FRANK SINATRA, THREATENED TO BEAT MARIO PUZO TO DEATH OVER "JOHNNY FONTAINE" CHARACTER.
Say it ain't so Frank. For Mario Puzo, drawing the ire of Ol' Blue Eyes, was enough to shake his foundation. For everything that's ever been discussed about Sinatra and his friends in the streets, there is a story that gets little press, and Sinatra probably would have wanted it that way. When Mario Puzo first tried selling the rights to The Godfather, it didn't even actually have a name. The fact is, Puzo was a degenerate gambler, owed the Lucchese crime family a ton of money, and we aren't talking about nickels and dimes here either.
Puzo hadn't written much, that was noteworthy. In fact, his book which was untitled about a mafia family in the 1940's was only about 35 pages in length. Worried about his legs and head, because at the time the Lucchese's were done listening to his excuses over his looming debt, he found a way to sneak on the set of Paramount, and got a meeting with Robert Evans in 1968. Evans was head of production at Paramount. Paramount at the time needed a hit, because most of what they had been putting out was garbage at the time. Just prior to Puzo sneaking on the lot, their recent film called The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas, which had been a mob flick, bombed. Puzo shuffled over thirty five pages without a title and Evans who also needed a little luck paid Puzo $12,5000 dollars for the spec book. Puzo took the cash because he needed to pay off the Lucchese crime family.
Months later, Puzo finished the book, and gave it a title. The Godfather. The Godfather went on to make a ton of money, and obviously the next logical step, was the screenplay and movie treatment but most studios wanted nothing to do with the idea. Paramount owned the rights and because mobster flicks didn't make any money at the box office, they just didn't want to make it. Burt Lancaster's film company got a hold of the book and Burt wanted to make it into a film, and offered to buy out Puzo for $1,000,000 for the rights to The Godfather. Lancaster had designs of starring as Vito Corleone. Robert Evans, realizing that there might be money in it, informed Lancaster that if the film was made it would only be made by Paramount.
Frank Sinatra, who was informed that the character in Puzo's book "Johnny Fontaine," was based on him, and it enraged Sinatra. Sinatra was never a down on his luck singer, he was never a whiner or a crybaby in the sense that he ever had to beg to work like the character of Fontaine. The book pissed Sinatra off. Pissing Sinatra off, was a very very dangerous thing to do. Sinatra had a few options at his disposal. He considered suing Puzo, but didn't want to halt the production because his "friends," were in control of the unions. For Sinatra is was about Puzo coming out and explaining that Fontaine was not based on Sinatra. Sinatra also worried that his "friendships," which had already been highlighted by Bobby Kennedy, and the press could come back to haunt him. Sinatra made some calls, and he found that Puzo was in fact not very well liked and some big mob guys were very concerned about the book.
Sinatra got a call and heard that Puzo was going to be out and about in Los Angeles eating dinner. Sinatra called Jilly Rizzo his long time pal and heavyweight and Sinatra went to where he was told Puzo was eating. Sinatra walked in spotted Puzo, and lit into him. "You are nothing but a fuckin' nothing, a weasel, a fuckin' pimp." Puzo allegedly stood up laughing at Sinatra who was foaming at the mouth, being held back by Jilly Rizzo. Sinatra then lowered his voice, and told Puzo what would come next. According to sources there, Sinatra told Puzo if he kept pushing, he would be "brain damaged, and that his problems with the boys were just beginning, and if he didn't watch his step, Puzo's children would end up fatherless." Sinatra would storm out of the restaurant, and into the parking lot where he found Puzo's car and broke out the windows in with a baseball bat.
Sinatra was right, because shortly after, Russell Bufalino sent men to Paramount Studios offering $1,000,000 to shut down the project. Paramount laughed it off, but then more men were sent to visit studio execs. Puzo was then visited, and told if the project went forward he would be killed. Puzo would flee New York, and hide out in California for a while. Ultimately, we know, that The Godfather would be made, and made millions. The concession of it all, was that through Bufalino NOT COLOMBO, which has been inaccurately reported for years, the word mafia was taken out of the script. Mob run unions made a killing off the production. That was the concession. And what about Puzo? He donated a huge percentage of his back end to Sinatra. In the end...everyone got what they wanted, except it seems Francis Ford Coppola who said making The Godfather was "the worst experience of his life," but then again it was because of that film, Coppola became a house hold name.