So just how many heads of the Corleone crime family have there been? Well there’s the Godfather himself Don Vito Corleone, and of course his youngest son Michael who took over when Vito retired, but across the movie trilogy (and a bit of expansion in the official novels) there have been 9 individuals who’ve sat on the throne to rule the most powerful crime family in cinematic history.
The Heads of the
Corleone Crime Family
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Boss - Vito Corleone, 1920-1954
Acting Boss - Sonny Corleone, 1945-1948
Boss - Michael Corleone, 1954-mid1970s and 1979-1980
Street Boss - Pete Clemenza, 1955-1958
Street Boss - Frank Pentangeli, 1958-1959
Acting Boss - Tom Hagan, 1958-1959
Street Boss - Ritchie Nobilio, 1959-1970s
Boss - Joey Zasa, mid1970s-1979
Boss - Vincent Mancini (Corleone), 1980-onwards
Vito [Andolini] Corleone
Don Corleone was known as a man of morals who put loyalty and family above all else. This is perhaps contrary to running the biggest organised crime family in the US, but his principles made him draw the line at prostitution, drugs and unnecessary violence. His criminal empire was built upon bootlegging during prohibition and cemented with gambling thereafter; harmless vices as he viewed them. He valued powerful and political connections and he wielded them like other families used brute force.
The Godfather was born Vito Andolini at the end of the 19th Century in the town of Corleone in Sicily. His father was killed by local Mafioso Don Cicci and his elder brother Paolo was murdered when he swore revenge. When his mother begged Don Cicci for mercy for young Vito she too was killed but Vito escaped, before he met the same fate. He was then smuggled off the island, on to an immigrant ship and onwards to Ellis Island. Immigration officials state-side named him Corleone mistaking his place of origin for his surname on the name tag hanging around his neck.
The Abbandando family in Hell’s Kitchen, with links to the Andolini’s in Corleone took him in and give him an honest job in their grocery store, but this was taken away from him when local Black Hander Don Funucci demanded that they give his nephew a job. Instead Vito learned to provide for his growing family with his new friends Pete Clemenza and Salvatore Tessio, by committing petty crimes. He quickly learned the value of performing favours in return for loyalty and established a reputation in the neighbourhood as a man of respect. When Don Fanucci demanded a share of their earnings Vito killed him. Fanucci lacked respect, prayed on the weak and he was not missed, meanwhile Vito’s reputation grew.
He and his good friend Genco Abbandando established Genco Pura, an olive oil import business and this served as a legitimate front for his ever expanding organised crime empire. Around 1920, coinciding with the start of prohibition, boom-time for the gangster, Vito formally established the Corleone crime family, with himself as Don; his loyal friend Abbandando as consiglieri; and Clemenza and Tessio as his caporegimes.
In the 1930’s Vito masterminded the rise of the Corleone family, becoming the dominate crime syndicate in New York after defeating Salvatore Maranzano in a brutal three year war, which became known as the Olive Oil War. On the back of the successful campaign, Vito created The Commission, which comprised the Dons of the other major Italian crime families across the US, of which he was the head. The Commission sought to control organised crime across the country, to minimise bloodshed and maximise profit – after all crime is a business and wars are expensive. This led to a sustained period of peace, which was only broken in 1945 when the other New York families became greedy. They all lined up behind Virgil ‘The Turk’ Sollozzo and his lucrative plan to import and distribute narcotics. For the plan to succeed, it needed the political connections of Don Corleone to make it work. Vito promptly turned Sollozzo down.
In an effort to force the hand of the Corleone family, Sollozzo attempted to assassinate Vito; believing that his eldest son Sonny Corleone, was ‘hot’ for the idea and as heir to the family throne would lead the Corleones into the drugs business. Sonny had other ideas and led the family into a bitter war with the other families.
Vito took three years to regain his fitness following the attempted assassination. During the Don’s convalescence, Sonny became acting boss, but his time as the head of the family was short lived when he became a casualty of the mob war in 1948. Following Sonny’s death Vito resumed his role as boss. He remained so for several more years until he felt comfortable enough to retire and leave the family in the hands of his youngest son, Michael.
Sonny Corleone –
Sonny was the eldest son of Vito and Carmela Corleone and once it became clear that he was never going to follow a legitimate career path, he was groomed to be the successor to his father, when the time came. He rose quickly in the crime family and developed a reputation as a ruthless and vicious leader, discovering a talent for urban warfare during the ‘Olive Oil War’ of 1933-34. He became a capo of his own crew by the time he was 18 years old and underboss six years later. However, he was unexpectedly thrust into the helm when his father was shot down and hospitalised in 1945 by men working for Vigil ‘The Turk’ Sollozzo.
The Turk tried to assassinate Don Vito Corleone when he refused to back his plans to import and distribute heroin. With his father neither dead not retired Sonny became the acting boss of the family until such time as his father was fit enough to resume control.
True to his fierce reputation, Sonny waged war against The Turk and against the other New York families that protected him. The war lasted for three years until Sonny was lured into a trap at a causeway toll booth and was brutally gunned down by Don Barzini’s men touting Tommy Guns.
