The Godfather film franchise is widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces in cinema history. The movies received widespread critical acclaim and spawned a generation of copycat mobster movies, but remains the original gangster of crime thrillers.
But even the biggest Godfather fan might not know the real story behind the legend—and the incredible events and real people that inspired the story.
Let’s take a look back at the behind the scenes truth of this epic movie masterpiece.
Father of Film
The Godfather movies were directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. The film follows the trials and tribulations of a fictional crime family, the Corleones, in America across several generations.
But you may not know that Puzo and Coppola based their masterpieces on some genuine people from history—and that their stories are even more gripping.
The movie made stars of many of its actors and creators, but the real people behind the story gave the film its special something.
Let’s refresh our memories about the most iconic characters from the films before we go into the real-life inspiration. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars today, showbiz legend Al Pacino gave his starring turn in The Godfather playing Michael Corleone.
Initially, a quiet student and ex-military man, Michael grows up in the shadow of his mafia family but has no intention of joining the mob—something that his father is more than happy to encourage for him.
However, things take a dark turn, and Michael is forced into a role that no one wanted for him—and changes the course of history forever.
Another movie megastar that provided a unique role in this legendary movie was Marlon Brando. Brando was already a well-established star with leads in classic films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Last Tango in Paris.
But it was his turn as Vito Corleone, Pacino’s character’s father and the titular “Godfather” of the movie, gained him a whole new legion of fans and critical acclaim.
Did you know that to achieve the signature way of speaking as Don Corleone, Brando stuffed cotton wool into the sides of his mouth?
Heroin the Making
Vito Corleone was played by not just one but two legendary actors across the mega-smash hit movie franchise. This young Corleone was played by none other than Robert De Niro—another legendary actor whose role in the movie became one of the most highly praised performances of all time.
But the movies didn’t just make stars of these talented actors. They shone a new light on an area of history that had previously been overlooked, but there are even more secrets behind this story’s truth.
Meeting the Don
The Godfather opens with Marlon Brando’s character Don Corleone receiving visitors in his grand yet humble office. Many people from Corleone’s community and extended family come to visit him and pay their respects, some simply wishing to honor him, but many coming to ask him for help or advice.
It quickly becomes apparent that Don Corleone is a mighty man and controls everything in his community, despite his humble demeanor. But the real-life inspiration behind this imposing figure was even more intimidating.
Friends in High Places
One of the first examples we see of Don Corleone’s immense power is when he assists his friend and associate, famous singer Jonny Fontaine.
Fontaine performs at Corleone’s daughter’s wedding and later informs him that he wishes to participate in an upcoming movie.
The Don sends one of his associates to the movie executive to persuade him, but he says no.
This failure to obey Don Corleone leads us to one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.
No one can forget the legendary moment when the movie executive Jack Woltz wakes up in his bed to find his beloved horse’s head cut off and hidden underneath his covers. Eugh!
Woltz’s scream reverberates through the film for several excruciating seconds. Still, Don Corleone only hinted gently to the incident with the immortal words—“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
After this gruesome scene, Jonny Fontaine is miraculously cast in his dream role in the movie.
But this event mirrored the real-life backstory in more ways than one.
Another mega-famous scene that has now become the stuff of cinema history is when the Corleones receive a dramatic signal that one of their associates, Luca Brasi, has been killed by a rival mafia family.
The Corleones receive a fish wrapped in Brasi’s bulletproof vest in the mail, which they know is a signal that means “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”
This is just one of the moments in this legendary movie that later became a famous phrase throughout film, TV, and literature.
One of the key elements in The Godfather is that Vito Corleone, despite being the head of a well-connected crime family, is wholly committed to never getting involved with illegal drugs or the narcotics industry.
As more and more mob families began getting involved in drug rings, Don Corleone remains resolute that it is something he will never sink to.
Little do many fans know that this was also based on a real-life position of the mafia leader’s—and it wasn’t the only key factor that they took from his real-life story.
