The Godfather: The Real History Behind Michael’s First Kill

The Godfather’s Michael Corleone and history’s Lucky Luciano both stiffed checks, and checked stiffs with bullets, in their favorite New York Italian restaurants.

Lucky Luciano influenced Michael Corleone in The Godfather
Photo: Getty Images / Paramount Pictures

The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola from the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo, has just hit another historic milestone: its 50th anniversary. Released on March 24, 1972, it is a landmark film that made and remade history. The ultimate saga, which can be seen in the recently-released The Godfather Trilogy 4K Ultra HD edition, follows an immigrant family as they rise in American society. The Corleones reflect the vantage point of one of the Five Families of New York’s organized crime ruling commission.

While the words “mafia” and “cosa nostra” are never used in the film, many of the scenarios reflect specific points in the mob’s story. Some of these are strictly from Puzo’s imagination for the novel, like the horse’s head in a Hollywood producer’s bed scene. There is no evidence in gangland history to a corresponding incident like that. However, one of the most pivotal scenes in The Godfather is very similar to the incident which inspired it: The scene where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) executes Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and police captain Mark McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) at Louis’ Italian American Restaurant in the Bronx.

The moment is a turning point in many ways. It captures Michael’s transformation from war hero to mobster, and it starts a mob war. It also marked a turning point in production. Paramount Pictures was banking on a gory gangster picture filled with bullets and bloodshed, and Coppola kept delivering intimate personal scenes of subtle suspense and too much talking. The studio constantly threatened to fire Coppola, keeping stand-in directors on set to intimidate the young filmmaker.

To paraphrase Mike’s older brother, Coppola was about to get fired when the studio executives at Paramount got brains splattered all over their Ivy League suits.

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How the Hit Went Down in the Movie

The pivotal scene that changed studio minds occurs in the finished film after the attempted assassination of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the head of the powerful crime family who turned down a partnership offer on a lucrative heroin deal. Sonny (James Caan) now heads the family and wants revenge. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is against it. The consiglieri is on the record as saying, “Some of the other Families won’t sit still for all-out war.” Michael is the one who agrees to the sit-down. He explains his reasons, they are sound. He plans the strategy, right down to how it will play out in the press. It is reasonable. In this way, he is just like his old man.

Michael, decorated for service in World War II, is a civilian in the family business. He is the only person trustworthy enough to sit at a table and negotiate. A gun, which Michael gets acquainted with, is planted in the bathroom. It has tape on the grip and trigger to conceal fingerprints. He is picked up at Jack Dempsey’s bar and frisked. Sollozzo’s driver does an illegal U-turn on the George Washington Bridge to make sure the car is not being followed, and they head uptown to the Bronx. There’s a place there with the best veal in the city.

The negotiations are mainly spoken in Sicilian, and Michael actively listens, and even hints at the offer of a last-chance reprieve on the man who shot his father “for business.” He asks for a guarantee that no more attempts will be made on Vito’s life. This may have changed the outcome, but “the Turk” blows it.

“What guarantees could I give you Mike? I am the hunted one,” Sollozzo says. “I missed my chance. You think too much of me, kid. I’m not that clever. All I want is a truce.” It is the line which breaks the peace. We can see the anger on Michael’s face, but he keeps his cool, so as not to act in anger. He excuses himself, asking permission to go to the bathroom.

In the book, on page 149, Michael “really had to go, his bowels were loose. He did it very quickly, then reached behind the enamel water cabinet until his hand touched the small, blunt-nosed gun, fastened with tape. … He washed his hands and wet his hair. He wiped his prints off the faucet.” He then goes out and blows Sollozzo’s head off.

How the Hit Went Down in History

The assassination of Sollozzo and McCluskey caused the Five Families War, which is a stand-in for the Gallo-Profaci war of the late 1950s, which took the lives of 13 gang members and changed the Profaci Family name to Colombo. It was the biggest mob war since the Castellammarese War, named for the town of Castellammare del Golfo of Sicily, which raged from 1930 to 1931. Puzo’s book calls this the “Olive Oil War,” and it is where the scene got its inspiration.

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In The Godfather Papers, Puzo admits he wrote The Godfather “entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster.” The execution scene in the film was just as game-changing as the real-life incident it is based on. The scene was inspired by the elimination of Joe Masseria, which put an end to the Castellammarese War, and opened a path to The Commission.

Giuseppe Masseria, also known as “Joe the Boss” and “The Man Who Could Dodge Bullets,” was born in Marsala, Sicily in 1886. He came to America one step ahead of a murder charge, landing in New York during the Mafia-Camorra war, which was a battle between the Sicilian Mafia and the Camorra out of Naples, Italy. “Though he was known as `Joe the Boss’ his insatiable appetite could have won him the nickname `Joe the Glutton,’” Joseph Bonanno writes in his authorized biography, A Man of Honor. “He attacked a plate of spaghetti as if he were a drooling mastiff. He had the table manners of a Hun.”

The Castellammarese war started when Sicilian father, Don Vito Cascio Ferro, sent Salvatore Maranzano to America to settle Masseria’s turf grab. Maranzano had studied to be a priest and was educated and refined. He based his crime structure on the Roman Empire’s military, dividing his army into squads, and demanding a pledge of loyalty. In his memoirs, Joe Bonanno calls Maranzano a “man of honor” he knew from Sicily and pledged an oath of loyalty to. He would inherit the Maranzano Family name.  

For The Godfather, Puzo combined elements of the Masseria and Maranzano. During the novel’s Olive Oil War, Maranzano calls on Al Capone to send hitmen to kill Corleone. In reality, Capone was Masseria’s contact. In the novel, Maranzano is killed by Corleone family caporegime, Salvatore Tessio, played by Abe Vigoda in the film. In real life, Maranzano is the boss who sent Charles “Lucky” Luciano to Coney Island to take out “Joe the Boss.”

Lucky Luciano is the reason Giuseppe Masseria became “Joe the Boss.” The Five Points Gang member took down the last bastion of the reigning Morello crime family, which would be renamed the Masseria Family. It would soon become the Luciano Family. (Today, it is now known as the Genovese crime family.)

As the mob war dragged on, Luciano’s associations with other gangs caught Masseria’s eye, and he set out to rein the young gangster in, permanently. Maranzano made a counter-offer. Lucky set up a meeting.

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On April 15, 1931, Luciano met Masseria at Nuova Villa Tammaro in Coney Island. They ate, played some cards, and Lucky excused himself to go to the bathroom. According to the book Murder Inc., by Sid Feder, Luciano lingered at the sink.

While Luciano was washing his hands, hitmen burst in and sprayed the place with 20 bullets. When it was over, Joe the Boss was dead, the cards he’d been dealt still in his hand. From that day forward, the Ace of Spades was known as the “death card.”

According to Feder’s book, Benny Siegel was one of the shooters, along with Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis and the Albert “Lord High Executioner” Anastasia. Siegel would later be on the crew that hit Maranzano, who also wanted to be Boss of Bosses, and saw Luciano as a threat. After his death, Luciano and Meyer Lansky formed the National Syndicate.

After Michael guns down Sollozzo and the police captain in The Godfather, he flees to Sicily while all hell breaks loose in New York. In real life, Luciano also moved to Italy but only after he was deported. Michael’s escape is thus more like Vito Genovese’s flight to Italy.  He was dodging charges for killing Ferdinand Boccia in a Brooklyn coffee shop on Sept. 19, 1934. He was later able to return to America.

Sometimes the heat can blow over, and as we’ve already established, the veal in Coney Island is to die for.

The Godfather Trilogy 4K Ultra HD edition is available from Paramount.

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