#10: The Godfather: Mob Historian Breaks Down "Wedding Scene"


We've reviewed and broken down the famous wedding scene of The Godfather, looking at it from all angles including behind-the-scenes commentary, actor and director commentary, historical perspectives, and we've also brought in additional scene context from Mario Puzo's book of the same name.

In this scene, which is one of the most important scenes of the movie, you're introduced to the Corleone family at large. He dives into the stories of the iconic characters, the actors, and even real life mafiosi including:  

  • Sonny Corleone (James Caan)
  • Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)
  • Fredo Corleone (John Cazale)
  • Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano)
  • Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda)
  • Johnny Fontane (Al Martino)
  • Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall)
  • Carmela Corleone (Morgana King)
  • Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)
  • Connie Corleone (Talia Shire)
  • Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo)
  • Paulie Gatto (Johnny Martino)
  • Don Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte)
  • Frank Anthony Vallelonga Sr. (aka "Tony Lip")

The focus will be on providing his opinion, tidbits of information from the books the movies are often based on, as well as some behind-the-scenes information that serves to help viewers explore, contextualize, and clarify stories related to the most famous historical movies. The overarching goal is not only to entertain but to educate and inform.

As with all episodes of this podcast, his views are his own. The production of this content is a labor of love, and is a means of expressing passion for history as well as cinema and pop culture. Courteous viewer feedback is always welcomed.

Episode Transcript


Hello everybody and welcome back to another episode of The Member’s Only Podcast. I am your host Jacob Stoops, and I’m a long-time history buff and mob aficionado.

First off, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone that has followed my channel, liked my videos, and interacted with me through the comments. Not only did you help me hit my goal of 1,000 subscribers, but we blew past that threshold and are over 2,000+ subscribers just 3 days later. That is going to allow me to do a little monetization with my videos which will go towards helping me cover my equipment and production costs, and for that I’m very grateful to you! 

Now onto the show! Today’s episode is going to be a continuation of the movie-related content I started a few weeks ago with the Reaction video to the Opening Scene of The Godfather. Today we’re going to cover The Wedding Scene. As with the last video, the focus will be on providing my opinion, tidbits of information from the books these movies are based on, some behind-the-scenes information, and so on.

As I previously stated, I’ve been inspired by channels like Vlogging Through History and ReelHistory and have really enjoyed their format, and I’d like to do these kinds of videos in addition to the in-depth mobster biographies going forward as there is no shortage of great movies and TV shows worth covering in the mob genre.

Like many of you I’m sure, I was first introduced to the mob genre after watching The Godfather and that’s where this genre really began to intersect with my love of history which is honestly why I do this podcast today. 

I’m looking forward to some more spirited debates, so please let me know your thoughts in the comments below if you’re on YouTube. And of course, mash that subscribe button to help this channel continue to grow and hit the notification bell so you know when I’ve posted a new video.

Alright, let’s get started.

The Wedding Scene:

Now, the wedding scene was such a major component of both the movie as well as the book that Francis Ford Coppola had planned to open with it rather than the office shot with the Undertake Bonasera, though he eventually changed. Had it not been for a friend reminding Coppola how he’d approached the opening of his movie Patton, the way this film started would have been much different and potentially less impactful in terms of showing the contrast between the dark and the light, the good and the evil.

Even still, it’s an iconic part of the movie and there have been many real mafiosi over the years including the likes of Michaels Franzese and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano come out and say how realistic and authentic it was in the way it portrayed the Italian people.

In real life, the inspiration for the wedding potentially came from grandiose and lavish weddings put on separately by mafia legends Joe Bonnano as well as Tony Accardo when their children tied the knot during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

As Coppola puts it, he saw the wedding scene as an opportunity to introduce you to these characters and this world in a setting that isn’t at all criminal. And that’s what made this film more realistic than gangster films of the past in that at it’s core it wasn’t about murder and mayhem, it was about family, honor, respect, legacy, coming from humble beginnings but building an empire in which you controlled everything and didn’t answer to the traditional authorities. In Don Corleone’s mind, a man like himself simply wouldn’t stand to be controlled or manipulated by forces not of his own making. He was “a man who refused to dance on the string held by all the bigshots.”

Of course this is the first time you’re introduced to the character of Peter Clemenza, the jovial wedding dancer and loyal friend and caporegime to Vito Corleone. But of course as you’ll see in the rest of the movie, Clemenza - while no longer in great physical shape - has no issues getting his hands dirty.

It’s also worth noting that in the book, Clemenza is described as “immensely tall, immensely huge” and dancing with “such skill and abandon, his hard belly lecherously bumping the breasts of younger, tinier women, that all the guests were applauding him.” Of course the actor, Richard Castellano didn’t quite fit the description of being so physically imposing though he was certainly robust around the midsection, but his portrayal was tremendous nonetheless. 

In the shot where Clemenza is calling for the wine, if you look over his right shoulder, you’ll see the actor’s real life brother directly in the background.

And of course you’ll notice his rather brusque interaction with his soldier Paulie Gatto, who is described in the book as having “the sleek head of a ferret.” As I mentioned in the breakdown of the opening scene, Paulie Gatto is actually a highly-respected, up-and-coming soldier in the family but is made to look like a snake in the grass in the movie. He has put in his fair share of work and is generally considered by Clemenza to be fairly reliable. However, Gatto believes, rightly or not, that he is to some degree being held down by Clemenza, and there is a growing resentment that will eventually lead to Paulie betraying the Corleone family (which in the end gets him killed).  

