When Mario Puzo wrote the first
The Godfather novel and subsequently worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the stories for the next two movies, he based some of the secondary characters VERY LOOSELY on real life characters. As with most things, the similarities have been greatly exaggerated over the years. We try to get to the bottom of things in this Godfather feature.
Johnny Fontaine (Based on Frank Sinatra)
The character of Don Corleone's Godson Johnny Fontaine is said to be based on Frank Sinatra. Both were extremely popular Italian-American singers/actors with (in Sinatra's case alleged) ties to the Mafia. In the movie there are two Johnny Fontaine plot points that are said to be partially based on Frank Sinatra's career.
The first is Johnny Fontaine's desperate desire to get a role in a Jack Woltz produced Hollywood movie. This story is very similar to Frank Sinatra's real-life quest to win the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity. Did Sinatra get one of his mafia friends to help him win the part? Doubtful. What is known to be true is that Frank Sinatra felt certain that he was right for the part and that this movie could resurrect his fading career and campaigned heavily for the role. Studio executives were reluctant to hire him. The part about Mob pressure and decapitated horse heads most likely is fiction. Most people believe that Sinatra's then-wife Ava Gardner (who was at the height of her career) used her influence to get her husband the part.
The second story is the one Michael tells Kay about how Don Corleone and Luca Brasi convinced a famous band leader to release Johnny Fontaine from his singing contract. There were many rumors that this too is something that happened in Frank Sinatra's life. Frank Sinatra had a contract with Tommy Dorsey that is said to have contained a clause that gave Dorsey up to a third of Sinatra's future earnings for his entire singing career. In the early 40's Sinatra got out of the contract and did not have to pay his old boss any royalties. Rumors abounded that he had gone to Mafia Kingpin Sam Giancana for help in getting out of the contract and that Giancana gave Dorsey an "offer he couldn't refuse". This story was strenuously denied by Sinatra but the rumor persists. Here is the scene from The Godfather where Michael uses the story to tell Kay what his family does for a living:
Jack Woltz (Based on Harry Cohn)
The character of Jack Woltz is widely thought to be based the founder and head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn. Columbia Pictures was the studio who made From Here to Eternity (see Frank Sinatra stories above) and it was Harry Cohn who ultimately had the approval power to put Sinatra in that movie in the early 50's. The expensive decapitated race horse? That was fictionalized, however, Harry Cohn was widely known to have had many affairs with young starlets as is referenced in the Jack Woltz sequence from The Godfather:
Moe Greene (Based on Bugsy Siegel)
Moe Greene is definitely based on real-life mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel . Bugsy Siegel was part of the East Coast mob, good friends with Mob Boss Meyer Lansky and was instrumental in the initial development of Las Vegas as a gambling and casino mecca. Bugsy Siegel has been immortalized in many Hollywood movies, three to check out: Bugsy, Lansky and Mobsters. Here is Moe Greene's big scene in The Godfather.
Hyman Roth (Based on Meyer Lansky)
Hyman Roth is a fictionalized version of mobster Meyer Lansky who was the notorious head of the Jewish Mafia that wrecked havoc and wielded his greatest power in the 30's and 40's. Meyer Lanksky grew up with Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano and the three remained friends and co-conspirators their entire lives. Their stories have appeared in numerous movies including: Lansky and Mobsters.
There are quite a few similarities between Roth and Lansky. Both Roth and Lansky were very involved in the gambling trade in Cuba in the years before the Cuban Revolution. Lansky lived in suburbia Florida in the later years of his life claiming that he had no money as does Roth. Like Roth, Lansky tried to re-patriate to Israel to avoid prosecution in the United States but was ultimately denied Israeli citizenship. Roth was friends with Moe Green mirroring Lansky's relationship with Bugsy Siegel. Here is the scene from The Godfather Part II where Roth confronts Michael Corleone about the death of Moe Green.
Joey Zasa (Based on John Gotti)
Joey Zasa is said to be partially based on New York gangster John Gotti. Zasa was a very meticulous dresser as was John Gotti who had the nickname "The Dapper Don. Gotti also staged a bold takeover of a major New York crime family, The Gambino's. Here is the scene from The Godfather Part III where Zasa tries to do the same thing.
Licio Lucchesi (Based on Giulio Andreotti)
Don Lucchesi is said to be based on Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. Francis Ford Coppola intimates as much in his audio commentary for The Godfather Part III. Andreotti is said to have been the most powerful man in Italy and it was rumored that he had close ties or was part of the Italian mafia. Read more about Giulio Andreotti. In real-life Andreotti was famous for saying "Power wears out those who do not have it." This is the same thing that Calo whispers in Lucchesi's ear before he kills him. Here is that scene from The Godfather Part III.