The Time Frank Sinatra Berated Mario Puzo For His Assumed Likeness in 'The Godfather'

Frank Sinatra in a recording studio in 1956.
GAB Archive/Redferns

Frank Sinatra in a recording studio in 1956.

To commemorate Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, a look back at whether a key role in "The Godfather" was really based on him.

Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather received acclaim when released in 1969, but not everyone was a fan. Frank Sinatra was not pleased.

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Sinatra would have turned 100 on Saturday, Dec. 12. One of many tales intertwined with the legend's career is the persistent rumor that he was basis for singer (and Vito Corleone godson) Johnny Fontane -- the similarities were so striking, in fact, even Sinatra was convinced.

Sinatra was so mad about the apparent similarities, he berated Puzo one night in a Los Angeles hotspot, according to a August 1972 New York Magazine piece by The Godfather author.

The writer was busy working on the screenplay for his bestseller in Hollywood -- which would go on to be hailed as one of the greatest films of all time -- when he was invited by an unnamed "famous millionaire" friend to a dinner party at Chasen's -- a then celebrity hotspot near Beverly Hills, which opened in 1936 and closed in 1995, Puzo recounted in the magazine article.  

Once there, the millionaire wanted to introduce the author to another friend: Sinatra.

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"'I'd like you to meet my good friend, Mario Puzo,'" said the millionaire friend, according to Puzo, to which Sinatra, not looking up from his plate, replied: "'I don't think so. I don't want to meet him.'"

It had been rumored Sinatra had connections to organized crime which allowed to him make certain career moves, including allegedly breaking a contract through threat of violence. In Puzo's novel, Johnny Fontane's singing and acting career is helped thanks to his mafia connections. Singer Al Martino played Johnny Fontane in The Godfather and The Godfather: Part III. Martino died in 2009 at age 82.

In the director's commentary on Blu Ray for The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola briefly mentions Sinatra during Fontane's first appearance. "Obviously Johnny Fontane was inspired by a kind of Frank Sinatra character," Coppola said on the commentary track.

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Sinatra, who won an Oscar for his performance in 1953's From Here to Eternity, was irate and disgusted when the two finally met in the restaurant, according to Puzo's article in New York.

The millionaire apologized to Sinatra for upsetting him; Puzo tried to tell Sinatra the introduction 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 girlfriend to squeeze blackheads out of my back, much less hustle for me," Puzo wrote in '72.

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," Puzzo wrote in New York. "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 not looking up from his plate, continued to scold Puzo while the author 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.’”

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