Leave the gun. Take the cannoli. Movie Podcast Network presents… Considering the Cinema — A Podcast About Movies and Film Criticism by Jason Pyles. My topic for this episode is “A Very Scary Guy (Who Sleeps With the Fishes).”
In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola directed “The Godfather” and co-wrote the screenplay, along with the author of its original source material, Mario Puzo. Many people regard this film as a masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made. I feel the same way. “The Godfather” also won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
There’s a memorable character who’s played, perhaps, by an even more memorable “actor” who has become the stuff of legend: There’s so much lore around Lenny Montana’s “Luca Brasi” that it’s difficult to know what’s true and what’s not. I tried to sift through the facts as best I could, so I will try not to continue to propagate any falsehoods. You can straighten me out in the show notes for this episode, if I say something inaccurate or leave something out. But here are a few fascinating tidbits about this “very scary guy.”
Lenny Montana was an Italian-American who was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926. His real name was Leonard Passofaro. He was fluent in English and Italian. (I keep referring to him in past tense, because he died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 66.)
He began his career as a wrestler (as in “professional” or “fake” wrestling) in New Jersey in 1953. His ring names were The Zebra Kid, Chief Chewacki, Len Crosby, Lenny Passofaro, and of course, Lenny Montana. But in his wrestling days, he was best known as The Zebra Kid. As a wrestler, Montana was billed at a height of 6-foot, 6 inches, and later in life, I think he weighed around 320 lbs., according to my research.
He was tag team partners with “Golden Terror,” and together they won the New Jersey tag team titles in 1953. He gained popularity and began traveling around, getting more exposure. Montana won the NWA Central States Heavyweight Championship. He won many other championships, as well — especially tag team titles. You can read more about his “old-timey” wrestling history on his Wikipedia page.
Wrestling titles are scripted, so that doesn’t interest me as much (and I am a wrestling fan, by the way). But I would say the things of note from this time in his life are that Montana worked as a bouncer to earn extra money. He broke his leg during one of his wrestling matches. For you WWF / WWE fans, Montana was going to be Gorilla Monsoon’s tag team partner, but Monsoon teamed up with “The African Savage,” instead.
Montana was interested in acting, so he met with casting agents in Los Angeles and started wrestling less and less until his acting career launched in the early ‘70s.
But interestingly, Montana became involved with the Colombo Crime Family in the late 1960s. And much like his character in The Godfather, he was “the muscle.” He was employed as an “Enforcer” and an arsonist.
In fact, two little tidbits from his IMDb Trivia page (and a couple of other places) said Coppola asked Montana if he knew how to spin the cylinder of a revolver, and Montana said, “You kiddin’?” And “The Godfather’s” associate producer Gary Fredrickson said that Montana bragged to him about working for the Mafia as an arsonist. I guess for one of his methods as an arsonist he would dip a tampon in kerosene and tie it to the tail of a mouse. Then he would light it and the mouse would run like crazy through the building. Supposedly, he would also place a candle in front of a cuckoo clock so when the clock’s bird popped out and tipped the candle, the fire would begin (and he’d be long gone).
Eventually, Montana did serve some time in Rikers Island, which is a jail complex in The Bronx. After he got out of prison, Montana served as a bodyguard for many of the senior members of the Colombo Family.
I won’t go into it too much, because it seems like everybody’s aware of this, but Montana was so nervous about working with Marlon Brando that he kept messing up his lines in the scene when he wanted to thank Don Corleone for inviting him to his daughter’s wedding. I guess he messed up the lines and Coppola used it, and later added the scenes where he was practicing this speech.
I have also heard that Montana’s ability to look like he was being badly choked as a wrestler was part of the reason for casting him for the big strangulation scene. I remember the first time I saw that scene, I was convinced and genuinely disturbed. And speaking of that scene, when he enters that bar, there’s a fish etched on the door, kind of foreshadowing that Luca Brasi is gonna sleep with the fishes.
Lenny Montana was indeed “a very scary guy,” onscreen and apparently, at different points in his real life. What I love about that is much like the man’s real-life as muscle for the mob was reflected in parallel in this film, his nervousness toward Brando is also echoed in his character’s admiration for Vito Corleone. It’s so cool (and scary) how art imitates life, and vice versa.
Anyway, that’s just a little bit Lenny Montana. Let me know your thoughts about Luca Brasi in the show notes for Episode 002, which you can find at Considering the Cinema.com.
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