Frank Sinatra POSITIVELY Inspired the Johnny Fontane Godfather Subplot

Moretti was killed in an empty restaurant at lunchtime.

Which mobster inspired The Godfather?

None of them. Mario Puzo told us that Don Vito Corleone was based on his mother. Why shouldn't we believe him?

The problem is that the historical focus has been misaligned. The big question was always, was Puzo writing from experience or research? 

In other words, take Francis Ford Coppola's reply in a recent NPR interview.

"I knew nothing about five crime families which had recently become exposed to the public with the publication of "The Valachi Papers." But neither did Mario Puzo, who was also Italian-American. But he knew nothing about it, and he wanted to write this book sort of to get some money for his family. He thought it could be commercial, and he did everything on research. He knew nothing. He never had met any of these figures, and he advised me never to meet them, which I never did.... "

The question: Well, WHAT research did he do exactly, was farther down the list and was much less frequently touched on.

(I have to interrupt  you to share a couple of more paragraphs from that same interview: "You know, I always - Mario Puzo was just a wonderful man. And I always took his advice to heart. And once when I was working on "Godfather Part III," which in my mind was the death of Michael Corleone title, I was in this video truck which had only one door. And there was a knock on the door and a fellow who was, you know, sort of helping me and guarding me, as it was, came in and says John Gotti is here and would like to come pay his respects.

"And, you know, I remember Mario Puzo saying never, never know them, never meet them, never be a friend of theirs because they're very charming. And I said, well, tell him I can't possibly do it. I'm busy, in the middle of something. And the fellow went out and told him and he just went away. You know, I always thought of these figures of the crime family sort of like the old myth of vampires, which a vampire can only come into your life if you invite him to step over your threshold.

INTERVIEWER: (Laughter).

COPPOLA: But if you don't invite him, then he - then they won't.

INTERVIEWER: I'm sure people who were in the mob would be very flattered to hear that comparison to vampires (laughter).

COPPOLA: Well, you know, unfortunately, they are Italians and Americans, but they were not human beings ... (They) acted beyond being like animals, in my opinion.

INTERVIEWER: Did you worry, though, that the film was setting the wrong example because the characters became such heroes of popular culture and there were Italian-Americans who felt that, like, you were discrediting Italian-Americans?

COPPOLA: Well, you know, in truth, I was worried about so many things during the making of...

INTERVIEWER: (Laughter) Yes.

COPPOLA: ...That movie.

If you have free time, check out that story --- but not until you finish this one, first, of course.)

 So how much of the Godfather, the entire story, is based on real Mafia history? The general plot of the Corleone brothers hunkering down and fighting the other New York families could have been based loosely on the Gallo brothers taking on Joseph Profaci.

That's a good thesis for a paper, meaning only that it's something that's arguable.

What makes the Johnny Fontane subplot different is that legend has it that it is based specifically on an incident that happened to Sinatra. Now is that true?

The short answer is YES. But let's take a short journey first and explore this. The journey, you know, is half the fun. We're tapping into something here that is part of America -- ok, enough of that B.S.

Historically we have clear evidence that something seriously pissed off Frank Sinatra, meaning that something had to stimulate a notorious confrontation between him and Mario Puzo.

We know that because Sinatra not only humiliated and abused Puzo one night in the hottest nightspot in Hollywood, Chasen's, but he did it in the coolest way imaginable. If you were a hot new best-selling author working on your first screenplay, it's probably the last place on the planet you'd want a celebrity of Sinatra's caliber handing you your ass in public.

It was a mutual wealthy friend who had the sudden notion to introduce the author and the crooner. Only instead of the cordial, "How do you do?" and handshake, the millionaire mutual friend got to behold quite a sight. The crooner harshly denigrated Puzo, literally blasted him with a barrage of insults, a verbal volley let loose in rapid fire by a consummate professional. It was a verbal sparring match between a featherweight amateur and a seasoned heavyweight pro. And Sinatra never once even looked up from  his plate the entire time....

So you have the cool, classy, polished Frank on one side, casually tucking into his food and literally verbally abusing between bites the living shit out of a perceived enemy.

Puzo is actually lucky Sinatra only used his words. The legendary songman, who died on May 14, 1998, at age 82 was allegedly "one of the most bad-tempered men in showbusiness."

"Don't get even, get mad," Frank was known to quip.

