Lenny Montana didn’t have to stretch much to play the role of hitman Luca Brasi in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 award-winning Mafia saga The Godfather. He brought personal experience to the part. In fact, Montana, a hulking former pro wrestler, was on the set of the film as a bodyguard for an actual young Mafioso when Coppola discovered him and cast him on the spot.
Born Leonardo Passafaro in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, young Lenny was raised in an Italian-American family and was fluent in both Italian and English and the ways of his neighborhood. During his twenties and thirties, he had a successful pro wrestling career, competing on tag teams with fellow wrestlers and often using the then-popular Zebra Kid gimmick (which required him to wear zebra-print tights or jacket). He traveled the country collecting titles at a billed height and weight of 6 six 6 inches and 235 pounds.
In the late 1960s, Montana retired from wrestling, moved back to Brooklyn, and took up with the Colombo crime family, as an enforcer and an arsonist. He would later brag about his casual cruelty to crew members on the set of The Godfather, describing how he would soak a tampon in kerosene, tie it to the tail of a mouse, light the fuse, and set the mouse free in a building. Montana reportedly did time on Rikers Island.
In 1971, Francis Ford Coppola’s filming of Mario Puzo’s classic novel The Godfather met with stiff resistance from the Colombo Family, which was in the midst of a gang war. The Italian-American Civil Rights League and even Frank Sinatra protested the script’s seeming perpetuation of unflattering stereotypes. Producer Al Ruddy brokered a peace deal with the local crime family that resulted in the word Mafia being cut from the script and mobsters brought onto the set as observers. One of those young dons was protected by bodyguard Lenny Montana, who by then weighed a massive 320 pounds.
Coppola “fell in love with him immediately,” according to a 2009 Vanity Fair report on the making of The Godfather, and cast Montana as Luca Brasi on the spot.
Montana won over other members of the cast and crew with his awkward charm. When he noticed that producer Bettye McCartt had broken her watch, he presented her with a new one. Except it wasn’t a cheap replacement. It was an antique diamond watch, which he gave to her wrapped in a wad of tissues. And according to Vanity Fair, he told her, “The boys sent you this. But don’t wear it in Florida.”
The former pro wrestler may have been a cool criminal, but he was full of nerves facing his idol Marlon Brando, whose portrayal of Don Corleone resurrected his career. For the scene in which Luca Brasi is going to congratulate the Don on his daughter’s impending wedding, Montana was sitting outside, nervously scrunching a scrap of paper on which he’d written his lines, muttering the words before he could face the star. One of the crew members noticed, and Montana’s stammering homage was written into the script, in a now indelible clip: “And I hope that their first child be a masculine child.”
In another famous scene, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) explained the genesis of “an offer he couldn’t refuse” to his fiancé, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton): Luca Brasi had accompanied Don Corleone to persuade bandleader Les Halley to release singer Johnny Fontane (based on Frank Sinatra) from a restrictive contract. Brasi held a gun to Halley’s head while Corleone assured the bandleader that something would land on the release letter: either Halley’s signature or his brains. (Halley signed.)
Lenny Montana as Luca Brasi didn’t get much screen time, but his scenes made a lasting impression. He met his screen death when Don Corleone sent him on a mission to double-cross a Corleone rival. Brasi was instructed to pretend to switch allegiance to rival mobster Virgil Sollozzo. He went to the meeting wearing a bulletproof vest, and spoke English and Italian (subtitled). After offering Brasi a sweet deal of $50,000, Sollozzo stabbed Luca Brasi in the hand, pinning it to the bar. From behind, an assassin garroted Brasi. Film viewers never got over seeing Brasi’s eyes bulge and his tongue stick out as he collapsed.
The rival mobsters sent a Sicilian message to the Corleone family, so that the Corleones would fully understand exactly why Luca Brasi wouldn’t be showing up for work any more. They sent a fish wrapped in Brasi’s bulletproof vest. As explained to Sonny Corleone, “It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”
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Lenny Montana’s Godfather work landed him more than a dozen movie and TV roles in the subsequent years, almost always as a thug or hitman. He died of a heart attack in New York in 1992. He was 66 years old.
E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City