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 (as a child)
|Nickname(s)||Sonny (commonly used)|
|Children||Francesca and Kathryn (twins)
Vincent Corleone (with Lucy Mancini)
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 eldest son of New York City Mafia Don Vito Corleone and Carmela Corleone. He has two brothers, Fredo and Michael, an adoptive brother, Tom Hagen, and a sister, Connie. 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.
Synopsis of Sonny Corleone 
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 criminal operations. Sonny, when he was 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 that he saw his father kill the blackhander Don Fanucci years earlier. He then tells his father, "I want to enter the family business ... I can 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, and soon afterward becomes a capo 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 the family's consigliere. As the oldest child, he 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 book 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 frequently cheats on her with other women, including Lucy Mancini, who served as one of his sister's bridesmaids. The normal course of events in Sonny’s life is upturned when Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo comes to Don 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 family boss 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.
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, despite his violent streak, 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, Sonny ultimately gives Michael the clearance to carry out the hit after Michael convinces him that since McCluskey is serving as Sollozzo's bodyguard, he has crossed into their world and is fair game. While Sonny is willing and even eager to do the job himself, he is overruled because he is the acting head of the Family and cannot be risked. 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 is unable to break the stalemate and begins ordering violent and 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, a vengeful Carlo inflicts a particularly vicious beating on Connie using his belt. 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.
Sonny's death does not go unavenged, however. Vito realises, during a meeting with the heads of the other crime families, that Barzini was responsible, and following Michael's ascension to power Michael orders the deaths of the mafia heads to cement his position as the most powerful mafia head in New York. Michael also has Clemenza kill Carlo after getting him to confess by falsely promising him exile instead of death for Connie's sake.
Role in Godfather sequels 
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. Also, at the end of the story, in a scene that portrays Michael's announcement 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 Mancini is introduced as the illegitimate son 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.
- Vito Corleone—Father; played by Marlon Brando; in Part II played by Robert De Niro as young adult Vito Corleone
- Carmela Corleone—Mother; played by Morgana King
- Costanza 'Connie' Corleone-Rizzi—Sister; played by Talia Shire
- Fredo Corleone—Younger (middle) brother; played by John Cazale
- Michael Corleone—Youngest brother; played by Al Pacino
- Tom Hagen—Adopted brother; played by Robert Duvall
- Mary Corleone—Niece; played by Sofia Coppola
- Anthony Vito Corleone—Nephew; played by Anthony Gounaris in The Godfather, played by James Gounaris in The Godfather Part II, and played by Franc D'Ambrosio in The Godfather Part III
- Sandra Corleone—Wife; played by Julie Gregg
- Francesca Corleone—daughter, born 1937
- Kathryn Corleone—daughter, born 1937
- Frank Corleone—son, born 1940
- Santino Corleone Jr. — son, born 1945
- Vincent Mancini—illegitimate son with Lucy Mancini born circa 1946, played by Andy García
Behind the scenes 
- Coppola staged Sonny's death scene in The Godfather to be reminiscent of the final death scene of Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) in Bonnie and Clyde.
- 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.
- Caan was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film, competing with co-stars Pacino and Robert Duvall, giving the movie three entries in that category.
Cultural references 
- 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".
- The tollbooth scene was parodied along with the execution montage in the final scene of the Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law episode "Dabba Don". In this scene the Ant Hill Mob from Wacky Races gun down Judge Mightor from their car.
- Bill Simmons, a columnist for ESPN.com, 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 his talk show, explaining how he was dropped from NBC.
|Acting Head of the Corleone crime family
ca. 1945 - 1946
- Seal, Mark (2009-10-20). "The Godfather Wars | Culture". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 2011-03-07.