Marlon Brando, arguably, may give the definitive performance of The Godfather as the legendary cinematic mob boss Don Corleone, but one of the film’s most memorable scene stealers is Lenny Montana, who is intimidatingly convincing as the Corleone Family’s trusted gun-for-hire Luca Brasi. That may be because Montana was, at one time, an actual mafia enforcer.
Yes, that is correct. A redditor recently dug up this fascinating bit of trivia on The Godfather. The mob activity depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award-winning gangster masterpiece was not all smoke and mirrors. In fact, Lenny Montana was not the only person to appear in The Godfather with real-life mafia connections. However, the story of how he was cast, and the on-set antics that ensued, is an especially intriguing one.
Born Leonardo Passafaro in 1926, the Italian-American made his first break into stardom was as a professional wrestler in the 1950s under the nickname "The Zebra Kid" before actually making his film debut as a grocer in the drama Change of Habit, starring Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore. However, it was not that uncredited role that got Francis Ford Coppola’s attention, inspiring him to cast him.
Lenny Montana was already on the set of The Godfather, working as a bodyguard for a mobster who was sent by the Italian-American Civil Rights League, as well as the Colombo crime family, to make sure the word “mafia” was never spoken in the film. When Francis Ford Coppola laid eyes on the 6’6”, 320-pound frame of the Brooklyn native, he knew he had found his Luca Brasi.
Apparently, the brutal hitman’s ironically soft-spoken demeanor, especially in scenes opposite Don Corleone, was inspired by Lenny Montana’s actual struggles to remember his lines, due to his nervousness in the presence of an acting legend like Marlon Brando. Despite his imposing appearance, the unlikely actor was generally well-received among the cast, that is, when he was not exhibiting behavior that makes Jared Leto’s bizarre method acting techniques on the set of Suicide Squad look like an elementary school Valentine’s Day card exchange.
For instance, according to associate producer Gray Fredrickson’s testimony to Vanity Fair, when Bettye McCartt, an assistant to The Godfather producer Al Ruddy, broke her watch, Lenny Montana replaced it with an antique, diamond encrusted timepiece as a gift from “the boys,” adding an ominous request to never “wear it in Florida.” Of course, that story sounds heartwarming when compared to his on-set stories of tying a kerosene-soaked tampon to a rat’s tail before lighting it on fire and letting it run around the building as one his primary methods of arson.
The Godfather opened the door for Lenny Montana to pursue a career acting in film and television, despite never managing to outgrow his most famous character. Rarely would he land a role without a criminal persona, such as a con man in the Steve Martin comedy The Jerk, a mobster’s bodyguard in an episode of the original Magnum, P.I., and even a variation of Luca Brasi in a 1973 Italian spoof of The Godfather.
Lenny Montana died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 66. He left behind a legacy as one of The Godfather’s sweetest, darkest, and most memorable cast members.