Another critical element of the movie’s story is that Vito Corleone wanted nothing more than his son Michael to make an honest man of himself and not follow him into his crime business.
Coming from Italy and starting a new life in America in poverty, Vito Corleone may have felt that he had no choice but to turn to criminal activity. Still, he wanted something more significant for his beloved son.
However, much like the real-life story, events were about to take a dark turn that would forever change Michael’s destiny.
Much like many of the scenes in this iconic movie, the events that lead to Michael’s transformation and losing his innocence is one of the most often copied and frequently referred to locations in popular culture.
In this critical moment, aging mafia boss Vito Corleone is shopping in his local market when assailants suddenly shot him near his car.
The moment that we see the don slumped over his car, his son weeping over what we assume is his body, has an eternal place in many moviegoers’ minds.
But this is only the beginning of the actual events of the story.
After Vito Corleone is shot dramatically and taken to the hospital, this is where we see the young and previously innocent Michael step up and take charge of his family situation for the first time.
When his father is still recovering, he realizes that assassins are coming for him, and he has to take charge and convince the nurse to help him move his bed to somewhere safer.
But it was the next scene that would cement Michael’s character truly as a real-life gangster.
The Last Supper
After his father is shot and another attempted attack takes place as he recovers in the hospital, it seems that Michael is well and indeed forced over to the dark side of the mob and no longer able to ignore his family ties.
In response to his father’s attempted murder, he lures those responsible to a restaurant on the pretense of trying to negotiate with them.
But then he retrieves a gun secretly hidden in the bathroom and attacks them all—securing his place as a bona fide crime boss and fully-fledged gangster.
But this had severe consequences for the character—and the real-life person behind it.
After Michael pulls off the revenge against his father’s would-be assassins, it quickly becomes apparent that he is no longer safe living amongst the rest of his family in America.
So he escapes to Italy, where he lives quietly with Sicilian villagers.
He falls in love with a local woman, and they end up getting married.
But eventually, Michael’s adversaries catch up with him, and they rig his car with explosives—but tragically, it is his new wife who perishes, rather than him.
In the first movie, Michael Corleone’s character arc draws to a close as he evolves fully into a bona fide mafia boss, returning to America and managing to pull off an incredibly complicated orchestrated plot take out the other family leaders.
Thanks to his criminal mastermind and spot-on precision, Michael Corleone places himself well and honestly as a force to be reckoned with and the leading mafia don in the area.
And this was true off-screen as well—for more reasons than one.
Initially released in 1972, The Godfather quickly entranced moviegoers and critics alike, becoming one of the most successful films of all time.
Earning almost $300 million at the box office, it was the highest-grossing film of 1972, and at one point, it was the highest-grossing film ever made.
Not only that, but it made stars of the leading actors—winning them all critical acclaim and instant adoration.
But there was an untold true story behind the movie’s mega-success.
Real Blue Eyes
Though The Godfather—both the movies and the novel—was a work of fiction, the creators drew inspiration from a real-life mafia boss and the wild adventures of his life. Many of the characters were based on real people—with mixed reactions from the people involved.
Firstly, remember the up-and-coming singer and actor Jonny Fontaine, whose friendship with Don Corleone got him his movie role? He was based on Frank Sinatra, who was dogged by rumors of mafia connections throughout his career.
The similarity was so blatant that Sinatra himself was reportedly too offended by the portrayal.
But that was only the beginning of the real-life inspiration behind the movie.
The Real Vito
Vito Corleone, the don of the first two movies and played to great critical acclaim by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, was based on a very real-life person, whose life in the mafia became the stuff of legend.
Frank Costello, who—like Corleone—was born in Italy at the end of the 19th century, into a community rife with criminal gangs and revenge killings.
Like Corleone, Costello did not spend too much time in Italy—as more astonishing adventures were awaiting him further afield.
The New World
In The Godfather: Part II, the young Vito Corleone—then called Vito Andolini—packs his bags and moves from Italy to seek a new life in America.
