What's In A Line? The Godfather's 'Offer He Can't Refuse,' Explained

By | January 24, 2019

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Source: (Paramount Pictures)

It's the most famous line ever uttered by a movie gangster -- a simple promise delivered by Marlon Brando, playing Don Vito Corleone, in The Godfather: "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse." The quote first appeared in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, which tells the story of the fictional Corleone crime family that was adapted into the epic film by Francis Ford Coppola.

Like most of Marlon Brando's best lines in the 1972 film, it's said calmly and quietly. Corleone's godson Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) is a singer whose career is in decline, and he's convinced that a role in an upcoming Hollywood film will be the boost he needs. But studio head Jack Woltz has refused to give Fontane the part. After taking Fontane to task for his unmanliness, Don Corleone tells him he'll convince Woltz to give him the role. "This Hollywood big shot is going to give you what you want," Corleone says, then gives the simple explanation as only a Godfather can:

"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."

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Lobby card from The Godfather depicting Robert Duvall and John Marley

The Worst Offer Ever

The line is powerful because it almost sounds like something innocent. "An offer he can't refuse" seems similar to "a deal he can't pass up" -- something so good that the person offered it just has to say yes. A few scenes later, we find that the "offer" is really a command, and Woltz "can't refuse" because doing so would likely get him killed.

The Corleone family consigliere, Tom Hagen, played by Robert Duvall, visits Woltz (John Marley) at his home, where they walk the grounds and Woltz shows him a $600,000 thoroughbred horse. Woltz stands firm, asserting that Fontane will never get the part. In the next scene, Woltz wakes up to find the severed head of his prized horse in the bed with him.

An offer he can't refuse? More like "Do what we say, or else."