These true stories served as inspiration for cinematic masterpiece, The Godfather. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and released in 1972, The Godfather represents a landmark achievement both in filmmaking and storytelling, bringing together an iconic cast of actors led by Marlon Brando and a young Al Pacino. Diving headfirst into the murky world of Italian-American crime organizations, The Godfather centers around the Corleone family, presenting the group as people first and gangsters second.
While Coppola put his own spin on the story, The Godfather was adapted from the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, who also wrote the movie's screenplay. Born in New York to Italian immigrants, Puzo had direct links to the communities explored in his writing and drew heavily on his background for a number of novels. With The Godfather, Puzo was desperately seeking his first literary hit and, at the suggestion of his publisher, decided to focus on the Mafia, fictionalizing real life tales of violence alongside crime stories Puzo had come across during his time as a journalist.
Many of The Godfather's true stories are reworked so as to not be immediately recognizable, but the real-world influence can certainly be felt. This sense of realism perhaps even aids in making both versions of the story feel grounded, visceral and foreboding at all the appropriate junctures. Here are the real-life events that inspired The Godfather.
The Five Families
The Godfather's central story chronicles an ongoing power struggle between the Corleone family and their New York rivals. The other four families - the Tattaglias, the Barzinis, the Cuneos and the Straccis - are seeking to move into the narcotics trade with the help of Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo, but the old-fashioned Don Corleone refuses to play ball. Since the whole operation falls down without Corleone influence, Sollozzo makes an attempt on Don Vito's life, hoping his successor will be more willing to cooperate but, eventually, the botched assassination leads to an all out war between the Five Families.
This setup directly mirrors the real life Five Families of New York that first emerged in the early 20th century and still exist today. Unlike the world of The Godfather, the names of these families have changed over time, but the current incarnations are: the Bonanno family, the Colombo family, the Gambino family, the Genovese family and the Lucchese family. Naturally, periods of hostility did erupt between these rival groups, and inner conflicts would also arise as individuals jostled to climb the ranks.
The real Five Families did also take differing stances over their drugs policy, although it could be said that this was more to do with the potential risks involved than the moral position taken by Vito Corleone.
The attitudes and beliefs at play in The Godfather's criminal dealings were somewhat based on truth. Events during the 1930s demonstrate some level of discord between older and younger generations, with the newcomers resenting the strict, antiquated ways of their predecessors, such as their refusal to work with criminals from different ethnic backgrounds. This isn't the motivation behind Vito's refusal of Sollozzo, but the story does play on genuine accounts from the period.
Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone is one of cinema's most celebrated figures, but the character took inspiration from several real-life criminals and perhaps the most prominent influence is Frank Costello, one-time head of the Genovese family. In preparing for his defining role as the Godfather, Brando listened to tapes of Costello's recorded testimony and there are a number of key parallels between Vito's story and that of Frank Costello.
The power of the Corleone family is founded upon its connections to authority - judges, police and politicians - and this is why Don Corleone's involvement is such as vital cog of Sollozzo's budding drug empire. Similarly, Costello's own power was rooted in deep connections to the U.S. legal system and government and, also like Vito, this allowed the Genovese family to operate in areas such as gambling, while deliberately avoiding dealing in narcotics. Costello's personal story follows a similar path to that of Don Corleone, with both men surviving an assassination attempt, retiring in order to maintain peace, and then getting revenge on their enemies from the shadows.
Some components of Marlon Brando's character can also be found in Carlo Gambino, head of the Gambino crime family. Like young Vito in The Godfather, Carlo traveled from Sicily to the U.S. alone as a boy and became widely known for possessing a calm temperament that belied an inner ruthlessness. Just as Vito Corleone and Carlo Gambino began their lives in a similar manner, both men lived to a relatively old age and died within the comfort of their own home - a fate not always afforded to the heads of crime families.
Although the singer himself was infamously irked by the connection, it's widely believed that the Corleones' close family friend, Johnny Fontane, was based on Frank Sinatra. Although his role in The Godfather's movie adaptation is diminished, Fontane is painted as a celebrity big band crooner at the height of his popularity, looking to branch out into acting in order to sustain his time in the limelight. The audience learns that Vito Corleone once managed to intimidate a band leader into releasing Fontane from a restrictive performance contract by making an offer he couldn't refuse, and this story mirrors a similar situation between Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey, who was allegedly "convinced" to cancel his agreement with Sinatra.