In real life, Costello—then called Francesco Castiglia—did this too, and they both changed their names to more American sounding equivalents upon their arrival.
However, unlike Corleone, Costello made a move alongside his parents, and they set up home in America together, ready to embark on a new life in the free world.
An Honest Living
After Costello and his family moved from Italy to America, they settled into life in the new country and lived in a predominantly Italian neighborhood—just like Corleone did.
However, unlike Corleone, Costello was not as immediately immersed in a life of crime.
Costello’s parents set up a grocery store and began a pretty wholesome life serving customers.
But Costello knew a different destiny awaited him—and instead of following into the family business, he decided to head down a different, darker path.
Costello was growing up in a critical moment of American history—the Prohibition Era of the 1920s. Though this decade is often referred to as the “Roaring Twenties,” due to the decadent and partying lifestyle, it was illegal to sell, consume, or import alcohol during this time.
For this reason, alcohol became an illegal property and could only be enjoyed in bootleg bars and secret get-togethers. This directly led to the development of organized crime in America—of which Costello would become a significant figure.
As Costello was growing up in the Prohibition Era, it seemed obvious to him where his real business interests lay.
Around this time, he became friendly with the notorious Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and the two decided to band together to form a business in the underground alcohol trade.
Before long, Costello and Luciano had formally gone into business together, running a successful bootleg alcohol business.
And this was only the beginning of their adventures.
It wasn’t just Costello and Luciano who teamed up to go into the alcohol bootlegging business. They also signed up fellow mobsters Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and together they started work providing secret alcohol supplies to those with “wet sympathies”—aka anti-Prohibitionists.
And not long after—members of the Irish mafia also came on board.
This multi-membered bootlegging team began a roaring trade in secret alcohol, calling themselves “The Combine.”
However, this business would eventually meet a dramatic end—with the members being caught by federal forces.
Reaching the Top
Though many of his colleagues in the Combine were caught and ended up being sent to prison, Costello himself avoided conviction and maintained his freedom.
Not only that, but Costello was able to use his freedom and his many mafia connections to grow into one of the most formidable figures of the New York mafia, eventually becoming known as the “Prime Minister of the Underworld.”
Not only was Costello connected to many mob bosses, but he also had a relationship with many corrupt law enforcement and government officials—placing him in a perfect position to gain control of the mob.
Thanks to his impressive and wide-reaching connections, Costello built bridges and established relationships between some of the era’s giant crime bosses.
Putting aside old enmities and long-running feuds, the families at the top of the criminal underworld agreed to unite under a new organizational leadership form.
This union between families and mob leaders was called the National Crime Syndicate—and Costello was a big part of making this happen.
But that wasn’t the only significant relationship built between mob bosses during this time.
Around this time, Costello’s associate and old friend Charles “Lucky” Luciano formed another major crime organization.
This new organization was called “The Commission” and brought mobsters from the National Crime Syndicate together with even more mafia bosses.
However, all was not well within this new union—because a massive schism was created between two factions over one key issue.
An issue that you may be familiar with
Just Say No
Eventually, The Commission became dogged with infractions and disagreements within its members, mostly all surrounding one major issue—drug involvement.
Many mob members were insistent that their criminal activity stayed entirely away from the narcotics industry—just like Vito Corleone had done in the novel and movie adaptations.
Eventually, the Commission split into two factions—the liberal, which included dealing in drugs, and the conservative, which continued to stay away from them.
Little did they know, this was the beginning of the end for this criminal union.
Eventually, even a criminal mastermind such as Costello would find himself being caught and reprimanded by the authorities.
Costello did spend some time in prison and was even threatened with having his citizenship revoked by the U.S. authorities. Still, he eventually settled down into a pretty quiet life in his old age. He even became a keen gardener—going so far as to exhibit his flowers in local horticultural displays!
Not precisely the violent end you might expect for a notorious mobster.
