Why you should care
Because offers you can’t refuse are offers you need to heed.
“Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter’s wedding …”
Luca Brasi, a character created by novelist Mario Puzo for what eventually became director Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, stumbles over the line. Swallowing, he tries again, after a long pause during which he and Marlon Brando as Don Corleone stare at each other, “… on the day of your daughter’s wedding.”
And that is how a star was born. The star in question was the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Leonardo Passafaro, aka Lenny “Bull” Montana, and he showed up a few days before the scene was shot as anything other than an actor.
“He was what he was ‘acting’ like he was,” says New York filmmaker Drew Stone, who worked with Montana in the 1980s. “He had shown up to do security for one of Coppola’s ‘technical advisers.’”
Well before The Godfather was completed, the movie had already started to raise hackles, specifically those of Italian celebrities, as well as men later connected to what even the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover had publicly refused to acknowledge the existence of: the Mafia.
They expected the movie to be a defamatory depiction of people who had nothing to do with organized crime. Which is to say that there was no way Coppola was going to get the movie made, no matter how many studios were supporting it, if the mob didn’t stop standing in the way.
So in a burst of think-tank-level thinking, Coppola invited high-ranking Mafioso to the set. Montana, an enforcer and a former professional wrestler from Brooklyn, happened to be protecting a ranking officer in the Colombo crime family; according to a 2009 Vanity Fair piece on the production, Coppola “fell in love with him immediately.” It also helped that the actor originally slated to play Brasi had just died of a heart attack. After concessions that included removing the word “Mafia” from the script, Montana accepted the part.
After a little over 10 minutes of screen time, it was clear that Lenny Montana had himself a new career. Real-life mobsters sometimes do go to jail. Montana himself had done time, at New York’s infamous Rikers Island, and he had no interest in returning to prison.
In short order post–The Godfather, Montana appeared in comedies, dramas, action/adventure movies and even kung fu flicks. He co-starred with everyone from Frank Sinatra, who had been one of the early voices initially opposed to The Godfather, to Richard Gere, Telly Savalas and Tom Selleck. Montana even ended up co-writing a movie. There was no more punching people in the face or burning down buildings — Montana talked openly about his time as an arsonist — and, best of all, no more jail. And all because of the raw power of that first performance.
“You never forget how he goes — it’s a death scene as bad as [Akim] Tamiroff in Touch of Evil or that girl in Hitchcock’s Frenzy,” says film critic Richard von Busack. “He dies staring straight at us. He’s also very gentle, though, running through that little speech and trying to get it right. In Montana’s case, it’s another example of how professional wrestlers can be really good actors.”
When you consider that the image of Montana, who died of a heart attack in 1992, at age 66, as Luca Brasi continues to appear, now in video games, you get some sense of the enduring power of both cinema and the man who was broad and strong enough to carry it.
That appeal recalls the Robert Warshaw essay about the two things we get from gangster movies: One, when we see a gangster alone on-screen we know he’s a goner; and two, that the gangster movie opposes the happy talk of American culture where “euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of an idiot.”
“Here,” according to von Busack, “people are allowed to fail and die.”
Sort of like real life. “When we worked together,” Stone says, “I was just a lowly production assistant [PA] but me and the other PAs spent all of our time just begging [Montana]: ‘Do Luca! Please do Luca!’ And he categorically refused. But we didn’t stop and so one day he just paused … and did Luca! One of the single greatest film set moments of my life.”
Score one for the authentic. And another, just to be on the safe side, for Lenny Montana, who, by choosing art over crime, honored his better angels in the only way he knew how. Beautifully.