Played by Al Pacino, Michael Corleone is the biggest kahuna in this movie. Yeah, Vito Corleone is a pretty big kahuna as well—but Michael ends up taking the cake. He's the one who leads the Corleone family to its final (and really, really violent) victory.
Al Pacino was irritated that Brando received a Best Actor nomination while he only received a Best Supporting Actor nomination—even though Michael is actually on screen more frequently than Vito. In our "Hero's Journey" section, we follow Michael's trajectory, since he proceeds through more of the classic stages of the quest, with Vito functioning as his wise mentor.
Initially, Michael is a golden boy. He's a war hero from WWII, he has a girlfriend (Kay) who seems on track to become his wife, and he has a legitimate, non-criminal career in his future. "That's my family, not me," he tells Kay, referencing his family's murderous business. But circumstances intervene.
After the Tattaglia family tries to kill his father, Michael needs to steer off his law-abiding career path. In the process, he discovers he can be pretty cool under pressure, like when he protects his dad from another would-be assassination attempt at the hospital. Finally, he crosses over to the criminal side by murdering Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey, who both conspired in arranging the Don's failed assassination. He's committed to the Mafia Boss trajectory—even though he has to escape to Sicily.
In Sicily, he leads a pleasant and idyllic existence, marrying a Sicilian girl. But a car bomb kills her, puncturing his bucolic dreams. After his brother Sonny is assassinated, Michael returns to New York—all set to succeed his father as Don. He gradually sets about doing this, getting his chips into place and finally bringing down the wrath of God (or the Devil) on his enemies.
He orders a massacre that wipes out their leading rivals and the traitors within their midst, setting the Corleones up for supremacy among New York's five Mafia families.
Whereas the Don's other son, Sonny, is kind of an unprincipled jerk—full of intense animal energy—Michael is a much more calculating and savvy figure. Originally, his father wanted him to go legit, to live the American Dream in an authentic and non-criminal way and become a senator or a governor. But that's not what happens: Sonny ends up being a fairly lousy Don and gets murdered in the process.
Michael becomes a very good Don indeed. The key to his success seems to be that, whereas Sonny takes things personally, Michael is able to keep his cool. As he says to his brother at one point, "It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."
That's what should be engraved on Michael's tombstone, if they ever bring him down. He's a consummate Chess Master—he gets that revenge is a dish best served cold, and is able to bide his time before eliminating Carlo, thus avenging Sonny and Connie in one fell swoop. He's clever in a way that Sonny never could be.
But, hey, Michael's also a pretty bad guy by the time the movie ends. He's gained power, but lost his soul—arranging a massacre that wipes out all of his enemies, as he hypocritically makes pious affirmations at his sister's child's christening. He lies to his wife about his murderousness and seems set to lead a double life, trying to be a committed family man while simultaneously acting as a ruthless Mafia boss.
But can he sustain this contradiction? Tune into The Godfather Part II to find out. And if you're still not satisfied, you can tune into The Godfather Part III (we guess—it's nowhere near as awesome as the first two).
Critics and audiences consider Marlon Brando to be one of the greatest actors of all time, and Don Vito Corleone proved to be one of his greatest roles—maybe the greatest. It roped him a Best Actor Oscar, in any case. Francis Ford Coppola said that once he convinced Brando that the film wouldn't glorify the mafia, Brando started transforming into Vito Corleone right before his eyes, popping cotton balls in his mouth and adapting the famous voice he used for the Don.
Vito Corleone is the head of one of the "five families" of New York, the five local branches of the mafia (although the word "mafia" is never used in the movie itself). Technically speaking, he may not be the most moral guy in the world—letting his henchmen hack off a horse's head and put it in a movie producer's bed, and so on—but he apparently has a few principles.
For instance, he says he won't murder the men who attacked a friend's daughter because it's out of proportion to the crime committed. He'll only beat them up just as badly. Also, and more importantly for the plot, Vito refuses to deal drugs or help other Mafiosi do it, which leads to an assassination attempt that almost kills him.
