The Real Stories Behind ‘The Godfather’

A number of real gangsters inspired the characters of Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece.
The Godfather Marlon Brando

Real Stories is a column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind one of the greatest films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. 

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather belongs to that category of films considered the greatest of all time. You know, the films that if you mention in casual conversation it’s your personal favorite, no one would wonder why.

While The Godfather is based on a novel by Mario Puzo, it’s also no secret that its story took inspiration from real life. Who hasn’t watched the film with a group of people and heard at least one person whisper, “Hey, that guy is based on Frank Sinatra”?

March 2022 marks 50 years since the release of the original installment of Coppola’s classic mafia movie trilogy. To mark the golden anniversary of one of the greatest films ever made, here is a look at some of the real characters and events behind The Godfather:

Frank Sinatra Was the Real Johnny Fontaine

Let us begin where the film does. The Godfather opens on the day of the wedding of Connie Corleone (Talia Shire). Her father, Vito, played by Marlon Brando, must spend the day taking requests. Guests at the event include famous singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino).

Fontane tells his godfather of his struggles to land a part in a film and asks for his assistance. Vito obliges. He sends his adopted son, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), who is the family consigliere, to Los Angels to pressure a Hollywood executive into giving Fontane the part. When the talks go south, the executive wakes up with the head of a horse, his prized stallion, beside him in bed. Naturally, he relents.

The similarities between Fontane and Frank Sinatra are too significant to ignore. Apart from the crooner connection, both men used movies to restart their failing careers. Fans of Sinatra will know that his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity (1953) launched his so-called “comeback.”

And then, of course, there are the mob connections that surrounded Sinatra throughout his life. Such associations were believed to have given Sinatra a leg up in his career. That level of protection and muscle made him an intimidating force to deal with, to say the least.

In his director’s commentary, Coppola states, “Obviously, Johnny Fontane was inspired by a kind of Frank Sinatra character.”

Sinatra, according to a New York magazine article, was not pleased with the character’s likeness to himself. In fact, he once angrily confronted Puzo about the character:

“While letting him have it, Sinatra also told Puzo ‘that if it wasn’t that I was so much older than he, he would beat the hell out of me.'”

Frank Costello Was the Real Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone is a singular figure, who undoubtedly takes his influence from a number of famous mobsters. But the gangster most often cited as the influence for Vito is Frank Costello, the head of New York’s Luciano crime family.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because a number of actors have played fictionalized versions of Costello in various works, including the great Paul Sorvinoof Goodfellas name. And while Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed shares the same name, the two are not the same man or related.

But anyway, back to The Godfather. 

The Assassination Attempt

Like Vito, Costello exerted tremendous power in New York’s crime scene in the early part of the 20th century. Those who have seen The Godfather will remember the attempted assassination of Vito. Similarly, Costello survived an assassination attempt in May 1957. A man by the name of Vito Genovese orchestrated the shooting in an effort to take control of the crime family.

Understandably, the attempts on their lives led both men to leave their place on the mountaintop. In Coppola’s film, Vito eventually steps aside so that his son Michael (Al Pacino) may take over. And Costello, after the assassination attempt, according to Vice, “saw the writing on the wall” and opted to retire to his home on Long Island, where he could “live out his life in a normal way, die in his own bed, and not at the hand of an assassin, despite his Cosa Nostra roots.”

The Lure of High Society

One of the most powerful scenes in The Godfather comes after Michael assumes control of the family. The family business was not what Vito had in store from his son, a decorated war veteran. Vito sadly wonders how life could have been different, says he wished for something different for his son, and shares that he dreamed of Michael one day becoming “Senator Corleone.” Of course, things did not turn out that way.

The desire to be respected by the elite of American life is something Vito and Costello shared. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anthony M. DeStefano, who wrote a biography of Costello, the real-life mobster’s desire was rooted in his upbringing:

“He wanted to be remembered as somebody who was legitimate because he wanted to shake the poor, sort of immigrant, gangster image. But in the end he really couldn’t shake that. He cursed the gangster life that he’d grown up in.”

The Other Influences

DeStefano also shares two other possible inspirations for Vito in his book. The first is Joe Profaci, “the olive oil king.” Fans of the Godfather films will know that the Genco Pura Olive Oil Company serves as the front for the Corleones’ nefarious activities.

The other is a man named Carlo Gambino. According to DeStefano, both Gambino and Profaci had families, whereas Costello did not. How could you have Vito without family? In the end, DeStefano says, “It’s a blend of all three.”

Bugsy Siegel Was the Real Moe Greene

One of the great minor characters in The Godfather — that is, the characters outside the family — is Moe Greene (Alex Rocco). He takes his inspiration from Bugsy Siegel, a Jewish mobster with close ties to the Italian-American mafia.

In The Godfather, Moe Greene oversees much of the Corleone family’s stake in Las Vegas. And when violence escalates in New York, Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) seeks safety with Moe in Las Vegas. Eventually, when Michael takes full control of the family, he travels to Las Vegas to buy out Moe’s share in the family’s casinos. But as one of the city’s founders, Moe is dismayed. The Corleone doesn’t buy him out, he says, he buys the Corleone family out.

Similarly, Siegel has been credited as a key figure in the forming of Las Vegas. While in New York, he developed a reputation as a ruthless man and the suspected mastermind behind several high-profile killings. He eventually made his way to the west coast and, in 1945, to Las Vegas. There, he oversaw the construction of several hotels, including The Flamingo.

Things End Poorly For Bugsy

According to The Mob Museum, the Flamingo project was mostly funded by crime syndicates on the east coast under Siegel’s direction. And things did not go well. The project had an original budget of $1.2 million. But the project went on to incur more than $6 million in costs, “enraging Siegel’s mobster financiers.” Someone decided to take action.

On June 20, 1947, a “hail of gunfire” entered through the living room window of Siegel’s girlfriend, the actress Virginia Hill. One theory, according to the museum, is that the crime syndicate backing Siegel approved the killing. According to one account, associates of the mobster Meyer Lansky entered The Flamingo after the hit and “announced that they were in charge.”

But others speculate the killing may have been more personal. Some say Siegel’s brother, who knew of “domestic confrontations between the couple,” may have been behind the murder. Others suspect one of Lanksy’s associates may have been “involved in a love triangle into which Siegel stumbled.”

Either way, Siegel ended up dead. And the crime remains unsolved.

And also for Moe Greene

Things also don’t end well for Moe Greene. He becomes one of the many casualties in Michael’s highly orchestrated consolidation of power at the end of the first Godfather film. Viewers will remember that Moe gets a bullet in the eye while Michael attends the baptism of Connie’s child, thus becoming the Godfather.

In The Godfather: Part IIHyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) confronts Michael about the killing of Moe Greene. He delivers a great speech to remind Michael that he understands that business is business. He says:

“Later on he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for GIs on the way to the West Coast. That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town!”

Luckily for Siegel, there is, in fact, a plaque for him in the real Las Vegas. It marks the original site of The Flamingo Hotel, or as the plaque says, the “Bugsy Building.”

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.