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`Godfather' tale was myth based on mob links

LEGEND holds that the struggling singer Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather, who used his Mob connections to get his big break in Hollywood, was based on the life of Frank Sinatra.

In the film, Fontaine gets a part after Don Corleone makes the producer `an offer he can't refuse' by dumping a horse's head in his bed.

In the folklore of popular culture, the scene is said to reflect the way Sinatra got his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity.

Eager to clear up the mystery, Sinatra's daughter Nancy, who wrote a memoir of her father, Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, questioned Mario Puzo, who wrote the book The Godfather and partly wrote the screenplay. `The horse's head in the producer's bed was totally my imagination,' Puzo admitted. `I made it up based on Sicilian folklore. In the old days, they would kill a man's favourite animal and hang it up as a warning.'

Puzo did confess, however, that the character of Fontaine had been inspired by the young Sinatra's contract-fight with the band-leader Tommy Dorsey in 1942. Dorsey had tried to stop Sinatra from quitting his band and to hold him to a contract taking 43 per cent of his earnings for life.

A furious Sinatra started performing solo and, when Dorsey demanded his cut, was said to have sent round a couple of heavies to get his signature on a document ending their contract.

At the time, it was reported that Sinatra had used his friends in the Mob to do the dirty work and that a New Jersey mafioso had put a gun to Dorsey's head.

Sinatra insisted that he had relied solely on the talents of his legal team. His recent biographer says the thugs were just a couple of street toughs hired by the singer's right-hand man.

Puzo told Nancy Sinatra: `I think I just picked it up from one of those gossip columns. I constructed a persona based on his [Sinatra's] legend. I made up the line `I'll make you an offer you can't refuse.' '

The Sinatra family insists that his ties to the Mafia were nothing extraordinary for a popular entertainer in the era following Prohibition, when the Mob had moved into the music business, taking over night-clubs and casinos and building a new Havana in Las Vegas. `Of course my father worked for the Mafia. Everyone in showbiz did,' Nancy once said. `His Mafia trail runs from his Hoboken days to Las Vegas.'

But Sinatra's name was not tarnished simply because it ended in a vowel. Over the years, he consorted with powerful gangstersfrom Lucky Luciano to Carlo Gambino.

Angered by his growing reputation as a Mafia stooge, he once punched a gossip columnist who had started calling him Frank `Lucky' Sinatra, and he spent a small fortune fighting publication of Kitty Kelley's muck-raking 1986 biography His Way.

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Sinatra's readiness to meet the chieftains of organised crime got him into trouble for the very first. In 1947, a friend from his native Hoboken asked if the crooner would like to meet Luciano, the boss of the Cosa Nostra crime syndicate. Sinatra accepted the invitation to Havana, where Luciano was then living.

What the young singer did not apparently understand was that his performance at an `Italian-American gala' was in fact a cover for the first full-scale gathering of the American underworld since a meeting in Chicago in 1932.

Sinatra's friendship with the Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana, and their involvement with John F. Kennedy, remains the most damning evidence of a sinister relationship with the Mafia. Sinatra had met Giancana in the Fifties while performing for charity benefits in the `Windy City' that the mobster sponsored to please his wife. Soon, Sinatra had introduced both the Mob boss and the future President to a go-between named Judith Exner. According to her, Giancana helped Kennedy win swing states in the 1960 presidential election and paid him with cash that she transferred.

The Mafia don was mortified when the newly elected President Kennedy appointed his crime-fighting brother Bobby as Attorney-General. He asked Sinatra to intervene.

THE TIMES, LONDON


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