Throughout the rest of the movie, the Godfather is kind of out of commission. Sonny is the acting Don for a while, until he gets whacked, and Vito has to make peace with the other bosses. He survives long enough to help Michael identify the man who is trying to betray them to their main rival, Don Barzini, before dying in a nice, peaceful manner, while playing with one of his grandkids in a tomato garden.
Vito Corleone is obviously one of the two most important characters in the film—but is he really the main character? Or is Michael? We follow Michael in our "Hero's Journey" section, but, hey, the movie is named after Vito's character. (Or, wait… since Michael becomes the new Godfather at the end, it might be named after him, or both of them. So scratch that.)
Even though he's a criminal and therefore a "bad guy," Vito is more complicated than he appears. He justifies what he does and doesn't seem to regret it, but he recognizes that it's not the best. He tells Michael:
"I work my whole life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That's my life, I don't apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something."
It seems, though, that Michael ends up going in a different direction from his father. It's seems that he's ditching Vito's principles and sense of justice, murdering people who weren't really responsible for betraying him or killing his brother in the process of taking revenge (like the woman who gets murdered along with one of the Dons Michael has killed, or, to a lesser extent, Moe Greene). Vito represents the way of doing "business" in the past, in the Old World, whereas Michael is trying to ride the violent wave of the future.
Also, The Godfather Part II gives a great glimpse into Vito's backstory (this time played, as a young man, by Robert DeNiro) and helps explain how he became the man he is in the first movie.
Don Corleone's eldest son, Santino (called Sonny), is kind of a slob. (The part is played by James Caan.) He's not inhuman or a total moron or anything, but he's a less-than-ideal Don. He cheats on his wife, he takes things too personally, and he would have no problem with getting the family involved in drug dealing, if his dad weren't there to stop him.
On the other hand, he cares about his sister, Connie, enough to beat her husband, Carlo, to a bloody pulp after he injures her. In fact, he's lured into a death trap after Carlo viciously beats Connie again, as a ploy to get Sonny out of the house. Assassins blast him to death at a tollbooth. So, he's a complicated guy—or, really, an uncomplicated guy.
Don Corleone himself says that he didn't think Sonny was a very good Don (he temporarily took over while Vito was recovering from an assassination attempt). Sonny contrasts strongly with Michael, who clearly loves and cares about the family, but is able to be impersonal and business-like when he needs to be. Michael can keep his cool.
Sonny can't, and in a certain way that proves to be his undoing. His emotions lure him into a trap, and he's unable to step back and consider what might really be going on. It's understandable, given what's happened to his sister. But it doesn't demonstrate the cool, calculating, businessman's mind that Michael has.
Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) is one of Don Corleone's main capos, or under-bosses, along with Tessio. He's a helpful mentor-figure to Michael, and a killer at the same time. He shows Michael the correct way to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey, and gives him advice both on his relationship with Kay and on cooking.
He also helps dispose of Vito Corleone's betrayer, Paulie, by having him whacked while Clemenza stops to urinate in New Jersey. He concludes the scene with the memorable line, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."
Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) plays an even bigger role in The Godfather Part II. But she's still pretty important in the first movie—she becomes Michael's second wife, after all. While she's in love with Michael, Kay seems pretty conflicted. She knows that Michael's father runs a Mafia family, but he tells her that he's different… which he is, until he isn't. Also, Michael can't tell her that he loves her—maybe because he doesn't want to drag her into anything.
After returning from Sicily, Michael finally does marry Kay. But this time, their marriage is shadowed by the fact that Michael is maturing into an extremely ruthless leader of organized crime. How will Kay deal with this? The end of the movie darkly suggests that it'll be a source of problems to come, and The Godfather Part II follows up on this to stunning effect.
Hagen (Robert Duvall) is the Godfather's adopted son, and unlike all the Corleones, he's of German-Irish descent. Since he isn't blood, he's not in line to become the next Don, though he considers himself to be just as much a son as the other brothers. Instead, Tom is pegged to become the consigliere, the chief adviser and lawyer to the Godfather.