In one of the next shots, you’re also introduced to Vito Corleone’s Brooklyn-based Caporegime Salvatore Tessio, played by the great Abe Vigoda. First you see him tossing an orange in the air, which if you know this movie is a bad omen. Then, he’s dancing with a little girl, and of course the most adorable thing you can do as a grown-up man, is allow a little girl to dance on your shoes. But again, this underscores the brilliance of the movie showing the light and the dark with a certain level of authenticity that humanizes these career mobsters. 

In the book, Tessio is described as lean, saturnine, more reserved than Clemenza, sharper, more clever but with less force, and described as having the air of a viper. He had been the best soldier in the Corleone family. The Don had relied on him more than any other man with the exception of maybe Luca Brasi.

And of course, now you see the bride and the groom. The bride, Connie Corleone is famously played by Coppola’s sister the beautiful Talia Shire. Talia was largely unknown before being cast in this movie (which of course was risky) but who would go on to have a storied career appearing in the Rocky movie series with Sylvestor Stallone.

And you also have the groom, Carlo Rizzi played by the infamous Gianni Russo (also a largely unknown actor at the time). If you want to hear some really interesting stories about Russo’s upbringing as well as a few really far-fetched tales of his supposed exploits, or if you just want a good laugh, go watch the interview he did over on Vlad TV. That being said, no matter what you think of the actor, there’s no denying that he played Carlo Rizzi extremely well.

As you know by now, Carlo was a scumbag. Here’s the way he’s brought into the book as a character: “Carlo Rizzi had worked in the open desert air while very young—heavy laborer’s work. Now he had tremendous forearms and his shoulders bulged the jack of his tux. He basked in the adoring eyes of his bride and filled her glass with wine. He was elaborately courteous to her as if they were both actors in a play. But his eyes kept flickering toward the huge silk purse the bride wore on her right shoulder which was now stuffed full of money envelopes. How much did it hold? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Carlo Rizzi smiled. It was only the beginning. He had, after all, married into a royal family. They would have to take care of him.”

So you can see that this guy clearly thinks he’s got it made, and of course the disappointment that comes later on in the movie by not being “taken care of” leads to his betrayal of the family which ultimately gets him killed as well.

And of course there was the reference to envelopes stuffed full of money which you see in this movie, in Goodfellas, and in a few other mob movies. Coppola included that based upon his own experiences, observing this tradition at various Italian weddings.

Now of course as you watch the wedding sequence, it’s fairly well documented that the film had production problems due to the real-life Mafia, and specifically Joe Colombo’s family. And there are many tales that have come out that at least a few of the many extras you see milling around the wedding are actually real-life Cosa Nostra members.

And of course you have The Don coming out to meet the heads of the other families, most notably Don Emilion Barzini, personally. In the background of this scene, you also see a man another man you might recognize, Frank Vallelonga Sr., also known by the name “Tony Lip.” This man truly has one of the most impressive resumes of any actor in the mob genre with appearances not only in The Godfather, but in many other mob classics including Goodfellas (where he played Frankie the Wop), Donnie Brasco (as Phil Lucky), and in The Sopranos (as Don Carmine Lupertazzi). Additionally, Tony Lip appears in both Dog Day Afternoon and Raging Bull, so to say he has a legendary acting resume is understating it. Tony Lip was actually played by Viggo Mortenson in the recent film, The Green Book, which one an Oscar for best original screenplay though the film has been heavily criticized.

This little interaction gives you a sense of who Emilio Barzini was as a man. This slightly younger and more progressive Don would become the film’s ultimate protagonist, though he’d do it in a shrewd and calculated way leveraging various pawns to position himself as the dominant force in the underworld through the story. And as I’m sure would be true to life, he has one of his goon’s smash the poor wedding photographer’s camera, the first of two cameras to be smashed at this wedding.

And of course, there’s the FBI doing their thing, writing down license plates and what-not. Of course weddings, funerals, and other major social events are often good times for law enforcement to surveil and get an understanding of who attends, as well as who’s important based upon the levels of respect and courtesy shown.

You can also get a nice clear shot of the stone wall of the compound in this shot along with the gates. Except in real life, the house that was chosen for this scene did not in fact have a wall, and the art department essentially stood up a faux wall around the entire complex for this scene. In fact, I think the only part of this wall that was actually stone and not some sort of plaster were the gates themselves.

Though you don’t actually see it in the movie, Sonny’s outburst with the Feds actually serves a purpose, though not the one you’d expect:

“Don Corleone knew who they were. His closest and most intimate friends had been advised to attend the wedding in automobiles not their own. And though he disapproved of his son’s foolish display of anger, the tantrum served a purpose. It would convince the interlopers that their presence was unexpected and unprepared for. So Don Corleone himself was not angry. He had long ago learned that society imposes insults that must be borne, comforted by the knowledge that in this world there comes a time when the most humble of men, if he keeps his eyes open, can take his revenge on the most powerful. It was this knowledge that prevented the Don from losing the humility all his friends admired in him.”

And so you can see that Vito is at all times 10 steps ahead of everyone else, and you can also see on display this mindset that exudes patience and great forethought before making a strategic choice (lethal or not). He’s not a careless man.

