Fact and Fiction in The Godfather
In "The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions," Mario Puzo describes a couple of unpleasant encounters he had with singer Frank Sinatra, who was allegedly furious with Puzo for creating the character Johnny Fontane. Like Sinatra, Fontane is a crooner adored by the bobbysoxers of the 1940s. Fontane seeks his Godfather's help in landing a role in an upcoming movie, an opportunity that Fontane feels will salvage his career. Most viewers assume that Puzo was referring to Sinatra's efforts to land the part of Maggio in "From Here to Eternity" at a time when his career was in the doldrums. Puzo remained coy when it came to the topic of Sinatra and never actually came right out and said that Johnny Fontane wasn't based on Old Blue Eyes, but it's a connection that's hard to deny, given the similarities between the real singer and fictional one.
Puzo describes an incident that took place at Chasen's restaurant in Los Angeles where Sinatra refused to meet Puzo and shouted angrily at the author, calling him a "pimp." The press had linked Sinatra with the Mafia on many occasions, and Puzo's character seemed to support those allegations. Sinatra's connections to the mob have been well-documented over the years, but perhaps what really riled the singer were the fictional aspects of Johnny Fontane that had no basis in truth.
In "The Godfather, Part I," a spiteful movie producer named Jack Woltz refuses to give Johnny Fontane a movie role that would be perfect for him. Don Corleone sends consigliere Tom Hagen as his emissary to try to change Woltz's mind, but the producer becomes enraged when he finds out who Hagen represents and hurls insults at the Corleone family and at Italians in general. Hagen doesn't get angry; he just lets it roll off his back. The next morning Woltz wakes up to find himself and his bed covered in blood. He whips off the covers and finds the severed head of his prized racehorse Khartoum. Within hours, Fontane is offered the part.
Many fans of "The Godfather" assume that Woltz is the fictional incarnation of Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn, and that the mob leaned on Cohn to force him to hire Sinatra for the part of Maggio in "From Here to Eternity." But in truth, the Mafia had nothing to do with it. Actor Eli Wallach was the studio's first choice for the role, but the script called for a fight scene where the diminutive Maggio is beaten to a pulp by a vindictive sergeant played by Ernest Borgnine. When they put Wallach and Borgnine together, Wallach, who had an athletic physique at the time, didn't look puny enough by comparison. Sinatra, who had a 29-inch waist and was Italian-American just like the character, was offered the role instead because he looked right. (Many years later Wallach would play the duplicitous Don Altobelli in "The Godfather, Part III.")
But the mob did step in on Sinatra's behalf earlier in his career when he had problems with big-band leader Tommy Dorsey. Eager to get more exposure with a nationally known band, the 24-year-old Sinatra left trumpeter Harry James's band and signed on with trombonist Tommy Dorsey. Sinatra's ambitions apparently clouded his thinking when he agreed to Dorsey's onerous terms. For a chance to sing in Dorsey's band, Sinatra would have to pay the band leader one-third of all his earnings for life as well as 10% off the top to Dorsey's agent. Sinatra's popularity soared with Dorsey, but it soon became obvious that people were paying to hear Sinatra, not the band.
In 1943, Sinatra attempted to buy out his contract, offering Dorsey $60,000 to dissolve their relationship, but Dorsey turned him down. Sinatra was worth a lot more, and Dorsey wasn't about to sell his golden goose. That's when Dorsey received an unexpected visit from three gentlemen who, according to Sinatra biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, "talked out of the sides of their mouths and ordered [Dorsey] to 'sign or else.'"
New Jersey mob boss Willie Moretti had always been a big fan of the skinny crooner from Hoboken, and he looked out for Sinatra's interests. Rumor has it that Moretti himself was one of Dorsey's three visitors, and he was the one who made the bandleader an offer he couldn't refuse by sticking the barrel of a gun into the trombonist's mouth. Dorsey abruptly changed his mind and agreed to rip up Sinatra's contract in exchange for one dollar.