He blamed his "Sicilian temper" for his violent and abusive outbursts. One wife, Barbra, said there was "a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to Frank," another wife, the actress Mia Farrow, said he was a "24-Carat manic depressive". One thing was for sure, once Sinatra took offence, you were frozen out for good. . ... "

Then you have Mario, dumpy, fat, balding Mario Puzo. This guy...

Mario Puzo, author....

Nevertheless, Puzo not only tells us about the embarrassing incident (if he didn't, we likely wouldn't have never even learned about it), he includes multiple painful admissions. He was being honest. Sinatra made him feel like a worm that was worthy of nothing more than a heel slowly crushing it to death.Only Sinatra was able to intimate that Puzo was the kind of worm not worth dirtying any kind of heel.

The writer was in Hollywood at the time writing the screenplay for his bestseller -- the film is of course hailed as one of the greatest of all time -- when an unnamed "famous millionaire" friend invited the potbellied gambler/writer to a dinner party at Chasen's, the celebrity hotspot near Beverly Hills at the time. (It closed in 1995.)

Once at Chasen's, the millionaire wanted to introduce the author to Sinatra.So he brought Puzo over to the table where Sinatra was dining at the time. 

"'I'd like you to meet my good friend, Mario Puzo,'" the millionaire friend told Sinatra, according to Puzo. 

Sinatra, not looking up from his plate, replied: "'I don't think so. I don't want to meet him.'"

The millionaire apologized to Sinatra for upsetting him; Puzo tried to tell Sinatra the introduction that night -- well, it was not his idea.

"'Who told you to put that in the book, your publisher?'" Sinatra asked Puzo, he wrote.

Then, Sinatra "started to shout abuse," at Puzo, according to the author.

"I remember that, contrary to his reputation, he did not use foul language at all. The worst thing he called me was a pimp, which rather flattered me since I've never been able to get girlfriends to squeeze blackheads out of my back, much less hustle for me," Puzo wrote.

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." That really got to Puzo, he wrote, but not because he was scared of getting injured.

"What hurt was that here he was, a northern Italian, threatening me, a southern Italian, with physical violence. This was roughly equivalent to Einstein pulling a knife on Al Capone. It just wasn't done. Northern Italians never mess with Southern Italians except to get them put in jail or get them deported to some desert island."

Sinatra, again --never, not once so much as looking up from his plate, which is, let's face it, such a dope move -- continued berating Puzo, who just stared at the crooner, he wrote.

"Finally, I walked away and out of the restaurant. My humiliation must have showed because he yelled after me, 'Choke. Go ahead and choke.’”

But back to The Godfather and the Fontane subplot: Here's the answer (and the rub):

Yes, the Fontane story is specifically based on something in Sinatra's past. Only there's two versions, both supported by highly credible and solid sources. So, it's tempting to make a couple of conclusions here: either Puzo was inspired by one of two separate incidents, or two versions of one incident. Of course, this also could all be an accident -- Puzo made up a subplot that just happened to bear a striking resemblance to an historical incident (or two), meaning it may all just be a coincidence. Coincidence is one of my least favorite words in the English language.

Generally speaking (about the specifics of the Sinatra origin story), we have an interesting source claiming that the Mafia in the form of a pistol-packing Willie Moretti was indeed behind a threat to Dorsey.

The source is beyond dispute.

And he sort of tells the same story that Michael tells Kaye, below. Willie Moretti is Luca Brasi....

But there is additional information that reveals another mobster supposedly stood up for Frank Sinatra, and it was a member of the Chicago Outfit.

By the early 1950s, Willie Moretti was Genovese underboss (Frank Costello was boss) and he was supposedly deteriorating from syphilis. He had appeared before a congressional panel the previous December and his appearance was praised for its "refreshing frankness." Even though his information didn't lead to any direct arrests, the perception for Moretti was bad. Compounding it was that he already had a reputation for being chatty.  (About a decade prior to his murder, Costello supposedly ordered him to California for a "long rest." ) But it was after the December appearance that other mob leaders supposedly called for  his permanent ouster.

He was shot dead at Joe's Elbow Room in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, on Oct. 4, 1951. It was a seemingly well-orchestrated operation, almost shocking in its audacity. Several gunmen were at the restaurant,  showing up separately and in pairs, all packing .38s. One gunman drove up with Moretti. They boxed  him in inside the empty restaurant at around 11 am. They were chatting and laughing with Moretti in Italian right before they blasted him, the moment the waitress, and only witness, hustled into the kitchen to check the specials.