Now in this scene you have Nazorine the Baker with his assistant Enzo, who will play a role during the hospital scene of the movie, coming to ask the Don for help. Of course what’s obvious is the stark contrast between the tone of this meeting when compared to the one with Bonasera in which the Don was clearly unhappy and took great offense as the undertaker to some degree insulted him.

In the book, you can see Vito almost encouraging his friend to ask the favor as their friendship had gone back as far as Italy and continued in the United States:

“He (Vito) gave the baker a Di Nobili cigar and a glass of yellow Strega and put his hand on the man’s shoulder to urge him on. That was the mark of the Don’s humanity. He knew from bitter experience what courage it took to ask a favor from a fellow man.”

So here is the Don showing great empathy and support for one of his true friends, and by doing him this favor reaffirming their friendship, while also venturing into seemingly harmless criminal grounds to circumvent the government’s ability to deport young Enzo. So without saying it, this just goes to show (again) the Don’s power of influence in deep levels of the government.

As you see various cuts to Vito Corleone’s office, it’s worth noting that the office itself was not actually located inside the real house that was used. It was on another set in Upper Manhattan near Harlem, and the scenes shot in the office were actually short ahead of the wedding and then spliced together afterwards. And the light coming in through the window is actually not sunlight at all, it’s white paper with some light according to Copolla. 

And of course here we have the first shot of feared Corleone enforcer Luca Brasi. You see him waiting outside the Don’s office practicing his speech. I think it’s pretty well-known at this point that the actual actor, Lenny Montana, was so nervous to be in a scene with the great Marlon Brando that he was practicing his lines on set in the background of the scene with Michael and Kay, and it was so authentic to the relationship between Vito and Luca that they decided to keep it in the film.

In terms of Luca Brasi, one of my only issues with the film in general is that we didn’t really get to see any sort of payoff with respect to developing his character. His backstory is the stuff of legend and quite terrifying, and he’s described in the book as follows: “Luca Brasi was indeed a man to frighten the devil in hell himself. Short, squat, massive-skulled, his presence sent out alarm bells of danger. His face was stamped into a mask of fury. The eyes were brown but with none of the warmth of that color, more a deadly tan. The mouth was not so much cruel as lifeless; thin, rubbery and the color of veal.

Brasi’s reputation for violence was awesome and his devotion to Don Corleone legendary. He was in himself, one of the great blocks that supported the Don’s power structure. His kind was a rarity.

Luca Brasi did not fear the police, he did not fear society, he did not fear God, he did not fear hell, he did not fear or love his fellow man. But he had elected, he had chosen, to fear and love Don Corleone.”

And of course, despite his nervousness, Lenny Montana - who himself was a real-life wrestler and knocked it out of the park. Funny enough, Coppola and the film’s producer Al Ruddy only discovered Montana as a result of his being present on-set one day in the capacity of bodyguard to a high-level Colombo family member. Once they laid eyes on the 6’6” 320-pound mountain of a man, they knew they had their Luca and quickly cast him.

I’d be remiss not to mention that in the shot of Brasi, it’s actually in the context of looking over the shoulder of Michael Corleone and his girlfriend Kay Adams. Now it is Michael’s arc that really ends up becoming the primary focus of the narrative within all three films and of course is probably the most complex of any character in the film. At first his story starts off innocently enough. He starts off the story as sort of the black sheep of the Corleone family as he was the only one of the three Corleone sons who had refused the direction of his father. During World War II, Michael had enlisted in the marines, defying Vito’s express command when he did so. He would go on to become a Captain who won medals and was even featured in a 1944 print of Life magazine, but when Don Corleone saw the magazine he grunted disdainfully and said, “He performs those miracles for strangers.”

You see, according to the book, before war Michael had been the Don’s favorite and the obvious chosen heir to run the family business. Michael had “all the quiet force and intelligence” of Vito, as well as “the born instincts to act in such a way that men had no recourse but to respect him.” And by refusing Vito’s direction, Michael was in actuality and at this point unknowingly putting the Corleone crime family’s future at serious risk as Vito’s other sons, Sonny and Fredo (who we’ll discuss) had weaknesses that wouldn’t allow them to be effective leaders of a Mafia family.

And so Michael and Kay sit in the corner of the garden in a secluded area, as his primary hope is to not be noticed and slowly begin to help Kay absorb the reality of his family and what they do.

Michael is played by Al Pacino, who was unknown at the time but who Coppola had discovered during his performance in a movie called The Panic in Needle Park. And after that point, Coppola more or less demanded that Pacino be his Michael. The problem was that the studio didn’t care for Pacino, and didn’t think he was leading man material, and did almost everything they could to cast someone else. There was also the complication that Pacino was offered a role in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight which was filming at the same time, but ultimately passed in order to play Michael. Ironically, Pacino’s role in that movie ultimately went to Robert De Niro who as we know would eventually play the younger version of Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Ultimately, the entire Pacino-situation nearly led to Copolla’s firing until the studio eventually realized Pacino’s incredible force as an actor.

And of course Kay Adams is played by Diane Keaton who herself would go on to have an illustrious career, and who would be sort of immortalized in the end of this movie with her line, “Is it true?” It’s worth noting that the chemistry between the couple within the movie was likely because they for a time had an on-again, off-again relationship during the filming of the movie.

