The Godfather and Frank Sinatra have been linked by rumour and speculation for years through the character of Johnny Fontane. We look at the theories and conjecture on Sinatra’s influence on Fontane and also his own links to the real-life Mafia.

Written by , 23rd May 2023

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is one of the most famous and influential novels of the 20th century. Published in 1969, the book tells the story of the Corleone crime family and their struggles for power in the 1940s and 1950s New York world of organized crime. A best-seller as a book, the movie rights for The Godfather were quickly snapped up by Paramount Pictures, and it was adapted for the screen in 1972 by director Francis Ford Coppola. A critical darling and box office smash hit, the movie became a landmark of American cinema.

Both the novel and book revolve around the titular character and head of the Corleone family. This character starts off as Vito – played by Marlon Brando – and the film charts his succession by youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino). A cultural touchstone nowadays, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of The Godfather revolves around one of its lesser-seen characters.

In the film, Johnny Fontane is a famous singer and actor, and friend to the Corleone family. He was portrayed by real-life singer and actor Al Martino. It is widely believed that Fontane was based on the real-life experiences of legendary crooner Frank Sinatra, one of the most popular entertainers of the era. In this feature, we explore that theory, the reasons it has endured, and Sinatra’s much-discussed Mafia links.

Fontane and The Godfather

Mario Puzo was born in New York City in 1920. The son of Italian immigrants Antonio and Maria, Puzo grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. As a young man, Puzo was drawn to writing and enjoyed some moderate success with several published novels. Then, after reading about real-life organized crime families that operated in New York, he became interested in stories about the Mafia, and the seeds of The Godfather were sown.

The character of Johnny Fontane is a key figure in the opening act of The Godfather. A popular singer/actor desperate to make a comeback after a string of failed movies, Fontane visits Vito Corleone to ask for help: A powerful Hollywood producer is to give Fontane a part in an upcoming film and the Corleones use their connections and influence (as well as a horse’s head) to help Fontane secure the role.

Johnny Fontane in The Godfather

Johnny Fontane in The Godfather

What is perhaps most interesting about the character of Johnny Fontane is the way that he reflects the complex relationships between the worlds of entertainment and organized crime. In the world of The Godfather, these two worlds are intimately connected, with powerful gangsters exerting their influence over the entertainment industry in a variety of ways. Fontane’s story is a reminder of the dark side of show business, and the many ways that the desire for fame and fortune can lead people down dangerous paths.

Sinatra and the Mob

Over the years it has been speculated by critics and fans alike that Johnny Fontane is not an entirely fictional Puzo creation. That, in fact, he was based on one of the most famous singers in the world. When The Godfather was released in 1972, Frank Sinatra had been a star of stage and screen for close to 30 years. He was also part of the same mid-20th century social circles as Mario Puzo. Many of Sinatra’s acquaintances at that time were known members of the Mafia. Sinatra was reportedly friends with Sam Giancana, a prominent Chicago mob boss. They were known to socialize together, and Giancana was even said to have helped Sinatra in the early years of his career, using his contacts to line up gigs and meetings for the young singer. Sinatra was also believed to have had a friendship with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, one of the most powerful Mafia figures in the U.S. during the mid-20th century.

Frank Sinatra and the mob

Frank Sinatra and the mob

Fontane and Sinatra

There are several similarities between Frank Sinatra and the character of Johnny Fontane in The Godfather. Both men were popular entertainers who struggled to maintain their success in the face of changing times. Sinatra experienced a slump in his career in the 1950s and was desperate to make a comeback, much like Fontane in the 1940s-set film. Sinatra was also known for his close ties to powerful people in the entertainment industry, and was famously involved in the political world as well. A lifelong Democrat, Sinatra actively campaigned for several Democratic politicians, including John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman.

Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy

Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy

Despite the many similarities between Sinatra and Fontane, Mario Puzo always maintained that the character was not based on the singer – at least not directly. In interviews, Puzo claimed that Fontane was a composite of several different entertainers that he knew, and that he was not trying to create a portrait of Sinatra specifically. However, many people who knew Puzo and Sinatra have stated that the two men did know one another, and that it is very unlikely that Fontane was not based on Sinatra to some extent. In addition, Al Martino (who had a friendship with Sinatra and was signed to Sinatra’s record label, Reprise Records) reportedly said that he was told by Coppola to imitate Sinatra’s mannerisms and vocal style for the role of Fontane.

One of the reasons why Puzo may have been reluctant to admit that Fontane was based on Sinatra is the fact that the singer was notoriously touchy about his public image. Sinatra was known for his temper, and he did not take kindly to being portrayed in a negative light. In fact, when he heard that he might have been the inspiration for Fontane, Sinatra reportedly flew into a rage and threatened to sue Puzo and G.P. Putnam’s Sons – the publisher of The Godfather. There is also a popular story that suggests Sinatra confronted Puzo in a restaurant over the matter. According to the story, Sinatra was upset about Fontane’s resemblance to him and felt it was a negative portrayal. This anecdote has never been definitively confirmed by anybody involved and is often considered more of a rumor or urban legend. (Though it was realised in the 2022 miniseries The Offer, which chronicles the making of Coppola’s film).

The Fallout

Despite Sinatra’s anger, The Godfather went on to become one of the most successful movies of all time. While the character of Johnny Fontane has become an enduring symbol of the complicated relationship between entertainment and organized crime, his connection to Frank Sinatra has continued to generate controversy. Some of Sinatra’s friends and associates have claimed that the character was a thinly veiled version of the singer, and that Puzo had a personal vendetta against him. Others have disputed this, pointing out that Puzo denied any direct link between Fontane and Sinatra in interviews.

Today, fans of The Godfather continue to debate the true origins of Johnny Fontane, and to speculate about the character’s real-life inspiration. While we may never know the full story, one thing is certain: Fontane’s legacy lives on, and his story remains a powerful reminder of the many ways that the worlds of showbusiness and organized crime intersect.