Michael was never supposed to get caught up in the rackets like his father and older brothers Sonny and Fredo. Vito secretly hoped he could become an important political figure like a senator or governor. Similarly Michael did not want to get himself mixed up in the family business. Instead he chose to go to college and later enrolled in the Marines becoming a decorated war hero in World War II. However, he chose to get involved after the assassination attempt on his father. He helped to mastermind the hit on the men behind the assassination attempt, Vigil Sollozzo and Police Captain McClusky and after he killed them he fled to Sicily.
He spent two years in Sicily under the protection of Don Tommasino and he married a local girl, Appollonia, who was later killed in a car-bomb intended for him. During his time there he gained a deeper appreciation for his father’s work and the origins of the Mafia. After his brother’s death Don Vito Corleone negotiated his safe return home and together they began plotting the revenge against all the family’s enemies.
After serving as underboss to his father for several years, he took over as the head of the Corleone family when his father retired. As Don he wanted to legitimise the family, but not before settling the old scores and wipe-out the heads of the New York families along with traitorous capo Salvatore Tessio and brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi. In the execution of this mass extermination he displayed an even more ruthless quality than his father when it came to protecting his family’s interests.
Between the first and second movies in the Godfather trilogy, Michael in an attempt to go legit moved the family to Las Vegas and muscled in on the casino business. He took a step back from organised crime and he allowed loyal family capo Peter Clemenza to start his own family and run the criminal side of the Corleone business in New York.
By the mid-seventies Michael sold all of the casinos (watch Martin Scorsese’s Casino to see why) and returned to New York. He eventually let go of all remaining criminal activity and allowed Joey Zasa to become the official Head of the Corleone family.
Michael was forced to resume the Corleone crown once again when Zasa was murdered in 1979. This however was temporary and lasted only until Vincent Mancini took over a year later. He retired and lived out the rest of his lonely life in Sicily.
Pete Clemenza, Salvatore Tessio and Genco Abbandando all got in on the ground floor with Vito Corleone when he established the Corleone crime family. Abbandando became consigliere, and Clemenza and Tessio became caporegimes, heading up the Bronx and Brooklyn factions respectively.
When Michael Corleone became Don and moved to Las Vegas to front the ‘legitimate’ side of the business, Clemenza was given responsibility to start his own family under the Corleone name to front the ‘non-legitimate’ side of the business; he continued to run all the Corleone criminal activity in New York. Michael created this Street Boss role as a buffer to show he had no ties to the underworld and that Clemenza was the boss of the crime family.
His reign as Street Boss occurred between the end of the first Godfather movie and the start of the second and it lasted for three years until his death in 1958. He died of a heart attack, but it has been claimed his death may have been something more sinister at the hands of the Rosoto brothers – a rival faction in the family.
Frankie ‘Five Angels’ was an old and trusted friend of Don Vito Corleone and he became a capo in the family when Clemenza was promoted to Street Boss, taking over the Bronx faction when the family was shaken up. When Clemenza died Michael appointed Frankie Pants as his successor as Street Boss to continue the running of the Corleone criminal empire.
He endured a turbulent time in his short reign as the boss of New York thanks to the Rosoto brothers, Tony and Carmine. Before the Olive Oil War of 1933-34 the brothers were loyal to Guiseppe Mariposa a rival Don to Vito Corleone. After the defeat of Mariposa the brothers were brought into the Corleone family under Pete Clemenza in his Bronx faction, but they were always an unsettling influence. Following Clemenza’s death there was a territorial dispute between them and Pentangeli, which threatened to escalate into a civil war.
This dispute was used as leverage in the silent war between Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth, the aging Jewish gangster based on Meyer Lanskey. Roth backed the Rosota brothers’ power grab in an effort to destabilise Michael. Pentangeli however misinterpreted Michael’s actions and fearing for his life decided to cooperate with the FBI and testify against Michael in the Senate hearings into organised crime. Under pressure he later retracted his statement, but there was no going back for him. Tom Hagen subtly convinced him that the Corleone’s would continue to provide for his family if he followed the example of the insurrectionists against the Roman Empire and killed himself. He slit his wrists in the bathtub while under federal protection.
Tom Hagen was of mixed German and Irish heritage – making him the least likely of individuals to ever preside over an Italian American crime family, real of fictional. Both of his parents died when he was young and he lived rough on the streets for a while after running away from an orphanage. A young Sonny Corleone came across him one day and brought him home, where the Corleone’s raised him as one of their own. He went to law school and after graduation he started working as the family’s lawyer. Tom was smart, cunning and displayed finesse and a flair for diplomacy not present in the traditional Italian Mafiosos. After the death of consiglieri Genco Abbandando Hagen took on the role of advisor to the family – despite objections from the other New York families due to his non Italian heritage.