He gives sharp advice to Sonny (which Sonny fails to take), because he understands that the killing that occurs in their line of work isn't personal, but "just business." He also helps propose offers (the kind that people can't refuse) to men like Jack Woltz, the producer who's preventing Johnny Fontane from getting a role.
While Tom isn't utterly unprincipled (he's one of the "good" characters, relatively speaking), he also has business savvy that is a bit less scrupulous than Vito's. For instance, he sees that drug dealing is part of the future of organized crime and advises getting involved instead of objecting to it. But Vito's not going for it.
Connie isn't quite a major character—but she's not quite minor either. She's fairly important. The story begins at her wedding after all. However, that initial pleasant experience quickly descends into hell.
Her husband, Carlo, is viciously abusive—he beats her in one of The Godfather's most unpleasant scenes. Despite this, she's also deeply upset when Michael has Carlo murdered. She accuses him of evil hypocrisy for becoming the godfather of her child, while having his enemies slaughtered at the same time.
The role is played by Talia Shire, Francis Ford Coppola's sister.
Captain McCluskey is a totally corrupt cop—tied up with drugs and rackets and, in this case, a murder attempt on Vito. Michael shoots him through the skull after they sit down to dinner at a restaurant in the Bronx, gaining his retribution.
Ironically, although Sterling Hayden (who acted the role) played tough guys and gangsters in movies, he was an author and a pretty astute dude. The Godfather marked a kind of career resurgence for him (he makes a pretty brief appearance—but it's a memorable one).
Jack Woltz (played by John Marley) is a big-shot movie producer. He's also kind of prejudiced against Italians, spitting out derogatory terms like "guinea" when Tom Hagen tries to make a deal with him. Of course, this prejudice might be due to the fact that he lost a young female protégé to Johnny Fontane, the Godfather's Sinatra-like godson.
Now, he's refusing to let Fontane have a part in a movie that would be perfect for him and would make him into a big star. Does this work as revenge? Sure. But most people would say it's kinda petty.
Yet Woltz has a weakness: the thing he loves. (Isn't that always the weakness?) In his case, it's a prize horse named Khartoum. In one of The Godfather's most iconic scenes, Woltz wakes up to discover Khartoum's severed head in his bed. He screams. A lot.
The horse's head is a message from the Godfather: If you don't listen to reason, this is what happens. It's not fair play, but you can probably sense the appeal—especially since, later on in the film, it's implied that this tactic worked (Johnny is in the Godfather's debt and obliges Michael's wishes during the Vegas scene).
There's a great deal of irony in the way the film portrays Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana). We immediately hear what a tough guy he is, as Michael tells Kay about how Brasi held a gun to a bandleader's head, forcing him to release Johnny Fontane from a contract. He's the Godfather's choice strong-arm, his enforcer. And then… we see him get murdered almost right away.
It's a clever tactic on the part of Puzo and Coppola—our expectations are totally overturned. You're thinking this guy might wind up being an important player during the rest of the movie, but he's whacked straight off the bat.
Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) appears at the very beginning of the movie, in the first scene. He's essentially a man who's become disillusioned with the American Dream—although, as he admits, for most of his life, he's done very well in America. As an undertaker, he's managed to prosper, and he has a daughter whom he loves.
But when his daughter refuses to have sex with her boyfriend and another guy, they beat her and injure her horribly. The courts do nothing to really punish them. Bonasera pledges friendship and service to Vito Corleone, convincing the Godfather to inflict pain on the two men who wronged him.
Later, Bonasera does have to repay his debt to Don Corleone—fortunately, not by doing anything immoral. He simply has to make Sonny's bullet-riddled corpse look presentable so that Mama Corleone will be able to look at him in the casket.
Bonasera represents the conflict at the heart of the movie. He seems to be basically a good person, but when circumstances outrage him, he's forced to turn to the Mafia, a system that goes outside the bounds of American democracy and represents an older, almost feudal way of doing things.
The American Dream works well for him… until it doesn't. And when it doesn't, he turns to the more violent methods practiced by the Godfather and his associates for help.