The shots of Michael and Kay due to issues which we’ll touch on later with the filming and studio pressure, were actually shot at night rather than in the light of day. To normalize the look of the scene, they used lights that were just “blasting across the whole area” which infuriated the film’s cinematographer Gordon Willis. It’s actually pretty remarkable that you don’t know the difference.

And here’s where you’re first introduced to the middle son, Fredo Corleone. Fredo is played by John Cazale. Now let me first tell you about John Cazale as his real-life story is both amazing and tragic. John Cazale started his acting career in the theater both off and on Broadway, acting alongside contemporaries that included of course Al Pacino, Meryl Streep (who he had a relationship with), and Sam Waterston. As a movie actor, he only appeared in five films, but the distinction is that all five films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture which to my knowledge is a feat that no other actor has achieved. Those movies were The Godfather I & II, Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation, and Deer Hunter. He was called by his friends, “an amazing intellect, an extraordinary person and a fine, dedicated artist.” Rather tragically, while filming Dog Day Afternoon he was diagnosed with lung cancer. However, he chose to continue acting despite the diagnosis and unfortunately passed away on March 13, 1978 shortly after he had completed filming for Deer Hunter. Very sad stuff. In just five films his career was already legendary and I often wonder what else he might have done had he had more time. His portrayal of Fredo is nothing short of iconic.

Speaking of Fredo, the book describes the second of Vito Corleone’s sons: “Frederico, called Fred or Fredo, was a child every Italian prayed to the saints for. Dutiful, loyal, always at the service of his father, living with his parents at age thirty. He was short and burly, not handsome but with the same Cupid head of the family, the curly helmet of hair over the round face and sensual bow-shaped lips. Only, in Fred, these lips were not sensual but granitelike. Inclined to dourness, he was still a crutch to his father, never disputed him, never embarrassed him by scandalous behavior with women. Despite all these virtues he did not have that personal magnetism, that animal force, so necessary for a leader of men, and he too was not expected to inherit the family business.”

And so you see all these virtues played out throughout the film, and eventually Fredo sort of transforms, though he grows resentful over time at the feeling of having to be “protected” and not given the leadership opportunities that he feels he deserves. But for now, early on in the film he’s a very sympathetic and even lovable character. And a brother whom Michael has great admiration and a major soft spot for.

And here we get our introduction to Sonny Corleone, famously played by James Caan (may he rest in peace). Outside of Brando, Caan was one of the more established actors at the time when he was cast. As with pretty much everyone in this cast, Caan crushed his performance as Sonny, a fact that was bolstered by his real-life mafia connections and penchant for hanging out with wiseguys. As of the making of the film, Caan had formed a friendship with future Colombo family boss Andrew “Mush” Russo, and Russo is even the real-life Godfather to his son Scott Caan. In 2011 when “Mush” Russo was arrested in an FBI raid, Caan offered to pay his bail saying “I've known Andrew since 1972 and in all that time I have known him only as an unbelievable father, grandfather, great-grandfather and as good a friend as any person could ask for. I'd be willing to put up anything of personal value that the court would accept for bail. I would not hesitate a moment to fly in and be present if the court should so request.” It is said that Caan would hang out in social clubs to pick up on the mannerisms and speech patterns of real wisegusy, which is where the famously ad-libbed ‘bada-bing, bada-boom’ line came from.

Now the Sonny by this point was already fairly well-entrenched in the Mafia lifestyle and had been a major force within the family who had a reputation almost as ferocious as Luca Brasi himself, which was largely gained by helped Vito win ‘The Olive Oil Wars’ of the 1930’s as a key combatant in that fictional gang war that is essentially The Godfather’s version of The Castellammarese War. Here’s how the book describes him: “The eldest (son), baptized Santino but called Sonny by everyone except his father, was looked at askance by the older Italian men; with admiration by the younger. Sonny Corleone was tall for a first-generation American of Italian parentage, almost six feet, and his crop of bushy, curly hair made him look even taller. His face was that of a gross Cupid, the features even but the bow-shaped lips thickly sensual, the dimpled cleft chin in some curious way obscene. He was built as powerfully as a bull and it was common knowledge that he was so generously endowed by nature that his martyred wife feared the marriage bed as unbelievers once feared the rack. It was whispered that when as a youth he had visited houses of ill fame, even the most hardened and fearless putain, after an awed inspection of his massive organ, demanded double price….Sonny Corleone had strength, he had courage. He was generous and his heart was admitted to be as big as his organ. Yet he did not have his father’s humility but instead a quick, hot temper that led him into errors of judgment. Though he was a great help in his father’s business, there were many who doubted that he would become the heir to it.”

So as you can tell, Mario Puzo (for whatever reason) had a sort of fascination with Sonny’s package that would be mentioned many more times throughout the book. There’s actually a very funny line in the book that is stated by his wife Sandra who you can see gossiping about Sonny’s member on the movie:

“Sandra and the other women teased Connie about the terrors of the nuptial bed. ‘My God,’ Sandra had giggled, ‘when I saw that pole of Sonny’s for the first time and realized he was going to stick it into me, I yelled bloody murder. After the first year my insides felt as mushy as macaroni boiled for an hour. When I heard he was doing the job on other girls I went to church and lit a candle.’”

