With ‘The Godfather,’ Art Imitated Mafia Life. And Vice Versa.

A table for five at CaSa Bella in Little Italy in the late 1970s included a few mobsters, a girlfriend and the man they knew as Donnie Brasco, actually an undercover FBI agent. There was business to discuss, but then the mood lightened.

“The restaurant’s strolling guitarist came to our table,” the agent, Joseph Pistone, wrote years later in a memoir. The girlfriend spoke up: “Louise requested the theme from ‘The Godfather.’” The guitarist obliged, and even knew the version with words.

Years later, in 2005, two New York mobsters were heard in a recorded telephone call talking about a third man, Anthony “Ace” Aiello, who was under investigation in a criminal case. “Ace Aiello is like a Luca Brasi,” one mobster told the other, according to a court document. An agent seeking Aiello’s arrest helpfully added in a footnote: “Brasi was a hit man for the fictional Corleone family.”

And in 2018, yet another familiar reference surfaced in a wiretapped call between Joseph Amato, a mobster, and an associate who was set to become a “made man” in a secret ceremony the following day but was in fact a confidential informant. Amato urged the man to dress appropriately.

“You’re gonna look like Barzini, or what?” he asked, a reference to the sharp-dressing Don played in the film by Richard Conte. The informant chuckled, and replied, “Barzini.”

Mario Puzo, who wrote “The Godfather,” has said that the novel’s keenly observed depictions came from his meticulous research. But since the movie premiered half a century ago, this prime example of art imitating Mafia life has gone on to work in the other direction, too. Generations of mobsters have looked to “The Godfather” for inspiration, validation and as a playbook for how to speak and act and dress, as seen in law enforcement wiretaps and through interviews with some of the players themselves.

The infamous former mob enforcer Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who has admitted to participating in 19 murders, was a young man just entering the world of mobsters when he first saw the film, and he took it as a sign that he was on the right path. “I looked up to them,” he recalled in a telephone interview, “even more than I ever did.”

“It was so true to life,” he said. “Not just the Mafia life, but the parts of being Italian, the wedding, the whole nine yards. It seemed like it was us, Italians, and our heritage.”

At first, the film was viewed as a threat to that heritage. Before filming began in 1971, Anthony Colombo campaigned to purge the words “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” from the screenplay on behalf of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which had been founded by his father, the organized crime figure Joseph A. Colombo Sr. Fearing labor troubles and interference during filming, particularly in New York, the producers agreed.

But soon after the film opened, it was embraced by many in the underworld it depicted.

“Many wiseguys rejoiced in viewing the original film multiple times,” Selwyn Rabb, a veteran writer on organized crime, wrote in his definitive tome, “The Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires” (2014 ).

“Federal and local investigators on surveillance duty saw and heard made men and wannabes imitating the mannerisms and language of the screen gangsters,” he wrote. “They endlessly played the movie’s captivating musical score, as if it were their private national anthem, at parties and weddings. The film validated their lifestyles and decisions to join the Mob and accept its creed.”

Mob relatives and associates, and mobsters themselves, have reflected on the way the film electrified them. In a memoir, Lynda Milito, the wife of a mobster who was killed in the 1980s — Gravano has admitted to being present — recalled her husband’s obsession with “The Godfather.”

“Louie got a copy and watched it like six thousand times,” Milito wrote in “Mafia Wife: My Story of Love, Murder, and Madness” (2012). She added that “the guys who came to our house were all acting like ‘Godfather’ actors, kissing and hugging even more than they did before and coming out with lines from the movie.”

Nicolas Pileggi, the author of “Wiseguy” (1985), the book that inspired the film “Goodfellas,” said that Henry Hill, the real-life mobster at the story’s center, once told him about going to see “The Godfather.”

Hill recalled piling into a car with the gangsters who were later played in “Goodfellas” by the actors Paul Sorvino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci to catch an early screening. He told Pileggi he had “felt sort of enlarged by it” and that the movie “was about us.”

“These guys never really had movies that were made about them,” Pileggi said. “They had Edward G. Robinson, Bogart, Jimmy Cagney.”

“The Godfather” and other Mafia movies didn’t just depict the mob, they defined the mob for itself and provided visual and social cues, Diego Gambetta, a sociologist, wrote in “Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate” (2009) . “How a real mobster should look, dress and behave are issues for which there is no optimal technical solution,” he wrote, noting that they “cannot for instance devise a company jingle and make it known to everyone without getting caught.”

“Movies,” he wrote, “can accidentally offer some solutions to these problems.”

“The Godfather” offered that and much more to the young Gravano, a boy born in the Italian enclave of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1945. A tough kid, he was a member of a neighborhood gang called the Rampers before he joined the US Army at 19. When he came home at 21, he found all his old Rampers pals had joined the Mafia.

A mobster told him, “You’ve got to belong to a family or you can’t do anything. You can’t own a bar, you can’t own a club, you can’t do nothing,” Gravano recalled.

And so Salvatore Gravano became “Sammy the Bull.” And a couple of years later, in 1972, I saw the movie.

“I was stunned,” he said. The movie, and a father figure he admired in the Colombo crime family, put him on a clear path. “My dream was to become a gangster, to be honest with you.”

Gravano would eventually wind up in the Gambino family and rise to No. 2, the underboss to John Gotti, the boss of what was then believed to be America’s most powerful crime family. Along the way, he said, he sometimes found himself looking back to “The Godfather” for guidance.

One scene that stayed with him: when the Corleones sit down with an associate of another family to discuss entering the drug trade. Vito Corleone says no, but his hothead is from him, Sonny, interjects. Vito laments: “I have a sentimental weakness for my children, and I spoil them, as you can see. They talk when they should listen.” He then privately scolds Sonny: “Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.”

That scene imprinted on the young Gravano, who said he had given versions of that order many times. “I would tell people: If you open your mouth, have an opinion to do something, they’ll know you’re a weak link,” he said.

He always related most closely with one character. “I literally see myself as Michael Corleone,” he said. “I was in the military, I came home and I went in the Mafia. I abided by the rules and regulations, I stayed quiet. I stayed a family man with my wife and kids.”

Gravano, who was so moved as a young man by a saga of the Mafia’s allure, went on to play a major role in the organization’s undoing. He became a cooperating federal witness and testified against Gotti and others in return for a five-year prison term and entry into the witness protection program. Gravano blames Gotti, who became known as the “The Dapper Don,” for the whole thing falling apart.

“Gotti, in his flamboyant ways, broke every rule in the book,” he said. “He did more damage to the Mafia than 10 people who cooperated put together. You never saw any Mafioso do what he did.”

Benjamin Brafman, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who has in the past represented defendants in organized crime cases, sees “The Godfather” as a postcard from the past. “It glorified an era I don’t think exists anymore,” he said.

Sammy the Bull would agree. Gravano left witness protection years ago and, turning 77 this month, shares stories from his life in a podcast, “Our Thing,” from a studio outside of Phoenix. He said that he doesn’t envy what passes for today’s mobster, unrecognizable to the Corleones. But he still thinks of the movie.

“Here I am, 100 years later,” he chuckled, “still quoting ‘The Godfather.’”

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