He remained in this role until Michael became Don and led them to war against the other New York families. Tom felt slighted to lose his position as consiglieri, but Michael required his guile to help front-up the legitimate gaming and casino side of the business and therefore chose to shield him from some of the more unsavoury details. In Nevada, Michael came to rely on his adopted brother more and more and as well as becoming the most interesting character in The Godfather trilogy he was also the only person Michael could really trust. It was this trust that allowed Tom Hagen to become acting boss.
At the start of The Godfather Part II Michael was the target of an attempted assassination. In an effort to find out who was responsible for the attack and who in his organisation betrayed him he relinquished complete control of the Corleone family and left it in the capable hands of Tom.
For a short time, the Kraut-Mick, smooth-talking son-of-bitch was the Don of the most powerful Mafia crime family in America. Not bad for a little orphaned German-Irish boy.
Richard ‘Ritchie Two Guns’ Nobilio does not appear in any of the Godfather trilogy movies, but he fills the New York leadership gap between Frankie Pentangeli at the end of The Godfather Part II and Joey Zasa at the start of The Godfather Part III. He’s a character taken from the official novels by Mark WineGardener, The Godfather Returns and The Godfather’s Revenge.
Ritchie Two Guns was unique among the wise guys; he wore cowboy boots and sunglasses and was very jovial, but far from being frowned upon for his eccentricities he was immensely popular within the family. He was a top-earner and developed a reputation for doing the dirty work – he was never afraid to get his hands dirty. The legend of Ritchie Two Guns and from where he garnered his alias stemmed from a hit that went wrong. His gun, complete with suppressor turned out to be empty when he came to use it. In the ensuring tangle he found another gun in his target’s house and used it to kill him. Naturally he was also referred to as Ritchie Lucky thereafter.
He was a vital part of Pete Clemenza’s regime when he was Street Boss and even more-so when Frankie Pentangeli took over. Following Pentangeli’s fall from grace and subsequent suicide Nobilio took over the Bronx faction and with it became Street Boss with Michael Corleone’s blessing. He was the family’s top earner and Michael had a great deal of respect for him.
The details of Zasa’s rise to prominence are a little hazy as his rise to power is not fully fleshed out in the official Godfather cannon. Like the Street Bosses before him, he came up through the Pete Clemenza’s Bronx regime. Clemenza had a real eye for spotting and developing talent. When Ritchie Nobilio retired in the mid-seventies control was passed to Zasa.
Joey Zasa had good timing. The 1970’s was around the time that Michael wanted to completely break away and sever all ties with organized crime. So instead of Zasa being Street Boss like Nobilio, Pentangeli and Clemenza before him, Michael, with the approval of the commission passed full and total control of the Corleone crime family over to Zasa.
He carried the respect of most of the family. He was known to be a ruthless boss, but with shrewd business judgement and part of the old guard who respected the traditional Sicilian ways. However, he was also quick to court publicity, entirely contrary to the Dons before him and was knee deep in the drug trade. Michael resented both of these aspects of the new Don and they were the foundation upon which a grown feud built between them.
Zasa failed in a plot to assassinate Michael Corleone and sabotage a deal he was making with the Vatican. In retaliation Vincent Mancini, Sonny Corleone’s illegitimate son killed Zasa during a street festival in Bensonhurst.
Michael, for all his efforts to legitimise the Corleone name and distance himself from organised crime, once again became the Don of the criminal organisation.
Vincent Mancini [Corleone]
You’ll know Lucy Mancini in The Godfather movie as Connie’s maid of honour and is seen at her wedding having sex with Sonny Corleone in the bathroom. From the original novel you’ll know her as the lady with the slack vagina who gets a little too much story time. Either way she has an illegitimate child to Sonny and this child was Vincent.
Vincent grew big and strong and just as physical as his father but he also inherited Sonny’s hot temper and short fuse. The Corleone’s never disowned him, but neither did they welcome him into the family inner circle. He eventually grew close to his Aunt Connie and uncle Michael reached out to him and offered him a role on the legal side of the business. Vincent though was a gangster through and through and declined the offer. He instead chose to work for Joey Zasa during his reign as Don of the Corleone family although the two of them never saw eye to eye.
Michael saw his brother in Vincent and also a bit of himself and so he took him under his wing in an attempt to prevent him making the same mistakes he did. Vincent saved Michael from Joeys Zasa’s attempted hit and he then later killed the traitorous Don for it.
Michael briefly and very reluctantly took control of the Corleone crime family in the wake of Zasa’s death, but began grooming Vincent to be the next boss. Vincent formerly became Don after he identified Michael’s true nemesis responsible for ordering his assassination, Don Altobello. He changed his last name from Mancini to Corleone and became Don Corleone the third.
What Happened Next?
Francis Ford Coppola has spoken about a rough script that Mario Puzo drafted before his death that might have become The Godfather Part IV. In the script Vincent basically ran the Corleone family into the ground. He got involved in the heroine trade, he undid everything Michael had ever done to legitimise the Corleone family and he eventually went down in a blaze of glory in a similar manner to the real life Pablo Escobar. This would supposedly be the end of the Corleone Crime Family.