"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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Pacino was a little-known New York theater actor when Francis Ford Coppola insisted on casting him as Michael over such established stars as Robert Redford and Ryan O'Neal. Of course, the role made him instantly famous and launched a film career that included iconic turns in such films as "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," and "Scarface," as well as the two "Godfather" sequels. After multiple at-bats, he finally won an Oscar for 1992's "Scent of a Woman." Still in demand, he was last seen playing a comic version of himself in Adam Sandler's "Jack and Jill" last winter. Up next for the 71-year-old star: the title role in a film version of "King Lear" and another gangster movie, "Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father."
Like Al Pacino -- with whom she had an on-again-off-again relationship that lasted through all three "Godfather" films -- Keaton was a little-known New York stage actor when she landed the role of Michael Corleone's wife, Kay. She, too, became an instant star in 1972, thanks both to "The Godfather" and "Play It Again, Sam," the first of her eight movies with Woody Allen. He chronicled their early-'70s romance in 1977's "Annie Hall," which won Keaton an Oscar (and, with her masculine wardrobe, made her a fashion icon). Other highlights of her career include "Reds" (made with then-lover Warren Beatty), "Baby Boom," the "Father of the Bride" movies, "The First Wives Club," and "Something's Gotta Give." At 66, she remains in demand as a comic and dramatic actress. Last seen opposite Harrison Ford in 2010's "Morning Glory," she's starring this year in "The Big Wedding."
Duvall had spent the 1960s in bit parts in TV and movies, but after 1970, his career was on the upswing with major roles in "M*A*S*H," "THX 1138," and finally "The Godfather." After the role of Tom Hagen made him a star, he continued to play ruthless authority figures in such films as "Network," "The Great Santini," and "Apocalypse Now" (his reunion with Francis Ford Coppola, who gave him the unforgettable line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning"). The 1980s saw him win an Oscar for "Tender Mercies" and star in the landmark TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove." Today, the 81-year-old Duvall remains ubiquitous as a character actor who lends both dignity and a hint of mischief to a project, such as 2010's "Get Low." He'll be seen later this year in "Jayne Mansfield's Car."
Caan had a few small movie roles to his credit (including Coppola's "The Rain People") before his 1970s breakthrough as a dying football star in the TV movie "Brian's Song." The role of hot-headed Sonny Corleone catapulted him to film stardom, and throughout the '70s and early '80s, he played blunt men of action in such films as "Rollerball," "The Killer Elite," and "Thief." Sidelined in the '80s by cocaine and depression, he returned to the screen in Coppola's "Gardens of Stone" (1987) and enjoyed a full career comeback as the hostage novelist in "Misery" (1990). Since then, he's been dependable as hard-boiled, older tough guys in films from "Honeymoon in Vegas" to "Elf." Caan, who turns 72 on March 26, was last seen a few weeks ago in a guest role on an episode of the rebooted "Hawaii 5-0," which stars his son, Scott Caan.
Shire is Francis Ford Coppola's sister, but she landed the role of Connie in the three "Godfather" movies over his objection; he thought she was too pretty for the role, but producer Robert Evans insisted on casting her. The role made her a star, though she became even more famous as the mousy Adrian opposite Sylvester Stallone in the "Rocky" movies. Now 65, she seldom acts anymore (her last major film role was in 2004's "I [Heart] Huckabee's"), and she's better known today as the mother of actor Jason Schwartzman.
Though he was 50 years old when he landed the part of the treacherous Tessio in "The Godfather," Vigoda had been in just one previous film. The movie made such an indelible mark on his career that most of his roles thereafter were gangsters or cops -- notably, Phil Fish, the detective he played on 1970s sitcom "Barney Miller" and its spinoff, "Fish." His hangdog, world-weary demeanor has always made him seem older than he is, to the point where he's often been rumored to be dead. (He's enjoyed popping up on late-night talk shows to debunk the rumors.) In 2010, he co-starred with fellow octogenarian Betty White in a celebrated Super Bowl ad for Snickers. Now 91, he's still alive and kicking, thank you very much.
When he was reading for the part of casino mogul Moe Greene, Rocco hinted that he knew some real mob guys. (They weren't Italian Mafiosi, however, but Irish gangsters he'd met in his native Boston.) He was already a veteran of mob movies like 1967's "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre." After "Godfather," he played in several more, including "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (about Boston mobsters), "Get Shorty" (1995) , "Find Me Guilty" (2006), and the animated "Batman: Year One." Of course, he's played roles other than mobsters, such as Jennifer Lopez' overbearing dad in "The Wedding Planner" (2001), but the 76-year-old is still best known for getting shot in the eye at the end of "The Godfather."
Born in 1930, Maria Grazia Morgana Messina grew up in an Italian-American family in upper Manhattan before taking the stage name Morgana King. She was better known as a jazz singer than an actress; her most notable film role is as Corleone matriarch Carmela in the first two "Godfathers." In her five-decade music career, she released more than 30 albums. She retired from live performing in 1993 and from recording in 1998.
To land the role of Carlo, Connie's violent husband, Russo hinted (like Rocco) that he had a violent past with close ties to actual mobsters. (In his screen test, he successfully terrorized a production secretary the way he would Connie in the movie.) "Godfather" made Russo a star, and while he's also acted in such movies as "Any Given Sunday" (alongside "Godfather" brother-in-law Al Pacino) and "Seabiscuit," Carlo remains his best-known role. An accomplished crooner, the 68-year-old makes his living today on the cabaret circuit.
