CATEGORIES Movie News"My Mafia is a very romanticized myth," said "Godfather" novelist Mario Puzo, who claimed that he had never met any actual mobsters when he wrote his bestseller, and that his accounts of lurid crimes were based on archival research and imagination. Nor did Francis Ford Coppola have any direct knowledge of mob life when he and Puzo adapted the novel into a screenplay. Yet 40 years later, "The Godfather" is widely considered one of the most accurate movies about the Mafia, even though all its characters are fictional. Part of that is canny mythmaking on the part of Puzo and Coppola, but much of it comes from the real-life Mafia lore that is only thinly disguised in the movie. Which of the movie's notorious deeds are based on fact, and which are invented out of whole cloth? Read on.
The Don Aside from big events like his daughter's wedding, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is a quiet man who keeps a low profile, running his crime empire from his unassuming olive oil import storefront. Coppola has said he's a combination of mid-century crime bosses Vito Genovese (who like his fictional counterpart, eschewed drug dealing) and Joe Prifaci. Another likely inspiration is Carlo Gambino, another quiet, unflashy man who, through assassinations and betrayals, became head of the mob family that bears his name and the most powerful Mafioso in New York. LIke Brando's character, Gambino lived on a suburban estate outside Manhattan and died peacefully of a heart attack when he was old and still a free man.
The Five Families The business meeting where Vito calls together the heads of the mob families (the five New York families and others from around the country) is based on similar real-life meetings. "The Commission" was the name the Mafia gave to the ruling council that included the five New York families and the families from other territories. As in the movie, the Commission existed to settle disputes. Unlike in the movie, there was no moral squeamishness among Commission members over drug dealing, and mob-related narcotics busts were frequent. There were occasional bans on drug trafficking, but only because sentences were so severe that they were an incentive for indicted mob soldiers to turn state's evidence.
The Restaurant The turning point of "The Godfather" comes when Michael (Al Pacino) lures two of his enemies to an outer-borough Italian restaurant and shoots them with a gun planted in the bathroom. That's more or less how one of the most pivotal hits in mob history went down. In 1931, Lucky Luciano met old-time boss Giuseppe Masseria at a Coney Island eatery called Nuovo Villa Tammaro. He excused himself to go to the bathroom, and that's when the hit happened. Luciano wasn't one of the shooters; the assassination was carried out by Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis, Albert Anastasia, and Bugsy Siegel. That whacking made Luciano and his hit squad the new leaders of organized crime in New York and gave rise to the modern Mafia.
The Exile After the hit, Michael flees to Sicily. He seems to be emulating Vito Genovese, who ran off to Italy in 1937 to evade murder charges. During the war, however, he helped U.S. Army Intelligence by putting local black marketeers out of business (and secretly taking control of their operations). The government dropped the charges against him, allowing him to return to America. Lucky Luciano also went to Italy, having been deported in 1946. He never returned to America, but he continued to exert influence from abroad, working with Meyer Lansky to invest in casinos in Cuba (as Michael Corleone did with Hyman Roth, the Lansky-like character in "The Godfather Part II"). Like Michael, Luciano fell in love with a much younger Italian woman and lived with her until her death. Unlike in "The Godfather," they were never married, and she died of breast cancer, not a car bomb.
The Casino Mogul Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) is credited in the movie with helping to build Las Vegas. He's clearly an analogue for Bugsy Siegel, the Jewish mobster who was an associate of Meyer Lansky's (as Greene was with Hyman Roth), and who is credited with putting Las Vegas on the map by building the Flamingo, the hotel/casino/nightclub that was the model for every modern-day resort on the Strip. In the film, Greene is famously shot to death through the eye at his casino for having moved against the Corleones. In real life, Siegel was shot over the cost overruns of the Flamingo, and he was killed by four shots from a sniper while sitting on the living room couch of his girlfriend's home in Beverly Hills.
The Barbershop One of the climactic murders of the Corleone rivals takes place in a hotel barbershop. That's an apparent reference to the 1957 murder of Albert Anastasia, shot in a barber's chair at New York's Park Sheraton hotel while he relaxed with his eyes closed. The hit was ordered by Vito Genovese and organized by Carlo Gambino, who would take over from Anastasia as head of the crime family. The chair is currently on display at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, which opened just last month.
