Was Mario Puzo’s Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather based Frank Sinatra?
I was in high school in New Jersey when I first read Mario Puzo’s blockbuster The Godfather. Once I started reading it I couldn’t stop and kept reading all night. When my mother came downstairs in the morning I was lying on the couch still reading.
“Have you been up all night?” she asked. I was in the exact same position, stretched out on my belly, as when I’d said good night.
“Yes,” I said. “I couldn’t put it down.
This past week I read The Godfather again, fifty years later. There is much that I can say about the book, including the reasons it was so compelling, but the significant thing here is that one of the characters, Johnny Fontaine, was purportedly based on the real life Frank Sinatra.
There’s no question Puzo succeeded in creating a story filled with memorable scenes. The three Godfather films are all considered classic, with the first and second at the top of many lists as best films of all time.
Who doesn’t remember the line, “We’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”? Or hothead Sonny’s turnpike toll booth demise? Or the manner in which Johnny Fontaine gets his big break in Hollywood? (It wasn’t a headless horseman that shook that Hollywood mogul to the core and ruined his silk sheets.) And then there was the incomparable Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone…
The book’s pacing is nearly perfect, with carefully developed scene after scene populated by vivid characters. Each story within the story is assembled so reader anticipation is stretched to its limit, with every payoff worth waiting for.
As for Johnny Fontaine, or rather, the real life Frank Sinatra, here’s how the History Channel tells his story.
Frank Sinatra was many things: A crooner who could make bobby-soxers faint, an Academy Award-winning actor, the elder statesman of the Rat Pack. At the height of his career, it was rumored that “every woman wants to have him; every man wants to be him.” But his fans and detractors weren’t the only people who wanted a piece of Old Blue Eyes: So did the FBI.
The FBI kept eyes on him for more than four decades with thousands of pages of photos, notes and quotes. That he was chummy with mobsters in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia is well documented.
The central conflict in The Godfather has to do with the powerful “five families” in New York in which the most powerful Corleone family is being asked by another family to help in the “next big thing” which was the coming drug trade. Don Corleone’s “influence” extended to judges and politicians, which would make his family useful in the coming wave.
Because Don Corleone is old fashioned in his values he doesn’t see this as a good thing to be part of and withholds his support. A power game ensues. The manner in which the family ultimately disengages from its illegal New York activities-vice, gambling, etc.-and moves to Las Vegas to get into the legitimate casino business, is what this book is all about, along with the manner in which the baton of power is passed on to Michael (Al Pacino), the youngest and brightest of the Corleone boys.
The novel shows how Las Vegas began, and the manner in which Johnny Fontaine “paid back” his Godfather by bringing his L.A. friends to Vegas, which would attract fans and gamblers and action to the city that never sleeps.
Q: Why didn’t we see more of Johnny Fontaine in the film? He had a much higher profile in the book.
A: Sinatra had a lot of clout in Hollywood at the time the film came out (1972) and perhaps the moguls didn’t wish to damage his cred. More people watch movies than read novels, so having him sing at Connie’s wedding was enough to generate buzz.
Here’s the link to that History Channel story about Sinatra’s alleged mob ties and the FBI.
Trivia: Who were the members of the Rat Pack?
A: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop
Here’s the Duluth News Tribune story that triggered this blog post. The song was titled “From the Bottom of My Heart” was a dud, but for that skinny kid with those ocean blue eyes, it was a magic moment. What followed is now History.
Trivia: The Rat Pack used to hang out at The Sahara and eat at a classy restaurant called The House of Lords. For years I stayed at the Sahara when attending the annual SEMA Show, a major auto aftermarket event at the convention center. The lobster bisque at the House of Lords was the best ever and I can still taste it. Yumm.
Originally published earlier today at https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com.