrant family starring Oscar winner Javier Bardem, and Txist (2012), a horror picture co-starring Val Kilmer, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin and Bruce Dern.