Which of course brings us to the very obvious affair that Sonny is carrying on with Connie’s maid-of-honor, Lucy Mancini. They believed they were being very sneaky, but the fact was that pretty much everyone around them knew what was going on, and Sonny had drawn the ire of his father who as Puzo states, “was very straight-laced in matters of sex.”

Now to keep with Puzo’s fascination with the male and female anatomy, there is a huge area of plot within the book that was kept out of the movie as it was deemed somewhat unnecessary. Apparently, Lucy Mancini had an abnormally large “box,” so much so that no man except for Sonny (due to his size) could please her sexually. Of course Sonny and Lucy go on to father the illegitimate child Vincent, so as part of The Godfather’s canon rises to head of the family in the third movie. The more immediate area of importance is that after Sonny’s untimely demise, Lucy goes into a deep depression and the family eventually moves her to Vegas where she meets a doctor. It’s this doctor who eventually diagnoses the issue that is causing Johnny Fontaine’s mysterious loss of voice, which as you know drives a key area of the plot in the movie.

Anyhow, in terms of summing up Sonny, you can see the strengths and weaknesses of his personality which will eventually come back to bite him in a lethal way and set the stage for the ultimate and savage ending of the film.

And here we have milling around and taking care of The Don’s affairs, one Tom Hagen, played by the great Robert Duvall. It’s funny that I keep saying the great ahead of every actor’s name as many of the actors when they were cast were not well-established but went on to legendary careers. Duvall of course at the time was fairly well-established as an actor and would go on to a stellar career that has continued even up to the present (he’s 91 years old).

Now Tom Hagen as of the beginning of this film is the Don’s acting consigliere (which is the #3 position in the family), and he has stepped in for Genco Abbandando who you don’t get to meet in the first film but who you ultimately meet in the second film. So let's get the obvious out of the way, if this were the real Cosa Nostra Tom Hagen could never be a member of the family due to his German-Irish heritage. So to me, this part of the story fell somewhat flat. Not only that, he’s only 35 which typically isn’t enough time and age to have acquired the necessary experience and cunning to make a successful Consigliere. That said, if you suspend the disbelief, Hagen is an extremely smart and valuable member of the Corleone family akin to a Meyer Lansky or Frank Costello who were known more for their brains rather than their brawn.

Now let me give you some of Hagen’s backstory from the book so you get an idea of who he is and how he came to be a part of the Corleone empire: “Tom Hagen was thirty-five years old, a tall crew-cut man, very slender, very ordinary-looking. He was a lawyer but did not do the actual detailed legal work for the Corleone family business though he had practiced law for three years after passing the bar exam.”

“At the age of eleven he had been a playmate of eleven-year-old Sonny Corleone. Hagen’s mother had gone blind and then died during his eleventh year. Hagen’s father, a heavy drinker, had become a hopeless drunkard. A hardworking carpenter, he had never done a dishonest thing in his life. But his drinking destroyed his family and finally killed him. Tom Hagen was left an orphan who wandered the streets and slept in hallways. His younger sister had been put in a foster home, but in the 1920’s the social agencies did not follow up cases of eleven-year-old boys who were so ungrateful as to run from their charity. Hagen, too, had an eye infection. Neighbors whispered that he had caught or inherited it from his mother and so therefore it could be caught from him. He was shunned. Sonny Corleone, a warmhearted and imperious eleven-year-old, had brought his friend home and demanded that he be taken in. Tom Hagen was given a hot dish of spaghetti with oily rich tomato sauce, the taste of which he had never forgotten, and then given a metal folding bed to sleep on.”

“In the most natural way, without a word being spoken or the matter discussed in any fashion, Don Corleone had permitted the boy to stay in his household. Don Corleone himself took the boy to a special doctor and had his eye infection cured. He sent him to college and law school. In all this the Don acted not as a father but rather as a guardian. There was no show of affection but oddly enough the Don treated Hagen more courteously than his own sons, did not impose a parental will upon him. It was the boy’s decision to go to law school after college. He had heard Don Corleone say once, ‘A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.’ Meanwhile, much to the annoyance of their father, Sonny and Freddie insisted on going into the family business after graduation from high school. Only Michael had gone on to college, and he had enlisted in the Marines the day after Pearl Harbor.”

“After he passed the bar exam, Hagen married to start his own family. The bride was a young Italian girl from New Jersey, rare at that time for being a college graduate. After the wedding, which was of course held in the home of Don Corleone, the Don offered to support Hagen in any undertaking he desired, to send him law clients, furnish his office, start him in real estate.”

“Tom Hagen had bowed his head and said to the Don, ‘I would like to work for you.’”

“The Don was surprised, yet pleased. ‘You know who I am?’ he asked.”

“Hagen nodded. He hadn’t really know the extent of the Don’s power, not then. He did not really know in the ten years that followed until he was made the acting Consigliere after Genco Abbandando became ill. But he nodded and met the Don’s eyes with his own. ‘I would work for you like your sons,’ Hagen said, meaning with complete loyalty, with complete acceptance of the Don’s parental divinity. The Don, with that understanding which was even then building the legend of his greatness, showed the young man the first mark of fatherly affection since he had come into his household. He took Hagen into his arms for a quick embrace and afterward treated him more like a true son, though he would sometimes say, ‘Tom, never forget your parents,’ as if he were reminding himself as well as Hagen.”

