Sonny Corleone

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Santino Corleone
Santino corleone 2.jpg
James Caan as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather
First appearance The Godfather
Last appearance The Godfather: The Game
Created by Mario Puzo
Portrayed by James Caan
Roman Coppola
Nickname(s) Sonny (commonly used)
Gender Male
Occupation Mafia boss
Title Underboss, Acting boss
Family Corleone family
Spouse(s) Sandra Corleone
Children Vincent Corleone (illegitimate son with Lucy Mancini in the film series)
Relatives Deanna Dunn (sister-in-law)
Apollonia Vitelli-Corleone (sister-in-law)
Kay Adams-Corleone (sister-in-law)
Carlo Rizzi (brother-in-law)
Anthony Corleone (nephew)
Mary Corleone(niece)
Father Vito Corleone
Mother Carmela Corleone
Brother Fredo Corleone
Michael Corleone
Tom Hagen (adopted brother)
Sister Connie Corleone

Santino "Sonny" Corleone is a fictional character in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather and its 1972 film adaptation. The character also appears in various flashback sequences in the film's 1974 sequel, The Godfather Part II.

In the novel and film, he is the oldest son of New York City Mafia Don Vito Corleone and Carmela Corleone.[1] He has two brothers, Fredo and Michael, a sister, Connie, and an adopted brother, Tom Hagen. In the film, Sonny was portrayed by James Caan, who reprised his role for a flashback scene in Part II. Director Francis Ford Coppola's son Roman Coppola played Sonny as a boy in the 1920s scene of that film.

Novel and film biography[edit]

Sonny is depicted in both the novel and the movies as the most impulsive and violent of Vito's children and the most involved in his father's crime family. Sonny, at the age of 16, commits a robbery. His father learns about it from Peter Clemenza, who stood as godfather to Sonny. When Vito asks Sonny why he did this, Sonny tells him he saw Vito kill the feared "Black Hand" gangster Don Fanucci years earlier. He then tells his father, "I want to learn how to sell olive oil." Vito realizes what Sonny really means, and sends him to Clemenza for training.

Sonny "makes his bones" when he is 19. By his mid-20s, he has become a caporegime in his father's family. By the end of World War II, he is his father's underboss and heir apparent, respected and feared as a ruthless killer with an explosive temper. He is not without a softer side, however; at the age of 11, he takes in a homeless boy, Tom Hagen, who thereafter lives with the family and becomes Vito's consigliere. As the oldest child, Sonny serves as a protector to his younger siblings and is shown to have a very close relationship with his brother Michael and sister Connie. The novel also reveals that he cannot bring himself to harm women, children, or anyone who can't defend themselves.

Although Sonny has a wife, Sandra, and four children, he has several mistresses, including Lucy Mancini, who served as one of his sister's bridesmaids. In the novel, Sandra tolerates his infidelities because she can't take the size of his penis.

The normal course of events in Sonny’s life is upturned in 1945, when Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo comes to Vito with an offer of entering the narcotics trade, backed by the Tattaglia family. During the meeting, Sonny speaks out of turn and expresses interest in the plan. Vito refuses the offer, however, and Sollozzo tries to assassinate him in hopes that Sonny, as his father's successor, will go into business with him.

The assassination attempt fails but leaves Vito near death, although he eventually recovers. Sonny takes over as acting boss. When Sollozzo attempts a second unsuccessful assassination attempt on Vito as he is recovering in the hospital, Sonny orders the death of Bruno Tattaglia, son and underboss of Philip Tattaglia, who is an ally of Solozzo. Sonny then issues an ultimatum to the Tattaglias: turn over Sollozzo or face war. This sets off the first real conflict in the New York Mafia world for a decade.

Sonny's death.

Michael, who had previously distanced himself from the family's criminal enterprise, volunteers to kill Sollozzo and his bodyguard, police Captain McCluskey. Sonny is impressed by Michael's loyalty, but doubts that his "college boy" brother has it in him to commit murder. Additionally, Sonny is leery of killing a police officer, as it has long been a hard and fast rule in the American Mafia that police and other law enforcement officials are not to be harmed. However, Michael argues that since McCluskey is serving as Sollozzo's bodyguard, he has crossed into their world and is fair game. Sonny is ultimately persuaded and gives clearance for the hit. Sollozzo and McCluskey set a meeting with Michael in a small Italian restaurant in the Bronx. Michael kills them both with a gun secretly hidden beforehand in the restaurant men's room, and is sent immediately to Sicily to wait out the inevitable crackdown on the Five Families.