Don Barzini (played by Richard Conte) is the Corleone family's main rival. However, they don't realize this until late in the movie, when he's revealed as the power behind Sollozzo's and the Tattaglia family's actions, and their main opponent when fighting with the other four families.
He tries to set up a meeting to assassinate Michael, but Michael moves against him first. An assassin guns him down on the steps of New York's Supreme Court building.
While he's in Sicily, Michael Corleone starts a new life, marrying Apollonia Vitelli (Simonetta Stefanelli). He falls in love instantly, as if struck by a bolt of lightning.
He courts her in the old-school Italian manner, letting her whole family chaperone their dates. We don't really learn all that much about Apollonia but we get to see that her death in a car crash changes Michael. It probably makes him a bit more ruthless (though he was capable of righteous revenge before).
Carlo, played by Gianni Russo, is a thoroughly detestable character. Not only does he brutally beat his wife, Connie, and cheat on her, but he also helps plot Sonny's murder.
He attacks Connie with a belt in order to force Sonny to leave the family's compound, leading him into a death trap at the toll-booth. But he gets his—the movie begins with his wedding to Connie, but it ends with the aftermath of his demise. Michael identifies him as the traitor and, while pretending that he's going to let him move to Las Vegas and live, he has him killed in the car outside.
Johnny Fontane is a singer, loosely based on Frank Sinatra. He wants to get a part in a hit movie, graduating from famous crooner to mega-celebrity (kind of like Sinatra did with From Here to Eternity).
But Jack Woltz, the producer, blackballs Fontane because he's still miffed at him for seducing his female protégé. Fortunately for Fontane, a severed horse head manages, super grotesquely, to secure the role.
Al Martino plays the role.
Sonny is wild and unruly, Michael is smart and business-like, and Fredo (John Cazale) is weak. (This becomes more obvious in The Godfather Part II.) The Corleones send Fredo off to Vegas, where he quickly causes problems for their business associate Moe Greene ("He was banging cocktail waitresses two at a time," says Moe. "Players couldn't get a drink at the table!").
So Moe slaps him around. Unfortunately, given that Fredo is a Corleone, this doesn't work out so well for Moe, who refuses to sell his casino to Michael and winds up as another fatality when Michael cleans house at the end of the movie.
But Fredo himself makes the mistake of defending Moe, which leads to Michael's rebuke:
"Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever."
You'll have to watch The Godfather Part II to see if Fredo manages to take that advice or not.
P.S. John Cazale, the man who played Fredo, is actually kind of a legend. He only made five real movies before dying too early...but they're all masterpieces.
Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) is one of the main villains in the movie. He represents the future wave of criminal activity—drugs. He's the worst kind of pusher, dealing with poppy growers in Turkey in order to control the supply of heroin in America (leading to his nickname "The Turk").
When the Godfather refuses to do business with him and lend his political connections to prop up the heroin trade, Sollozzo, with the aid of the Tattaglia family and (secretly) Don Barzini, goes all-out.
He sends Luca Brasi to sleep with the fishes and orders an assassination attempt on Don Corleone, who miraculously survives. However, Sollozzo gets his: Michael Corleone kills him, along with Captain McCluskey, in the middle of dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Bronx.
Tessio (Abe Vigoda), along with Clemenza, is one of the Don's two main henchman (capos or under-bosses). Unfortunately, he turns traitor, scheming with Barzini to overturn the Corleones. Thanks to Vito's intuition, Michael is able to figure this out beforehand, and orders Tessio's execution.
Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) is a casino magnate, a gangster who fashions himself as a self-made man even though he actually attained his success largely with help from the Corleones. He makes the mistake of refusing the kind of offer you can't refuse (and of smacking Fredo Corleone around): This results in a bullet to the eye (which just kind of smashes the lens of his glasses in the movie), a death sentence for poor Moe.
But, hey—the dude was threatening to turn tail and side with Don Barzini, the main rival of the Corleones. And Michael couldn't let that happen.
Played by Victor Rendina, Don Tattaglia is one of the Corleone family's main rivals. His family launches war against the Corleones after they refuse to lend their political clout to the Tattaglias' drug biz: They execute Luca Brasi and try to kill Don Corleone, severely wounding him.