So that’s Tom Hagen’s backstory, and you can see just how valuable he truly is to the family. However, as would happen in the real-life Mafia, the other families began contemptuously referring to the Corleone family as the “Irish Gang,” a fact that isn’t discussed in the movie, but that showed Hagen he could never hope to succeed the Don as head of the family. However, that was never his goal as he personally felt it would have been a great disrespect to his benefactor and his benefactor’s blood family.

And of course when Luca Brasi actually enters the Don’s office to deliver his tribute you can see that the actor stumbles over the words which actually creates the intended effect of showing Luca’s nervousness as well as pride to deliver a gift to his friend, Don Vito. One of the funniest things I learned in researching the behind-the-scenes goings-on of the movie was the fact that while Lenny Montana was doing his lines, apparently noted jokester Marlon Brando had a sign on his forehead that read, “Fuck you!” So imagine that you’re already nervous, and then the legend Brando walks in with that. Just how the hell are you supposed to focus?!? Haha.

In the book, Puzo indicated something that I found fairly interesting. There is the suggestion that the relationship between Vito and Luca is one more of convenience rather than a true friendship. 

Similar to the movie, the book begins with Tom Hagen, Vito’s consigliere saying: “He’s not on the list but Luca Brasi wants to see you. He understands it can’t be public but he wants to congratulate you in person.”

“For the first time the Don seemed displeased. The answer was devious. ‘Is it necessary,’ he asked.

Hagen shrugged. ‘You understand him better than I do. But he was very grateful that you invited him to the wedding. He never expected that. I think he wants to show his gratitude.’”

The book goes on:

“Ushered into the presence of the Don, the terrible Brasi held himself stiff with respect. He stuttered over the flowery congratulations he offered and his formal hope that the first grandchild would be masculine. He then handed the Don an envelope stuffed with cash as a gift for the bridal couple.

So that was what he wanted to do. Hagen noticed the change in Don Corleone. The Don received Brasi as a king greets a subject who had done him an enormous service, never familiar but with regal respect. With every gesture, with every word, Don Corleone made it clear to Luca Brasi that he was valued. Not for one moment did he show surprise at the wedding gift being presented to him personally. He understood.

The money in the envelope was sure to be more than anyone else had given. Brasi had spent many hours deciding on the sum, comparing it to what the other guests might offer. He wanted to be the most generous to show that he had the most respect, and that was why he had given his envelope to the Don personally, a gaucherie the Don overlooked in his own flowery sentence of thanks. Hagen saw Luca Brasi’s face lose its mask of fury, swell with pride and pleasure. Brasi kissed the Don’s hand before he went out the door that Hagen held open. Hagen prudently gave Brasi a friendly smile which the squat man acknowledged with a polite stretching of rubbery, veal-colored lips.

When the door closed Don Corleone gave a small sigh of relief. Brasi was the only man in the world would could make him nervous. The man was like a natural force, not truly subject to control. He had to be handled as gingerly as dynamite. The Don shrugged. Even dynamite can be exploded harmlessly if the need arose.”

And so you see, the Don is in actuality using Brasi as a means to maintain his hold on power rather than as a true personal friend. And of course all bosses have to have people willing to do their bidding which keeps them from getting their hands dirty, but for the first time you can see a different side of the Don - one that isn’t so great. Not that you should feel sorry for Luca, who is himself a bloodthirsty psychopath, but it’s just an opportunity to show the dark side that exists just beneath the surface for most of this movie. People tend to revere the character of Vito Corleone, but in reality he’s a bad man and a mafia boss responsible for running a criminal empire that commits heinous acts on society as a whole - much like the real-life Mafia.

I thought you’d find that little tidbit interesting.

When they make this mention of the Senator and later The Congressman, this just goes to show the political connections that the Don had. It is often said that Marlon Brando modeled his performance and voice off of real-life boss, Frank Costello in addition to a few others. And of course Frank Costello would have been an appropriate choice as one of the most politically-connected gangsters of all-time.

In the book when this is mentioned you get the following:

“Don Corleone did not hide his pleasure that so great a man as the Senator had shown him such respect. The Senator, like Luca Brasi, was one of the great stones in the Don’s power structure, and he too, with this gift, had resworn his loyalty.”

The music throughout the entire wedding scene is fairly iconic and really drives the entire scene forward in such an authentic way. According to Coppola, his father who had been an accomplished flutist but who wanted to be an actual composer, wrote all the Tarantella’s and organized the band along with all the music that you see in the scene. Copolla was a big believer that if you have a band in a movie, they should really be able to play as opposed to hiring actors who simply stand with the instruments and pretend to play. And as you can see in the scene, the band was absolutely critical to helping the crowd and the audience get in the festive mood that is captured within this scene. Of course to the movie producers, the request for a live band (which in hindsight was very important), was like “spending money for nothing” and was just another strike against Coppola in their ultimate desire to fire him early on. In fact, Coppola describes the overall shooting of the wedding scene, which occurred in the middle of filming rather than at the beginning, as “a very uncomfortable situation.” Apparently, there was a studio “henchman” there who was constantly hounding Coppola and more or less trying to interfere with his vision for the movie on the studio’s behalf. As he said, he was trying to finish the shoot, while at the same time introduce characters and establish the vitality of the scene, all while “under duress” which made his filming experience somewhat miserable.