Rome-born Stefanelli was just 16 when she landed the role of Apollonia, Michael's ill-fated Sicilian wife, a role that called for a nude scene during the couple's wedding night. She could have been a Hollywood star after "The Godfather" became a blockbuster, but she chose to remain in Italy and appeared in numerous Italian films over the next 20 years. (There was also one English language production, the 1974 miniseries "Moses the Lawgiver," with Burt Lancaster and Anthony Quinn.) Now 57, she runs a boutique in Rome, selling purses and shoes of her own design.
Brando may have been the premier actor of the second half of the 20th century, but by 1970, the eccentric star was considered box office poison. He agreed to make "The Godfather" for a very modest fee ($50,000 up front) and wound up delivering one of cinema's most iconic performances and earning his second Oscar (which he refused to accept, famously sending a Native American activist who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather to claim his trophy). 1972 also saw his triumphant, wrenching performance in the landmark "Last Tango in Paris." Suddenly, Brando was in demand again, commanding top dollar even for just a few minutes of screen time, as in "Superman" and Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Nonetheless, he soon reverted to his eccentric ways and began to seem a bloated parody of himself. Occasionally, however, there were flashes of the old brilliance, such as "The Freshman," where he gracefully spoofed his "Godfather" role. He died at 80 in 2004.
Cazale had worked with Pacino on stage before both unknowns were cast as brothers in "The Godfather." His performance in the pivotal role of Fredo made Cazale an in-demand character actor. He worked with Coppola again in "The Conversation" and "The Godfather Part II," with Pacino again in "Dog Day Afternoon," and with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep (who was Cazale's fiancee) in "The Deer Hunter." He died at 42 of bone cancer in 1978, shortly after completing his "Deer Hunter" scenes. He acted in only five movies (six if you count his appearance in archival footage in "The Godfather Part III"), but all five were classics and all were nominated for Best Picture, with three of them winning the Oscar. Does any actor have a better batting average than that?
Hayden was a lifelong sailor who became a ship captain at age 22 and preferred seafaring to all other activities. He claimed to disdain film acting and said he did it only to finance his ocean voyages. Nonetheless, he was an established star, playing tough-guy roles in such films as "The Asphalt Jungle," "The Killing," and "Dr. Strangelonve," before he was cast as the corrupt police captain McCluskey in "The Godfather." After the movie brought him a new round of fame, he had a few more notable roles, in such films as "The Long Goodbye" and "Nine to Five." He died in 1986 at age 70.
Before he woke up with a horse's head in his bed, Marley was a veteran character actor and had earned an Oscar nomination as Ali MacGraw's supportive dad in 1970's "Love Story." After "The Godfather," he continued to be typecast as movie moguls in "W.C. Fields and Me," "Hooper," and the TV miniseries "Movieola." He died in 1984 at age 76 of complications from open-heart surgery.
Before he played Corleone family enforcer Luca Brasi, the 320-pound Montana had actually been a mob enforcer (for the Colombo family), as well as a pro-wrestler. He'd never acted before he was cast in "The Godfather," and his nervousness over getting his lines right was written into the film. Afterwards, he was in demand for thug roles on TV ("Magnum P.I.") and movies ("The Jerk"). He died of a heart attack at age 66 in 1992.
Conte had been known for war movies and crime dramas during his heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in his appearance opposite the Rat Pack in the original "Ocean's Eleven" (1960). His Hollywood career dried up, and he had turned to acting in Europe, when producers considered him to play Vito Corleone in "The Godfather." When that role went to Brando, Conte was cast as his chief rival, Don Barzini. After "The Godfather," he continued to make mob movies in Europe. He died of a heart attack at age 65 in 1975.
Lettieri got a late start, making his movie debut at 36 in 1964's "The Hanged Man." He played plenty of hoods and villains, but none as memorable as drug-dealing viper Sollozzo in "The Godfather." Lettieri claimed to have relatives in the Genovese crime family, some of whom he introduced to Brando, Pacino, Caan, King, Russo, and producer Al Ruddy at a family dinner in New Jersey. He went on to play heavies opposite such stars as Steve McQueen ("The Getaway"), Charles Bronson ("Mr. Majestyk"), and John Wayne ("McQ"). He died of a heart attack in 1975. He was just 47.
On just his fourth film, 1970's "Lovers and Other Strangers," Castellano earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. (He competed against future "Godfather" co-star John Marley, nominated for "Love Story," but both lost to John Mills in "Ryan's Daughter.") The Oscar nod landed him the role of Clemenza, who teaches Michael how to make meat sauce and how to whack a pair of enemies. After "The Godfather," he played blue-collar guys on TV, in the series "The Super" and "Joe and Sons." He played cops and gangsters in a handful of movies before he died in 1988 from a heart attack at age 55. His widow claimed he was a nephew of Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano.
Like his character, Al Martino had been a popular Italian-American crooner who was in search of one big Hollywood break. (He even hinted that he asked his own godfather, crime boss Russ Bufalino, to pressure Coppola into giving him the role of Johnny Fontane.) "The Godfather" put him back on the pop culture map, and although he seldom acted again outside the trilogy, he remained a staple on the lounge circuit and in recording studios for the rest of his life. He died at 82 in 2009.
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