The Crooner Was Johnny Fontane -- the crooner who set bobby-soxers' hearts fluttering, but who enlisted the Godfather's help to win a movie role that would revive his flagging career -- based on Frank Sinatra? Sinatra certainly thought so. He sued to stop production of the movie and, upon meeting Mario Puzo at Chasen's restaurant in Hollywood, threatened to break the author's legs.
It's certainly true that, in the early 1950s, Sinatra's career was in the dumps. Then he won the coveted role of bullied soldier Maggio in Columbia's "From Here to Eternity." The part earned him an Oscar and put him back on top of the showbiz heap for the rest of his long career. "Godfather" viewers have seen similarities between Jack Woltz, the Hollywood mogul who initially refuses to hire Fontane, and Harry Cohn, the Columbia studio chief who, like Woltz, had a fondness for young starlets. But there's no evidence that anyone coerced Cohn to get Sinatra the part. The horse's head in the bed? That's an invention of Puzo's.
There's also a story Michael tells Kay about Fontane that may be closer to the truth, a story involving the Godfather sending scary Luca Brasi to threaten a bandleader who wouldn't let the singer out of an unfair contract. That echoes a story often told about Sinatra's release from his contract with Tommy Dorsey, who initially refused to let the singer buy his way out of their pact for $60,000 in 1943. According to at least one SInatra biography, Dorsey was visited by three gangsters, one of whom may have been New Jersey boss Willie Moretti. They stuck a gun in the bandleader's mouth and made him what Vito Corleone would call "an offer he can't refuse." Soon, Dorsey let Sinatra buy out his contract -- for $1.
Al Martino, the crooner-turned-actor who played Johnny Fontane, insisted that the character was actually based on him. He, too, was a teen idol who had a No. 1 single, "Here in My Heart," in 1952. As Martino recounted in a 2009 interview, that was the year that two thugs turned up on his manager's doorstep, threatening him until he gave them Martino's contract for free. Martino tried to fire them as managers, but they beat him when he was booked at a mobbed-up nightclub in Atlantic City. He signed an I.O.U. for $80,000, then fled to England, staying there for six years until he negotiated with another mob boss for his safe return.
Martino even claimed to have pulled a Johnny Fontane in order to get the role of Johnny Fontane, asking "my Godfather, Russ Bufalino" (the Philadelphia crime boss) to pressure "Godfather" producer Al Ruddy to hire him. Coppola's choice had reportedly been crooner Vic Damone, who backed out, supposedly after learning that the Mafia was officially backing Martino for the role.
Martino complained, however, that his part had been trimmed. He blamed pressure from Sinatra, in the form of the Chairman's lawsuit against the producers and physical threats to Puzo. But Coppola said that "Johnny Fontane's role was only minimized by [Martino's] inexperience as an actor."
The Sequels Much of the plot of "The Godfather Part II" involves Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who, like the real Meyer Lansky, claimed to be a mere Florida pensioner, rather than one of the architects of the modern Mafia. The flashback parts of the movie, in which young Vito (Robert De Niro) rises to power in Little Italy by killing an old-school don, aren't inspired by any particular Mafioso, though there were many who terrorized the neighborhood as members of the so-called "Black Hand." Unlike Don Fanucci, they weren't flashy and conspicuous but preferred to operate in the shadows.
A major plot strand of "The Godfather Part III" centers on a banking scandal involving the Vatican and the Italian Mafia, something that happened in real life in the 1980s. There's also the character of Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), a well-dressed mob capo who seems clearly modeled on "the dapper don," 1980s New York crime boss John Gotti.
The ultimate irony of the "Godfather" films is that real-life mobsters began to emulate the characters -- for instance, drressing better and dropping their "dese-dem-dose" locutions for the more formal, cultivated speech patterns of the Corleones. "The Godfather" might not have been based entirely on reality and truth, but eventually, it became real and true.
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