Mario Puzo has always insisted that when he wrote The Godfather, he knew so little about organized crime that he had no real Mafia dons in mind as models for Don Corleone.

From his writing, it is clear that he regards them as a higher form of life than politicians or corporate lawyers. The Michael Milkens, Ivan Boeskys and Charles Keatings have proven him to be correct.

Puzo also insists that the character of singer Johnny Fontaine was not based on Frank Sinatra, although everyone has always assumed this to be true.

Sinatra, who has cursed Puzo publicly on the few occasions they've met, certainly believes so.

Sinatra aside, there remain compelling reasons students of organized crime should believe the original Godfather, portrayed by Marlon Brando, is actually based on the retired Mafia don, Joseph Bonanno of Tucson.

Like Corleone, Bonanno once headed one of the five Mafia families in New York City. His intelligence, devotion to his family and Sicilian background make it appear as though Vito Corleone was lifted directly from Bonanno's life and then embellished.

Bonanno was certainly every bit as flamboyant as Don Corleone when he gave wedding parties.

When Bonanno's son, Bill, was married in 1956, more than 3,000 guests were invited to the Astor Hotel ballroom in New York. No expense was spared. Mafia bosses from all over the country were on hand. The singing was done by none other than Tony Bennett.

The guest list included the top men in the underworld, among them, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Frank Costello from New York. Joseph Barbara came, too. He later hosted the meeting of Mafia chiefs in New York, that was to cause the organization so much grief. Sam Giancana and Tony Accardo came from Chicago, and the group from Los Angeles reportedly numbered as many as eighty.

Later, when Gay Talese was in the process of researching Honor Thy Father, his nonfiction book about Bill Bonanno and what it meant to be a Mafia son, he showed Bonanno a copy of Puzo's novel.

"Bill stayed up half the night reading it," Talese says. "He believed his own father possessed many of the sophisticated qualities that the writer attributed to Don Vito Corleone."

And young Bonanno, who attended both Northern Arizona University and Phoenix College, even identified with Michael Corleone, the role played by Al Pacino.

Several years later, when Joseph Bonanno wrote his own book, he called it A Man of Honor.

"My name is Joe Bonanno," he began. "I am 78 years old and a grandfather. I've often been described as a gangster, a racketeer, a mobster. I'm supposed to be or have been, the `boss of all bosses' . . . whatever that means."

About The Godfather, he wrote:
"Why did so many people flock to read The Godfather and to watch the movie? This work of fiction is not really about organized crime. The true theme has to do with family pride and personal honor. That's what made The Godfather so popular. It portrayed people with a strong kinship trying to exist in a cruel world."

In the book, Bonanno recalls his long friendship with Judge Evo DeConcini, father of Senator Dennis DeConcini.

There has long been a controversy over this friendship because Evo DeConcini was an Arizona Supreme Court justice who even appeared as a character witness for Bonanno when the U.S. government tried to deport him.

Dennis DeConcini has always insisted that his family knew Bonanno only as a "retired cheesemaker" from Wisconsin.

Bonanno, on the other hand, says he only began to feel comfortable around Evo upon learning that DeConcini's family had also befriended Tony Mirabile, the leader of a Sicilian clan in San Diego.

"The earlier days of our friendship were most enjoyable," Bonanno writes. "When I was in town, we would visit each other's homes. The DeConcinis were never reluctant to accept my generosity. I would take them out to restaurants and I would pick up the tab."

Bonanno points out that his friendship with DeConcini shouldn't make anyone think DeConcini was a crooked judge.

"What sticks in my craw," Bonanno writes, "is the family's hypocrisy. The DeConcinis broke with me in the early Seventies right after the election of their son, Dennis, as Pima County attorney. Since then Dennis has tried to whitewash and disinfect Evo's friendship with me.

"As you would expect," Bonanno writes, "Dennis DeConcini, now a U.S. senator, continues to give the impression that his father and I had only a casual, fleeting friendship.

"It is true that I never leaned across the table and said to Evo DeConcini: `Hey, judge, do you know who I am? I'm "duh boss."' It is an insult to Evo's intelligence to say he really didn't know who I was. Evo would have to be a dunderhead not to know who I was, and Evo was no dummy."

Joe Bonanno is on the mark when he says The Godfather is a story about family pride and personal honor. This aspect raises the Corleones above being a mere gangster family. We see them more as a clan fighting a war for survival.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about the three Godfather films is that we continually find ourselves rooting for the Mafia every time rather than the duly constituted authorities.

The villains in this world created by Mario Puzo and sustained by Francis Ford Coppola are not the Corleone family and their gang of willing cutthroats. The Corleones are sympathetic figures we keep attempting to understand.

Remember the sudden burst of cheers that swept the theatre when the crooked Vatican official (he is either a bishop or a cardinal) gets rubbed out in gangland fashion in the climax of Godfather III.

By the time this dishonest man of the cloth is shot to death, we have so deeply identified with the lifestyle of the Mafia family that we are willing to believe this is an absolutely sensible course of action.

We experienced the same reaction back in the series opener when young Al Pacino, war veteran and Dartmouth College graduate, says, "Where does it say you can't kill a cop?" Then we watched with growing excitement as he came out of the restroom in the Italian restaurant with the pistol in his hand to kill the crooked police officer played by Sterling Hayden.