In retaliation, Sonny Corleone orders the death of Don Tattaglia's son, Bruno. This leads, eventually, to Sonny's murder at the hands of Tattaglia's men. At this point, Don Corleone negotiates a truce… but the fight isn't really over. When Michael takes over, he orders Tattaglia's death along with that of his other enemies: a hit man shoots him and the woman who's in bed with him.
Fabrizio, played by Angelo Infanti, is one of Michael's bodyguards in Sicily (the other is Calo). Unfortunately, he turns traitor, planting a car bomb that's intended to kill Michael, but results in the death of Michael's wife, Apollonia.
Saro Urzi plays the role of Vitelli. He's the father of Apollonia, the woman who becomes Michael's first wife. When they first meet, Michael and Vitelli have an awkward interaction: Michael describes an attractive girl who caught his attention, it turns out this is Vitelli's daughter.
But Michael plays the situation chivalrously and courts Apollonia in the old Sicilian fashion, with the whole family chaperoning them.
Sandra (Julie Gregg) is Sonny's wife. She doesn't play a huge role in the movie, but based on the way she and Sonny interact at the wedding, she seems pretty displeased with the fact that he's cheating on her. Fair enough!
Mama Corleone (Morgana King) doesn't play a huge role in the movie. She dances with Vito and sings during the opening wedding sequence, and appears a few other times, but she's not really a factor in the rest of the story. The family business is pretty strongly centered on men, who tend to try to keep their wives out of it.
Michael does this with Kay, for instance, lying to her about ordering Carlo's murder, and Vito wants the undertaker to make sure that Sonny's bullet-riddled corpse doesn't look so obviously bullet-riddled when Mama Corleone sees it at the funeral.
Played by John Martino, Paulie is a mobster who sells out Don Corleone, helping to arrange the assassination attempt against him. The Corleones organize his murder, which occurs during a leisurely drive, after Clemenza stops to pee.
Cuneo is a rival Don, played by Rudy Bond. He sides with Barzini against the Corleones, but falls victim to Michael's purge at the end of the movie: An assassin traps him in a revolving door and shoots him.
This guy, the son of the Tattaglia family's Don, appears for about a second: He's the crafty-looking dude behind the bar who pours Luca Brasi a drink before Brasi gets killed by an assassin. Later, Sonny has Bruno Tattaglia whacked in retaliation for trying to assassinate Don Corleone. This is mentioned briefly and we don't actually get to see Bruno's death.
The part is played by Tony Giorgio.
Nazorine, played by Vito Scotti, is the guy who asks Don Corleone for help in keeping Enzo, a baker and possible future son-in-law, in America. Don Corleone obliges. (Later, Enzo helps Michael scare away the assassins who come to kill Don Corleone at the hospital.)
Played by Gabriele Torrei, Enzo is a baker whom Don Corleone helps avoid deportation. When he goes to give flowers to the ailing Godfather recovering from an assassination attempt, Enzo runs into Michael, who informs him that their enemies are coming to finish off the job and kill Vito.
They pretend to be armed assailants, stand guard outside, and scare away the hit men. Enzo is totally nervous, having trouble lighting his cigarette, while Michael is calm and steady enough to hold the lighter.
Played by Jeannie Linero, Lucy Mancini is Sonny's mistress. He sneaks away from his wife to cheat with her at the beginning of the movie, during the wedding sequence, though she appears later on too.
Played by Tere Livrano, this is Tom Hagen's wife. She appears in the movie but doesn't really play much of a role in the proceedings.
Played by Louis Guss, Zaluchi is the Don who gives a racist speech at the meeting between all the Dons regarding the drug trade, saying that he wants to sell heroin to black people, but not anyone else. He also argues that they should take control of the drug trade so that they can regulate it and make sure it stays out of schools.
Don Tommassino is an ally of Don Corleone's in Sicily. He helps shelter Michael after Michael flees America, having murdered Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. The role is played by Corrado Gaipa.
This is Michael's toddler son, who appears momentarily. Don Corleone dies while playing with him in the garden.