Fact and Fiction in The Godfather
The Little Man, the Dapper Don, and the Moe Greene Special
Other characters in the "Godfather" films show close similarities to real-life gangsters. In "The Godfather, Part II," Michael Corleone matches wits with Hyman Roth, the old gangster spearheading the mob's attempts to control casino gambling in pre-Castro Cuba. Roth professes his devotion to the memory of Michael's father, but unlike the Corleones, Roth doesn't share their sense of family. He is first and foremost a hard-nosed businessman whose prime concern is the bottom line and how much of it will end up in his pocket. When the Cuban government falls to the Communist rebels, the mob flees the island, and Roth seeks sanctuary in Israel, but the Israeli government promptly sends him back to the United States.
Roth is obviously modeled on legendary gangster Meyer Lansky, who with Lucky Luciano transformed organized crime in America, creating a powerful national syndicate that they hoped would transcend the petty squabbling of individual ethnic groups. Some believed that Lansky was simply Luciano's "money man," but in fact he was just as dangerous with a gun as he was with an adding machine, though he was always smart enough to have others do the killing for him. In the 1920s, he paired up with Bugsy Siegel who served as Lansky's muscle. In the 1930s, Lansky would be the driving force behind Murder, Inc., a group of stone-cold killers organized to keep the national syndicate's business in order. Murder, Inc. was allegedly responsible for up to 500 murders. With that kind of man power behind him, no one challenged the "little man" as Lansky was often ironically called.
In the 1950s, Lansky maintained close ties with the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and orchestrated organized crime's casino gambling interests on the island, just as Roth does in "The Godfather, Part II." But the Communist revolution led by Fidel Castro disrupted the mob's big plans for Cuba as the movie shows.
In the film, Roth flees to Israel to take advantage of that country's Law of Return, whereby anyone born of a Jewish mother can be granted citizenship, but the Israeli government rejects Roth's request for citizenship and sends him back to America, where he's arrested. Lansky faced the same problem with Israeli authorities, but his troubles occurred in the early 1970s. After the Cuban debacle in the '50s, he continued to make piles of money for the mob, so much money that he was virtually immune from reprisals from other gangsters. He was simply too good at turning a profit. Even those who hated him didn't want to lose him.
His partner and close friend Lucky Luciano once said that he used to tell Lansky that "he may've had a Jewish mother, but someplace must have been wet-nursed by a Sicilian." Lansky in many ways was the perfect gangster, combining a natural gift for making money with the steely will to do whatever it took to accomplish his goals. He had no interest in the limelight, letting his flashier Sicilian colleagues make the headlines instead. Lucky Luciano, plagued with legal problems and exiled from America, never really got to see his dream of a national syndicate realized, but Lansky survived a heart attack and lived a long life, exploiting every possible angle the syndicate presented. When he died at the age of 81 in 1983, he was worth $400 million.
In "The Godfather, Part III," the aging Michael Corleone must contend with an upstart mobster with a short fuse named Joey Zasa, played by actor Joe Montegna. Zasa feels that he isn't getting his due from the Mafia commission, so he orders a dramatic mass hit on the commission delivered from a helicopter hovering outside the window of the hotel conference room where they've all gathered.
The well-dressed Zasa bears more than a passing resemblance to John Gotti, the Dapper Don of New York's Gambino family. Though Gotti never ordered a helicopter massacre on his enemies, he did pull off the bold assassination of his boss Paul Castellano in order to take over the family. Like Zasa, Gotti hosted annual street fairs in his Queens neighborhood, complete with free food and fireworks. But unlike Zasa, Gotti was not rubbed out in a hail of bullets on the street. In 2002, Gotti died of head and neck cancer in a federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri, while serving a life sentence.
In "The Godfather, Part III," Hyman Roth speaks angrily about the execution of the character Moe Greene, the man who invented Las Vegas, according to Roth. In real life, that distinction belongs to Bugsy Seigel, who built the Flamingo, the first posh casino-hotel in the Nevada desert.
Greene, played by Alex Rocco, appears briefly in "The Godfather, Part I," but very little about him resembles the hair-trigger Seigel who was whacked by a sniper while sitting in his Beverly Hills living room, reading the newspaper. Moe Greene's cinematic demise comes while getting a massage, a single bullet through eye and into the brain, shattering one lens of his glasses. "Godfather" fans have since referred to this particular method of execution as the "Moe Greene special."