While plenty has been made of Frank Sinatra's ties and association with the criminal underworld, not all of the purported similarities to Johnny Fontane ring true. It has been suggested that the Corleone family's coercion of big-time movie producer, Jack Woltz, to cast Fontane in his upcoming film was inspired by Sinatra's casting in From Here To Eternity. Director, Fred Zinnemann, has dismissed this assertion, claiming that Sinatra was hired for his physical suitability to the role.
As the Corleones' associate in Las Vegas, Moe Greene is an exuberant and debauched personality who thinks of himself as a big-shot, however, this larger-than-life personality is modeled on real-life mobster, Bugsy Siegel. In addition to both men's Jewish heritage, Siegel was the polar opposite to the likes of Carlo Gambino, taking full advantage of his expensive lifestyle and celebrity status. This contrast is best represented in The Godfather during Greene's icy first meeting with Michael Corleone.
The similarities between Greene and Siegel continue, with both figures responsible for developing the casino business in Las Vegas during its construction. While Greene is touted as one of the men who built Vegas in The Godfather, Siegel took control of the famous Flamingo Hotel, although he struggled to make the investment an immediate success.
Moe Greene's death scene is a famous piece of cinema, with the gangster getting shot directly in the eye. Many claim that this execution was taken from the real-life assassination of Siegel and while Mario Puzo may have drawn inspiration from the murder, Siegel was actually shot multiple times, including in the head. These blasts damaged Siegel's eye socket, giving the impression that he had been shot in the eye, even though the eyeball itself was intact.
The Restaurant Shooting
In one of The Godfather's most famous scenes, a still-innocent Michael Corleone sits down for dinner with Virgil Sollozzo and a corrupt police chief and, after a quick toilet break, guns both men down in cold blood. American crime history is littered with infamous examples of public executions, but this particular scene derives from an incident on Coney Island in 1931. Due to the aforementioned generational power struggle among New York City's gangs, Charlies "Lucky" Luciano sought to overthrow his boss at the time, Giuseppe Masseria. Working alongside a group of other "Young Turks" (not the YouTube news channel, obviously), Lucky arranged for Masseria to meet him at a restaurant, and would retreat to the bathroom while his colleagues gunned down the old-timer.
For the taboo sin of shooting a police officer, Michael is forced to flee to Sicily, where he meets his first wife. The tactic of seeking refuge back in the homeland was practiced in the real-life gangster world, with the likes of Vito Genovese and, indeed, Lucky Luciano forced to move abroad at various stages of their careers. In Luciano's case, however, his departure was the result of a deportation from which he never returned, but did still manage to remotely manipulate his criminal empire.
It's always the quiet ones. In The Godfather, a member of the Corleone organization is working with the rival New York families to get rid of Vito's son and the family's new leader, Michael. While the audience is naturally led to suspect the brash and outspoken Clemenza, the real culprit is revealed to be the mild-mannered Tessio. As explored above, instances of betrayal within the Mafia are not uncommon, but Tessio's story does bear a close resemblance to that of Gaspar DiGregorio.
Much like Tessio, DiGregorio was a high-ranking member of his family, the Bonannos, but was overlooked for the job of consigliere in favor of the Don's own son. DiGregorio responded by triggering what became known as the Banana War between 1964 and 1968, splitting the family into his own supporters and those loyal to Bonanno. Although jealousy and ambition weren't Tessio's prime motivations, he was guilty of doubting Michael's ability as a leader and, similar to how the character tried to arrange a supposedly peaceful summit at which Michael would be assassinated, DiGregorio attempted a similar meeting-disguised ambush with Joseph Bonanno.
Lenny Montana, the actor behind Luca Brasi, didn't have to try too hard to come across like a member of the Mafia. He'd already worked as muscle for the Colombo family by the time he was cast in The Godfather. Still, Puzo's creation was derived from the true story of Willie Moretti. Similar to how Brasi served as Vito Corleone's chief enforcer, Moretti was the muscle behind Vito's real-life counterpart, Frank Costello. Interestingly, it is Moretti who is said to have negotiated the dissolution of Frank Sinatra's unwanted contract - a job carried out by Brasi in The Godfather.
Unlike Brasi, Moretti was more of a humorous personality, as displayed in the 1950s Kefauver hearings, which pulled back the curtain somewhat on the Mafia's inner workings. This differs greatly to Brasi's more subdued nature and his fearful respect for the position he holds within the Corleone family.