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Santino "Sonny" Corleone is a fictional character in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather and its 1972 film adaptation. He also appears as an infant, as a young boy, and an adult in The Godfather Part II.

In the novel and film, he is the oldest son of New York Citymarker Mafia Don Vito Corleone and Carmella Corleone. He has two brothers, Michael and Fredo, 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.

Role in the Godfather saga

Born in 1916, Sonny is depicted in both the novel and the movies as the most impulsive and violent of Vito's children and, before Michael's rise to power, the most involved in his father's criminal operations. 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 novel provides additional backstory for Sonny: when he was 16, he committed 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 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 was 19.

Sonny eventually becomes a capo in his father's family, gaining a reputation as a ruthless killer. By the end of World War II, he has become his father's underboss and heir apparent. He is not without a softer side, however; at the age of 11, he meets a homeless boy, Tom Hagen, who thereafter lives with the family and becomes the family's consigliere. He also acts as a protector to his younger siblings, especially Connie. The book reveals that he secretly cannot bring himself to harm women or children, or anyone who can't defend themselves, which may be what saves his sister's husband, Carlo Rizzi.

Although Sonny has a wife, Sandra, and four children, he frequently cheats on her with other women. At the time of the film, he has carried on a long-running affair with 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 drug business, backed by the Tattaglia family. Vito rejects the deal, although Sonny shows slight interest. Sollozzo responds by trying to assassinate Vito, in hopes that Sonny will take over the Family and go into the drug business.

The assassination attempt fails but leaves Vito near death, although he eventually recovers. Sonny takes over as acting boss and issues an ultimatum to the Tattaglias--turn over Sollozzo or face war. When he learns that Sollozzo instead had his father's top button man, Luca Brasi, killed, he orders Bruno Tattaglia, Don Philip Tattaglia's son and who personally collaborated in murdering Brasi, killed in response.

Sonny's death scene in The Godfather

Michael, who had previously distanced himself from the family's criminal enterprise, volunteers to kill Sollozzo and his ally, police Captain McCluskey. The normally violent Sonny is initially amused by this, believing Michael is taking McCluskey breaking his jaw the night before too personally. He is also somewhat skeptical of the idea of killing a policeman; it has long been a hard and fast rule in the American Mafia that policemen and other law enforcement officials are not to be harmed. However, Michael convinces him that it's in the family's best interest to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey ("It's not personal, it's strictly business."). He also persuades Sonny that since McCluskey is serving as Sollozzo's bodyguard, he has crossed into their world and is fair game. Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey at Louis's Restaurant in the Bronxmarker and is sent immediately to Sicily to wait out the inevitable crackdown on the Five Families.

In retaliation, during the spring of 1948, Tattaglia's partner, Don Emilio Barzini, enlists the help of Sonny's brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, in setting a trap for Sonny. Sonny had already given Carlo a savage beating upon learning that Carlo was abusing Connie. To draw Sonny out into the open, a vengeful Rizzi inflicts a particularly vicious beating on Connie, who telephones Sonny, begging for help. 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 Rizzi. As Sonny approaches a toll plaza, a number of Barzini's men emerge with Tommy Guns and brutally gun him down before he can flee.

Role in Godfather sequels

Sonny appears in the original Godfather and in its sequel, The Godfather Part II. In the latter film, he briefly appears in a flashback scene portraying the family dinner in which Michael announces he is volunteering to fight in World War II. He is angered by Michael's decision, and he berates his brother for risking his life "for a bunch of strangers." The flashback reveals that Sonny introduced Carlo to Connie and the rest of the family, hence their later marriage.

Vincent Mancini, who eventually succeeds Michael as head of the Corleone family in The Godfather Part III, is introduced the illegitimate son of Sonny and Lucy Mancini. However, Vincent technically does not exist in the books, as it was mentioned in Puzo's original novel that Lucy never bore a child with Sonny.


Ordered Murders

  • Paulie Gatto: Sonny ordered Peter Clemenza to kill Paulie because he betrayed Don Vito Corleone.(1945)
  • Bruno Tattaglia: Sonny ordered Bruno killed because he devised Don Vito Corleone's assassination with Virgil Sollozzo.(1945)
  • Virgil Sollozzo: Sonny ordered "the turk" killed because he devised Don Vito Corleone's assassination with Bruno Tattaglia.(1945)
  • Captain McCluskey: Sonny ordered Captain McCluskey killed because he was assisting the Tattaglia Family.(1945)

Behind the Scenes

  • 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 three 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.

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". In the episode "Mr. Plow", Bart is pelted with snowballs in a similar fashion to that of Sonny's final moments.

  • The tollbooth scene was parodied along with the execution montage in the final scene of the "Dabba Don" episode of the series Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. In this scene the Ant Hill Mob from Wacky Races gun down Judge Mightor from their car.

  • 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.


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