The ‘Godfather I’ Character Frank Sinatra Reportedly Wanted to Play

It’s no secret that Frank Sinatra was furious about the Johnny Fontane character in The Godfather. When author Mario Puzo bumped into Sinatra while writing the script for the ’72 film, Sinatra made that abundantly clear. That is, Sinatra humiliated Puzo in front of a crowd of people in a restaurant.

But at the same time, Sinatra wasn’t refusing to appear in The Godfather. At that point (circa ’70), Sinatra’s run as a leading man had effectively ended. Following the close of the Tony Rome series, Sinatra had worked on Dirty Dingus Magee, his final starring role.

The reviews for Dirty Dingus Magee were not kind. Now that a major production about the New York mob was revving up, Sinatra apparently wanted to be a part of it. And, according to Francis Ford Coppola, Sinatra wanted the meatiest Godfather part of them all.

Frank Sinatra wanted to play Don Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’

CIRCA 1970:  Nancy Sinatra and her father Frank Sinatra look off in to the distance..
CIRCA 1970: Nancy Sinatra and her father Frank Sinatra look off into the distance. | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Sinatra’s brutal treatment of Puzo really affected the novelist. In The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions, Puzo called Sinatra “an idol.” Naturally, an episode like that stung. “I felt depressed,” Puzo wrote of the aftermath of their meeting. “I thought Sinatra hated the book and believed that I had attacked him personally.”

Yet Sinatra never said he hated the book. Sure, he said he would have liked to pummel Puzo. And he told Puzo to go “choke” on his humiliation. But at the same time, he might have been hoping Puzo would pen a few choice lines for him in the movie. Because Sinatra wanted in.

That report came directly from Coppola. As Puzo relayed the story, Sinatra and Coppola ran into each other one night at a club in L.A. It was shortly after Paramount had hired Coppola to direct The Godfather. And Sinatra was in a chummy mood.

“Francis, I’d gladly play the Godfather for you,” Puzo said Sinatra told Coppola. “I wouldn’t do it for those guys at Paramount. But I’d do it for you.” That might sound like a riddle at first, but Sinatra had an idea.

Sinatra considered buying ‘The Godfather’ film rights himself

Publicity photo featuring the male leads of 'The Godfather'
James Caan, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and John Cazale pose for a publicity photo for ‘The Godfather.’ | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Before Paramount agreed to Marlon Brando as Don Corleone and Coppola as director, studio bosses considered selling the film rights to another production company. Paramount had acquired The Godfather for almost nothing, and the idea of making a quick $1 million profit had its appeal.

After all, no major movie about the Sicilian mob had earned a profit to thjat point. Paramount was skeptical, and it seriously considered selling the rights to Burt Lancaster’s company. Sinatra apparently heard about that deal while it was kicking around.

In The Godfather Companion, the meeting between Coppola and Sinatra got an interesting twist. Coppola said Sinatra thought of buying the book from Paramount and making the picture with his own company. Then he could definitely play the role of Vito Corleone.