After such a long career of criminal activity and mysterious deaths of other great mob bosses, Costello eventually passed away in a much less dramatic and more natural way. The former mobster died from a heart attack at 82 and had a modest funeral home in his local Manhattan town.
After a life of such wild ups and downs, the original Godfather passed away in a very gentle method—much like Vito Corleone, who suffers the same fate while spending time with his little grandson in his vineyard.
Brando’s performance depicting the life—and death—of Vito Corleone won him widespread acclaim and rave reviews from critics.
Brando took the role at a point in his career where his star quality and desirability as an actor had started to dwindle. But after his portrayal of Don Corleone, the legendary actor found his reputation well and indeed resurrected, thanks to the success and brilliance of his role in the legendary movie.
And it wasn’t just Brando who was the recipient of much praise and admiration throughout Hollywood and the rest of the world.
Marlon Brando wasn’t the only actor receiving rave reviews for his portrayal as one of the Corleone family members.
His on-screen son, Al Pacino, also saw himself catapulted to worldwide fame thanks to his role as Michael, and the awards and accolades soon came pouring in.
Pacino was nominated for two Academy Awards for his performance and three Golden Globe nominations.
It also paved the way for other roles in movies such as Scarface and Serpico that would truly cement him as a bona fide Hollywood heavyweight.
But actually, Pacino very nearly didn’t appear in this film at all.
It’s pretty hard to imagine Michael Corleone being played by anyone other than Al Pacino now, after making the role truly his own in three iconic movies. But the truth was, the creators went through a wide variety of possible actors before settling on Pacino—and he was not their first choice!
Movie execs wanted a big name for the role, like Warren Beatty or Robert Redford, as Pacino was relatively unknown at the time. However, Francis Ford Coppola knew that Pacino would be perfect for the part and wouldn’t back down until the others agreed.
But Pacino wasn’t the only star of the movie about to be propelled to worldwide fame.
With his portrayal of the young Vito Corleone, Robert De Niro gave one of the finest performances in cinema’s history.
Widely regarded as one of the most significant roles of all time, De Niro’s portrayal of Corleone won him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Like his co-star Al Pacino, De Niro’s role in The Godfather led to his starring roles in other hit movies, such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.
Today, De Niro is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time.
The Godfather is one of the most critically acclaimed and successful movies of all time. Together, this epic movie franchise has received 28 Academy Award nominations in total, winning nine.
The first and second movies won the Best Picture Oscar, making The Godfather: Part II the only sequel in history to receive this accolade.
But The Godfather had an even wider reach than Academy and international recognition—the legacy of this classic movie can be felt in other ways.
Widely regarded as the quintessential mafia movie, The Godfather inspired countless imitation movies and TV shows, trying to replicate the famous franchise’s success and impact.
The film trilogy massively inspired even the popular HBO show The Sopranos. The famous strip club and central location of the show, Bada Bing, was named after the catchphrase James Caan’s character, Sonny, repeatedly recalls throughout the movie.
Nowadays, the phrase “Bada Bing” is associated heavily with The Sopranos, but it was coined on The Godfather first!
Another mega-popular mobster movie inspired by the legendary Godfather franchise is Martin Scorsese’s 1990s smash hit Goodfellas.
The movie received six Academy Award nominations, winning one—Best Actor for Joe Pesci—and five Golden Globe nominations.
Starring Robert De Niro, this movie was set slightly later than the Godfather movies, taking place across 1955 to 1980.
It is widely regarded as the second-best mafia movie of all time—quite an odd accolade, but quite an honor when you consider the greatness of what preceded it.
Treading the Boards
Another mega-famous and successful showbiz venture inspired by The Godfather is the super smash hit TV show Boardwalk Empire.
Also created by Martin Scorsese, this super slick show takes us back to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s. Though the story focuses on a different real-life crime family, the influence of The Godfather is clear to all viewers of this hit show.
The incredible inspiration The Godfather gave to all subsequent crime movies lives on even to this day and gives new meaning to the term “original gangster.”