In Godfather II, we delighted when the arrogant and crooked senator from Nevada was drugged and then set up in bed with a dead prostitute. For the moment, we believed the senator got exactly what he deserved because he had been rude to Michael Corleone and had even insulted his Italian heritage.

It was in Godfather II that we were even able to suspend our horror when Michael ordered the execution of his older brother, Fredo.

Perhaps we're more romantic than we think. Fredo had betrayed the family and had helped enemies set up an attack on Michael and his wife. Fredo was weak. He must be eliminated.

The Corleone family are always depicted in heroic fashion.
Why should we dislike or fear them? The old don, played by Marlon Brando, sees to it that a young woman's honor is avenged. He refuses to traffic in heroin. All he wants to do is run profitable operations based on gambling, liquor and women.

Michael Corleone's goal is to move the family out of mob operations and into legitimate business.

But they are always finding it necessary to kill people. It seems to be the only way to convince some of the error of their ways.

Compare Don Corleone with the closing summary of Joe Bonanno to his book:
"I was born into a tradition. I was born among a people whom experience has taught to cherish certain fixed values. It taught us right and wrong. It guided youngsters as they strove toward manhood. It guided mature men, and punished them if they deserved it. Our tradition gave us a way of life."

"My father is no different from other powerful men," Michael Corleone says at one point in the first film.

We never realize until the third film when Michael, now the head of the family, starts tossing bribes at the Vatican that the Corleone fortunes had reached into the hundreds of millions.

Certainly, the real mob always had deep pockets. As long ago as 1965, Carlo Gambino, another New York don and a contemporary of Joe Bonanno, owned several million dollars' worth of real estate in Manhattan.

Gambino not only owned the building in which the Wall Street Journal was published, he also owned the building which housed Vogue magazine, the Chrysler building and the building on East 69th Street where the FBI had its New York City headquarters.

The Corleone family is not representative of the typical Mafia member any more than the Pulliam family is representative of an average Arizona Republic reporter.

We walk away from the movie with a sneaking sense of admiration for the Corleones and for all hoodlums as well.

I would believe all this if I hadn't seen the average Mafia hood in action in Chicago.

I remember Sam DeStefano, often referred to as the clown prince of the Chicago crime syndicate, when he was on trial in federal court for threatening a government witness.

DeStefano served as his own attorney in the case. Without a lawyer to control him, DeStefano was outrageously funny.

He waved thousand dollar bills in the air. He complained over and over again that he was dying of five terminal illnesses.

"Your honor," he moaned, "I'm a family man. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in jail. I'm a grandfather. I have all the money I want. All I want to do is spend time at home with my family."

It was heartwarming. Sam DeStefano, the friendly grandfather, who made his money in the bail-bonding business, now wanted to live peacefully at home wearing the same pink slippers he wore to prance around the courtroom in this case.

DeStefano knew enough about prisons. He had already served time for bank robbery, black marketing, rape and perjury.

One day he took the Fifth Amendment 337 times.
This was a man who had reasons to take the Fifth. It had become common knowledge that he was a cold killer who had once tortured one of his own loan collectors to death in the cellar of his home.

DeStefano, with the help of an accomplice, hanged Action Jackson, a 300-pound black man, from a meat hook in the basement with his hands tied behind him.

DeStefano proceeded to beat him with a baseball bat and then put a blowtorch to his face and to his testicles. When DeStefano was finished, they took the body out and put it in the trunk of a car and abandoned it on a side street.

I remember talking to DeStefano during a recess that day in federal court. He loved talking to reporters because he really seemed to like having his name in the newspaper.

At 63, DeStefano was short and overweight. His hair was thinning. He didn't actually look dangerous. He talked about the confrontation in the elevator that led to his being charged with threatening a witness.

"Look at me," he said. "Is anybody afraid of me? But when I walked into that elevator and saw this guy that day, he was so scared the blood rushed to his brain and his eyes popped out of their sockets."

DeStefano went on about the man he was accused of threatening.
"I never knew this creep and besides when I was in the joint, he was using my name and doing things on the outside. He was a snake around my family. He made the mistake of thinking I was going to die in prison.

"He never thought Sam DeStefano was coming back out. But I'm out. And I pay my debts."

One thing DeStefano did that day was unforgettable.
Halfway through the afternoon session he got out of his chair at the defense table and walked to a wastebasket.

He turned his back to the judge and looked out over the crowded courtroom. Now DeStefano's comic mask was gone. There was a look of contempt in his eyes.

Then he bent his head down and spat into the wastebasket. He did it four times in succession. It is the only time I have ever seen such a thing done in a courtroom.

There is a difference between men like Sam DeStefano and Vito Corleone, the Godfather.

Vito Corleone died of a heart attack in his backyard while romping with his grandchild. Sam DeStefano died from an assassin's bullet fired from point-blank range.

Corleone sleeps with the angels. DeStefano, as the mob says, sleeps with the fishes.

What The Godfather fails to tell us throughout the three films is that mobsters are in the business of killing people who don't get out their way.

They believe they are in a free-enterprise business. But their way of beating the competition is not to outwork them, but merely to kill them.

Dennis DeConcini has always insisted that his family knew Joe Bonanno only as a "retired cheesemaker" from Wisconsin.

The most remarkable thing about the three Godfather films is that we continually find ourselves rooting for the Mafia every time rather than the authorities.

We walk away from the movie with a sneaking sense of admiration for the Corleones and for all hoodlums as well.

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Tom Fitzpatrick