The woman who was ultimately cast as Vito’s wife Carmela Corleone was Morgana King. King was actually a very well-known jazz singer who was of Sicilian descent. She began a professional singing career at sixteen years old. In her twenties, she was singing at a Greenwich Village nightclub when she was recognized for her unique phrasing and vocal range, described as a four-octave contralto range. She was signed to a label and began recording solo albums. She recorded dozens of albums well into the late 1990s. So as she steps up in this scene reluctantly to sing the Luna Mezzo Mare, in real life she would have been right in her element. It’s also interesting that she was born in 1930, which would have actually put her around 41 years of age around the filming of the movie, meaning that like Brando she wasn’t actually that much older than her supposed sons in the movie. Robert Duvall was born in 1931, John Cazale was born in 1935, and James Caan and Al Pacino were both born in 1940. But of course the hair and makeup room can do wonders.

Okay, so you hear the screams of the crowd as Johnny Fontane arrives at the wedding all the way from California to pay his respects. Johnny Fontaine was played by real-life crooner Al Martino. So let me tell you a little bit about Al Martino as he lived an amazing interesting life. First of all, his real name was Jasper “Al” Cini and he was born in Philadelphia, PA. He parents were immigrants from Abruzzo. Jasper served in World War II and actually fought in the battle of Iwo Jima where he was wounded. Upon his return from the war, he began his singing career and adopted the name Al Martino. And much like his character, Martino also aspired to become an actor, and after being told by a friend who’d read the book about the character whom his friend felt like Martino perfectly represented he contacted Al Ruddy who gave him the part. However, Martino was actually stripped of the part after Francis Ford Coppola became the director as Coppola had already awarded the part to Vic Damone. And this is where Martino’s “connections” got involved. You see, Martino’s godfather was none other than Russell Bufalino who was the head of the mafia in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Bufalino crime family. Russell Bufalino, much like Vito Corleone might have done, then orchestrated the publication of various news articles that claimed Coppola had been unaware of Ruddy having given Martino the part which created a potential issue for Damone. Eventually, Vic Damone decided to forgo the role because he didn’t want to risk provoking the Bufalino crime family. Aside from that, Damone felt he was being paid too little for the role and so ultimately, the part of Johnny Fontane was given to Martino (and the rest is history).

So now that you know a little about Al Martino who is so damned similar to his character, let me give you the lowdown on Johnny Fontane, who he is, and why he’s here at the wedding. As they mention in the movie, Johnny is the Don’s godson. He was a tough kid from the neighborhood who grew up with the Corleone boys and (through the help of Don Corleone) went on to make it big in Hollywood as a singer. He had made all of his old friends back home proud.

Except his career was in shambles. He’d divorced his childhood-sweetheart wife and left his two children to marry the most glamorous blond star in motion pictures. A real Marilyn Monroe type. Unfortunately for Johnny, he soon learned that she was a “whore” who slept around and who’d come to resent, embarrass, and emasculate Johnny at every turn. As a result, Fontane began drinking heavily, gambling, and chasing other women to offset his unhappiness. But then he lost his singing voice and didn’t know why, then his records stopped selling, and even worse the studio neglected to renew his contract. As a result of his affairs, he’d alienated and burned nearly every bridge including with his Godfather.

As I’d previously mentioned, not only was the Godfather “very straight-laced in matters of sex,” but Vito Corleone was also of the opinion that women had very little use in this life outside of child-rearing and to allow himself to be embarrassed in this way and affected so greatly by a woman, as well as to neglect his childhood sweetheart and their children had lost Johnny a great deal of Vito’s respect. And what they don’t say in the movie, but what you can sense in the acting is that Vito is mad at Johnny, and in turn Johnny is frustrated with his Godfather, and especially with Tom Hagen who'd been “blocking” Johnny’s attempts to reach out on Vito’s orders. So the relationship between Fontane and Hagen was icy.

But, because family is very important to Vito, the fact that Johnny had come all the way across the country to pay him respect in person had once again opened the door for Johnny to get back in his Godfather’s good graces. But of course as with many others, he needs to Don to do him a favor as the Don had done to get his career started.

After this uncharacteristic show of emotion, which was also included in the book, you get this detail which gives you a bit of additional context and you can somewhat see it coming across in Al Martino’s reaction:

“The mimicry of the Don was so extraordinary, so unexpected, that Hagen and Johnny were startled into laughter. Don Corleone was pleased. For a moment he reflected on how much he loved his godson. How would his own three sons have reacted to such a tongue-lashing? Santito would have sulked and behaved badly for weeks afterward. Fredo would have been cowed. Michael would have given him a cold smile and gone out of the house, not to be seen for months. But Johnny, ah, what a fine chap he was, smiling now, gathering strength, knowing already the true purpose of his Godfather.”

So first, you see the dichotomy of the personalities between the three brothers, but you also see that Johnny is actually a lot tougher and more resilient than his character in the movie lets on - despite the fact that he’s become a bit “soft” while out in Hollywood. This savage outburst by the Don was the Don’s way of snapping him out of it - to begin to build him up again, rather than tear him down as it seems in the film.

The other part of this scene between the Don and Fontane worth noting is Johnny’s skepticism towards the end. Though he knows the power of the Don within the mob, it’s clear that he doesn’t understand the full scope of the Don’s true power. And this is where you get what might be the most famous line in movie history which Brando delivers almost matter-of-factly. Here’s how it plays out in the novel:

“Johnny Fontane could not altogether believe that the Don had such power. But his Godfather had never said such and such a thing could be done without having it done. 

