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 Francesca Corleone
Kathryn Corleone
Frank Corleone
Santino Corleone Jr.
Vincent Corleone
Relatives Carlo Rizzi (brother-in-law)
Apollonia Vitelli-Corleone (sister-in-law)
Kay Adams-Corleone (sister-in-law)
Deanna Dunn (sister-in-law)
Victor Rizzi (nephew)
Michael Rizzi (nephew)
Anthony Corleone (nephew)
Mary Corleone (niece)
Father Vito Corleone
Mother Carmela Corleone
Brothers Fredo Corleone
Michael Corleone
Tom Hagen (adopted brother)
Sisters 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]

In both the novel and the movie, Sonny is the eldest of Vito Corleone's four children, and depicted as the most impulsive and violent. He is heavily involved in his father's crime family. At age 16, Sonny committed a robbery. When Vito learned about it from Sonny's godfather, Peter Clemenza, he demanded that Sonny explain why he did it. Sonny told him how, years earlier, he witnessed Vito murder the feared "Black Hand" gangster Don Fanucci. He told his father that he wanted to sell olive oil. Vito, understanding that Sonny wanted to join the Corleone crime family, sent him to Clemenza for training.

Sonny "made his bones" when he was 19. By his mid-20s, he was promoted to a caporegime in the Corleone 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. Sonny also possesses a gentler side; at age 11, he brought home a homeless boy, Tom Hagen, demanding he be allowed to live with the family. Hagen eventually rises through the ranks to become Vito's consigliere. As the eldest child, Sonny acts as protector to his younger siblings and has a close relationship with his youngest brother, Michael and only-sister, Connie. The novel shows he is unable to harm women, children, or anyone unable to defend themselves. This trait probably saves Connie's abusive husband, Carlo, from being fatally beaten by Sonny when Carlo refuses to fight back.

Sonny is married to Sandra with whom he has four children, but he has several mistresses, including Lucy Mancini, who was Connie's bridesmaid. In the novel, Sandra ignores his infidelities because she is unable to tolerate his enormous penis.

Sonny’s life is upturned in 1945, when Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo, backed by the Tattaglia family, approaches Vito with an offer to enter the narcotics trade. During the meeting, Sonny spontaneously speaks out-of-turn, expressing an interest in the plan that Vito refused. After the meeting Vito chastises Sonny for revealing his thoughts to an outsider and says that he thinks Sonny's affair with Lucy Mancini is making Sonny soft. Sollozzo later attempts to have Vito assassinated, believing Sonny, as his father's successor, will bring the Corleone family into the drug trade.

The failed assassination attempt leaves Vito near death, making Sonny acting boss of the Corleone family. Sonny orders Clemenza to kill Vito's disloyal bodyguard Paulie Gatto. When Sollozzo mounts a second unsuccessful assassination attempt on Vito at the hospital, that is stopped by Sonny's youngest brother Michael, Sonny orders Bruno Tattaglia, son and underboss of Sollozzo's ally Philip Tattaglia, to be murdered. Sollozzo presents a truce to Sonny requesting Michael be sent to hear the proposition. Tom advises Sonny to listen to the proposal but Sonny, thinking the truce proposal is another trick by Sollozzo, refuses saying the other Mafia families must hand Sollozzo over to the Corleone family or Sonny will start a war. Tom successfully convinces Sonny to wait because Captain McCluskey, a corrupt NYPD police captain on Sollozzo's payroll, has agreed to be Sollozzo's bodyguard. Tom warns Sonny that killing McCluskey would violate a long standing Mafia rule not to kill members of law enforcement and the backlash from rivals Mafia families and law enforcement would be severe. Michael advises Sonny they cannot wait for a deal with Sollozzo, who Michael thinks won't honor the deal, because Sollozzo will attempt to assassinate Vito again in order to remove Vito's opposition to the drug trade. Clemenza agrees with Michael's theory and Sonny asks Michael's opinion on what to do with McCluskey.

Michael, who distanced himself from the family's criminal activity, volunteers to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey. Sonny is impressed by Michael's loyalty, but doubts that his "nice college boy" brother is capable of committing murder. Michael argues that McCluskey is fair game because he is a corrupt cop mixed up in the drug trade. Sonny is ultimately persuaded and he approves the hit. A meeting with Sollozzo, McCluskey, and Michael is arranged at an Italian restaurant in the Bronx. Michael kills both men with a handgun that was planted in the men's room. This ignites the New York underworld's first Mafia war in a decade. Sonny arranges for Michael to flee to Sicily under the protection of Vito's friend and partner Don Tommasino.

The war between the Five Families drags on, and Sonny, unable to break the stalemate, orders bloody raids that earn Sonny a legendary reputation. In retaliation, Don Emilio Barzini, the real mastermind behind the conspiracy, enlists Sonny's brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, to help set a trap. Earlier, Sonny savagely beat Carlo upon learning that Carlo physically abused Connie. To draw Sonny out into the open, Carlo baits Connie into an argument, then severely beats her. Sobbing and hysterical, she telephones the Corleone compound asking Sonny for help. Enraged, Sonny speeds from the family compound unaccompanied by his bodyguards, heading for Connie's apartment in Hell's Kitchen. As Sonny stops at the Long Beach Causeway toll plaza, rival mobsters emerge with tommy guns and kill him.

Sonny's death.

During a meeting with the Dons of the crime families to establish peace, Vito realizes that Barzini masterminded Sonny's murder. After Michael returns from Sicily, Michael takes Sonny's place as Vito's heir apparent. Vito and Michael secretly plot to wipe out the other New York Dons to avenge Sonny's death. The plan is successfully executed in 1955. Michael informs Carlo that the rival Dons have been killed and convinces Carlo to admit his part in arranging Sonny's murder. Carlo admits Barzini was the mastermind and Michael tells Carlo he is finished with the Corleone family and will be sent to Las Vegas. On Michael's orders Clemenza strangles Carlo with a wire. In a single strike, the Corleones become the most powerful crime family in the country.

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 Sonny's illegitimate son with 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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