The war between the Families drags on and Sonny, unable to break the stalemate, begins ordering bloody raids that accomplish nothing. In retaliation, Don Emilio Barzini, the real mastermind of the conspiracy, enlists the help of Sonny's brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, in setting a trap for Sonny. Earlier, Sonny had savagely beaten Carlo upon learning that Carlo was abusing Connie. To draw Sonny out into the open, Carlo inflicts a particularly vicious beating on Connie. Sobbing, she telephones Sonny. In a fit of rage, Sonny speeds out of the family compound unaccompanied, and heads for Connie's apartment in Hell's Kitchen to confront Carlo. As Sonny approaches the Long Beach Causeway toll plaza, men emerge with tommy guns and gun him down before he can flee.

Vito realizes, during a meeting with the heads of the other crime families, that Barzini masterminded the ambush on Sonny. After Michael returns from Sicily, he and Vito secretly plan to wipe out the other New York Dons in order to avenge Sonny's death. The plan is finally carried out in 1955, eight years after Sonny's death. Michael also has Clemenza kill Carlo.

Role in Godfather sequels[edit]

As well as appearing in the original film, The Godfather, Sonny features in the sequel, The Godfather Part II. In this film, he briefly appears in some flashback scenes as an infant and as a young child. He makes a final appearance at the end of the story, in a scene that portrays Vito's birthday celebration in 1941. Michael announces that he has dropped out of college and enlisted to fight in World War II. Sonny is furious at the decision, and he berates his brother for risking his life "for a bunch of strangers." This flashback also reveals that Sonny introduced Carlo to Connie, and the rest of the family, which led to their marriage.

In The Godfather Part III, Vincent Corleone is introduced as the illegitimate child of Sonny and Lucy Mancini. Vincent succeeds Michael as head of the Corleone family at the end of the film. Vincent's existence in the film contradicts the literary universe, as Puzo's original novel stated that Lucy never bore a child with Sonny.


Behind the scenes[edit]

  • Coppola had the car radio play the broadcast of the baseball playoff game won by Bobby Thomson hitting the Shot Heard Round the World. This would place Sonny's death on October 3, 1951, contradicting the novel by several years.
  • Among the actors auditioning for the role of Michael during casting for The Godfather, one unknown off-Broadway actor named Robert De Niro also read for Sonny's part, as well as Michael's and Carlo's, without success. Raw footage of him in the scene where Paulie Gatto offers to kill Rizzi can be seen on the DVD. Eventually, Coppola cast Caan in the role and gave De Niro the part of Paulie, but he "traded" him to the film The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight for Al Pacino, who soon got the part of Michael. Anthony Perkins not only auditioned for Sonny, but also for Tom Hagen.
  • Originally Caan was to be cast as the main character Michael Corleone (Sonny's youngest brother), while Carmine Caridi was signed as Sonny. However Coppola demanded that the role of Michael be played by Al Pacino instead. The studio agreed to Pacino but insisted on having Caan be cast as Sonny, so he remained in the production.[3]

Cultural references[edit]

  • Sonny's death scene has been parodied several times on The Simpsons, including in the final scene of "All's Fair in Oven War", an episode in which Caan lent his voice. In that episode, the tollbooth death scene is re-enacted as part of Cletus Spuckler's revenge on Caan for "stealing" his wife Brandine's heart. The scene where Sonny beats Carlo Rizzi has also been parodied, in the episode "Strong Arms of the Ma".
  • Bill Simmons, a columnist for, frequently compares the "Sonny Corleone move" to the "Michael Corleone move" when referring to hasty, rash decisions that end badly when a patient, reasoned approach would have been far more successful. Often, this analogy applies to free agent signings and trades in the NBA.
  • Conan O'Brien also used the tollbooth scene in a parody on Conan, explaining how he was dropped from NBC.
  • In the HBO series The Sopranos, the fictional strip club Bada Bing is named after the catchphrase "bada bing" that Sonny uses to describe an up-close shooting.
Preceded by
Vito Corleone
Acting head of the Corleone crime family
The Godfather

ca. 1945–1946
Succeeded by
Michael Corleone


  1. ^ "Fact and Fiction in The Godfather". Retrieved 2014-06-24. 
  2. ^ Phillips, Gene D. (May 18, 2014). Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. University of Kentucky Press. p. 104. ISBN 9780813146713. 
  3. ^ Seal, Mark (2009-10-20). "The Godfather Wars | Culture". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 2011-03-07. 

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