‘This guy is a personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover,’ Johnny said. ‘You can’t even raise your voice to him.’

‘He’s a businessman,’ the Don said blandly. ‘I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.’

And of course, this line was reputed to have been said many times by the Don over the years and typically was the warning rattle before a strike. The last chance to reason with him.

As Fontane is singing the song “I Have But One Heart” which was ironically first recorded by the man he’d replaced Vic Damone in 1947, Michael shares the backstory of how the Don helped Johnny’s career take off. Now in the movie, it’s Luca Brasi taking the violent action with Don Corleone simply delivering the message.

However, in the book it plays out a little differently and shows that Vito Corleone was not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Another excerpt from the book after Key inquired more seriously about how Michael’s father could have possibly helped a major star like Fontane:

“He told her. He told her without being funny. He told it without pride. He told it without any sort of explanation except that eight years before his father had been more impetuous, and because the matter concerned his godson, the Don considered it an affair of personal honor.”

“The story was quickly told. Eight years ago Johnny Fontane had made an extraordinary success singing with a popular dance band. He had become a top radio attraction. Unfortunately the band leader, a well-known show business personality named Les Halley, had signed Johnny to a five-year personal services contract. It was a common show business practice. Les Halley could now loan Johnny out and pocket most of the money.”

“Don Corleone entered the negotiations personally. He offered Les Halley twenty thousand dollars to release Johnny Fontane from the personal services contract. Halley offered to take only fifty percent of Johnny’s earnings. Don Corleone was amused. He dropped his offer from twenty thousand dollars to ten thousand dollars. The band leader, obviously not a man of the world outside his beloved show business, completely missed the significance of this lower offer. He refused.”

“The next day Don Corleone went to see the band leader personally. He brought with him his two best friends, Genco Abbandando, who was his Consigliere, and Luca Brasi. With no other witnesses Don Corleone persuaded Les Halley to sign a document giving up all rights to all services from Johnny Fontane upon payment of a certified check to the amount of ten thousand dollars. Don Corleone did this by putting a pistol to the forehead of the band leader and assuring him with the utmost seriousness that either his signature or his brains would rest on that document in exactly one minute. Les Halley signed. Don Corleone pocketed his pistol and handed over the certified check.”

So damn. Vito was ready to kill this guy himself. And at this point, Michael understood his father, but wanted no part of it and was not in any way proud of the way they made their living. He wanted to go as far in the opposite direction as he could. He, like his father, was not a man who would accept being manipulated by anyone other than himself - not even his father.

Now of course, this story is not plucked out of nowhere. In fact, many people believe that the character of Fontane was based on Frank Sinatra, whom Puzo used as the inspiration for this story. Sinatra never liked being associated with The Godfather, but Mafia legend has it that when Sinatra was in a similar situation, wanting to get out of a 10-year personal service contract with Tommy Dorsey. The man who supposedly jammed a gun down Dorsey’s throat was Sinatra’s real-life Godfather and Underboss of the then-Luciano crime family, WIllie Moretti. Dorsey eventually sold the contract to Sinatra. Supposedly it was for one dollar, but a New York Times article discussing the split back in 1943 actually suggests that the real number paid (or at least said to have been paid) was $50,000.

Much like Fontane, Sinatra goes through a period where his career goes in the shitter before returning to prominence after starring in a war movie entitled, From Here to Eternity.

So I get that Sinatra, who just so happens to be my favorite singer, was pissed. But the similarities are almost too much for any sane person not to make that comparison.

Anyways, I’ll go ahead and close things out with this line from the book as I think it’s very important when it comes to understanding why Vito is really granting “favors.” 

As Michael explains in the book, “You know those Arctic explorers who leave caches of food scattered on the route to the North Pole? Just in case they may need them someday? That’s my father’s favors. Someday he’ll be at each one of those people’s houses and they had better come across.”

And that is where I leave you for this episode. Next breakdown, we’ll discuss Tom Hagen’s trip to California to negotiate the movie part on behalf of.

In Closing

As I’ve said, going forward, in addition to biographies, I’d plan to continue incorporating movie and TV inspired content into this channel as a good way to mix things up from time to time.

In the next episode we’re planning to get back to the biographies, and I’m thinking of finally branching outside of New York so stay tuned.

As I said at the beginning of this episode, don’t forget to Subscribe so that you can continue to enjoy my content as its released.  

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Until next time, gratzie!

Online Sources:

Books & Other Sources:

  • Puzo, Mario. The Godfather. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969.
  • Seal, Mark. Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather. Gallery Books, 2021.
  • Jones, Jenny M. Foreword by Francis Ford Coppola. The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay. With Commentary On Every Scene, Interviews, and Little Known Facts. 50th Anniversary Edition. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. September, 2021.
  • Sifakis, Carl (2005). The Mafia encyclopedia (3. ed.). New York: Facts on File. p. 420. ISBN 0-8160-5694-3.
Jacob Stoops, the host of The Gangland History Podcast

Jacob Stoops

Host of the Gangland History Podcast

This podcast sits at the intersection of my life-long love for history, my love of mob movies, my now decades-long fascination with the Mafia, as well as my passion for content creation.