Real Life Don Corleone

History Uncovered Episode 41:
The Real-Life Gangsters Behind Don Corleone

Published September 29, 2023

Discover the stories of power, money, and murder that inspired The Godfather and meet the real-life kingpins who influenced the characterof Don Corleone.

When The Godfather premiered in 1972, its depiction of the American Mafia both stunned and fascinated audiences who’d never seen anything quite like it ever before. A commercial and critical smash, the film went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando, who played the film’s iconic mob boss, Don Vito Corleone. But what most audiences probably didn’t realize at the time was that Don Corleone was much more than just a fictional creation.

In fact, Corleone was inspired by a number of real-life crime bosses whose real stories were far more dramatic than anything that could ever be put on screen. Though Mario Puzo, the author of the bestselling book The Godfather (1969) says the book came from “research” and that he never met a “real, honest-to-god gangster” Corleone certainly resembles some real-life figures.

More than any other single figure, Corleone bears a striking resemblance to New York kingpin Frank Costello. Both men were born in Italy in 1891, both made their way to America — Costello immigrated with his family, Corleone had to flee a mobster who killed his father — and both started their lives making an honest living, working in grocery stores.

Frank Costello The Real-Life Don Corleone

NY Daily News Archive via Getty ImagesAn early mugshot of Frank Costello taken sometime in the 1940s.

But once ashore in the United States, both Corleone and Costello also drifted toward a life of crime.

Some parts of Corleone’s character, however, also resemble bosses Joe Profaci, who similarly operated a successful business as a front to his more shady dealings, and Carlo Gambino who, like Corleone, died at home of natural causes, despite the violent life he’d led.

“Those are the three mafia leaders who inspired and contributed to the characterization of Don Corleone,” Mafia historian Anthony M. DeStefano explained. “It’s a blend of all three.”

What’s more, The Godfather weaves together several plot lines that mirror real-life events in the largely hidden history of the American Mafia. Mario Puzo, succeeded in building an intensely detailed world inspired by actual people and events, despite the fact that he’d never actually met any gangsters in real life.

Yet of all the beloved characters in The Godfather, no one left quite the same impression as Don Corleone. And surprising though it may be, this larger-than-life character was based in reality in more ways than one.

Learn more about the stories of mob bosses Frank Costello and Carlo Gambino.

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