(Albert Anastasia lived three blocks from the restaurant. Fort Lee police brought him in the night of the murder. Anastasia said he was "unable to assist with the investigation." )

The source  putting the arm on Frank Costello 's underboss is none other than Tommy Dorsey himself. As per Sinatra: The Life, Tommy Dorsey said, “Three guys from New York City by way of Boston and New Jersey approached me and said they would like to buy Sinatra’s contract. I said “Like hell you will”. And they pulled out a gun and said, “You wanna sign the contract?” And I did.”

But later, before he died in 1956, and more than a decade before the Godfather was written, Dorsey clarified, noting:

“I was visited by Willie Moretti and a couple of his boys. Willie fingered a gun and told me he was glad to hear that I was letting Frank out of my deal. I took the hint.”

So we have that, right from the severed horse's head -- I mean right from the horse's mouth.

You know you're getting old when you wonder 
if an allusion to a 1970s film will fly over some readers' heads....

Now if only that were all... But no, seldom are these kinds of stories so neat and tidy....

Johnny Rosselli, the most visible of the Outfit's core members (and one whose public actions frequently telegraphed internal Outfit moves), was the gangster who helped Sinatra get the plumb role. Only Rosselli had a partly personal motive too. He had reason to screw with the big-shot Hollywood producer who was the model for Jack Woltz.

Gus Russo in The Outfit posits that it was Roselli who helped Sinatra and inspired the infamous Godfather subplot. His information is based on "a number of well-placed sources."

He noted that, back in the 1950s, "the once meteoric career of gangster hanger-on Frank Sinatra was in free fall. With his voice in great disrepair, his marriage to Ava Gardner failing fast, and his MGM film contract recently canceled, “The Voice” was believed by his closest friends to be on the verge of suicide. Meanwhile, Harry Cohn was casting for the World War II film From Here to Eternity."

Sinatra had read the book and loved it to the extent that he grew obsessed with playing one specific part: the role of Private Angelo Maggio, "a scrawny Italian-American soldier with a heart bigger than that of GI Joe."

Hollywood insiders and others were certain the film would be a smash and win a bevy of Oscar nominations the following year.

The only problem was that Harry Cohn wanted seasoned professional actors involved with the project. Sinatra at the time didn't fall into that category.

Sinatra tried everything, turning to all his Hollywood royalty friends. Still, Cohn wouldn't budge.

"At this point, according to a number of well-placed sources, Sinatra enlisted the aid of the Outfit’s Johnny Rosselli. News reports initially surfaced that noted New York Commission boss Frank Costello was telling friends that his longtime pal Frank Sinatra had approached him for help with the Cohn situation.

Columnist John J. Miller told writer Kitty Kelley that this was not uncommon. “Sinatra and Frank C. were great pals,” Miller noted. “I know because I used to sit with Frank C. at the Copa and Sinatra would join us all the time. He was always asking favors of the old man, and whenever Sinatra had a problem, he went to Frank C. to solve it.”

"Apparently, this newest accommodation was facilitated by the Outfit’s Johnny Rosselli.

"Although studio executives have denied that a Rosselli intervention ever took place, Rosselli admitted his role to his niece shortly before his death many years later. Former publicist and Rosselli pal Joe Seide said in 1989 that one of Costello’s key men told him how he had flown to L.A. to enlist the Outfit’s Rosselli in the cause.

According to Seide: “Johnny Rosselli was the go-between. Johnny was the one who talked to Harry - he was the one who laid it out. That was serious business. It was in the form of ’Look, you do this for me and maybe we won’t do this to you.’ . . . It wasn’t even a secret in the business.”

From Here to Eternity was nominated in ten categories for the 1953 Academy Awards, winning eight of the coveted statuettes. Among the winners was Frank Sinatra.

PS: Me personally, I believe the  Dorsey story. Any anecdote that involves Frank Costello, in any way, I'm suspicious of because of the Walter Winchell friendship... Now if Russo told us who the highly placed sources were, that would be interesting. And  why would the sources even request anonymity 50 years after the fact. I think Russo is excellent and his book required reading. I'm stating an opinion outside the story.