- "I say to all of you, I have been treated this day, with no respect. I've earned you all money. I've made you rich, and I asked for little. Good. You will not give, I'll take! As for Don Corleone, well he makes it, very clear to me today, that he is my enemy. You must choose between us."
- ―Joey Zasa[src]
- "Mr. Corleone, all bastards are liars. Shakespeare wrote poems about it."
- ―Joey Zasa[src]
Zasa was a member of the Peter Clemenza's old regime. In the years following the death of Frank Pentangeli, Zasa was awarded the Corleone crime family business in New York with the Commission and Michael Corleone's approval. He was known to operate with the assistance of his own personal enforcer Anthony Squigliaro, also known as "The Ant".
Zasa was feared, and to a certain degree, respected among his peers in New York's underworld of organized crime for his business acumen and utter ruthlessness. However, he came to power at a time when Michael was all the more determined to make the Corleone family legitimate. Additionally, by the time Zasa rose to prominence, the general public had begun to cool toward the gangster lifestyle. Hence, Michael largely kept him at arm's length.
Zasa's flamboyance and hunger for publicity earned him the Corleone family's displeasure as it attracted unwanted public attention to its criminal enterprises. He began a feud with Michael's illegitimate nephew, Vincent Mancini. Michael especially disapproved of Zasa's high public profile, as well as the fact that he was heavily involved in the drug trade- even going as far as selling drugs to children. Zasa denied that his underlings were dealing in narcotics, claiming he would kill anyone who did. Michael did, however, seem to trust his word somewhat over that of Vincent, who claimed that Zasa had been insulting Michael in public. After the two were encouraged to make peace, Mancini bit a chunk out of Zasa's ear, which was later avenged with an attack on Vincent's apartment, which failed.
Desiring more power, Zasa schemed with Don Altobello and Licio Lucchesi to have Michael killed as part of Lucchesi's attempt to thwart Michael's takeover of Immobiliare. In return, Zasa would not only inherit the Corleone family, but become capo di tutti capi of New York. As part of the plot, Zasa tried to have Michael murdered during a meeting with all the various Dons of the Commission in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Michael escaped, but nearly every other Don attending the meeting was killed.
- "You know the people like you in the press, the police, use words like Mafia, Cosa Nostra. This is a fantasy. The Italian Americans are great people. We laid the bricks that built this city, we have the artists."
- ―Joey Zasa to a reporter[src]
During a neighborhood religious festival, Zasa and his most trusted bodyguards (including Anthony Squigliaro and Big Mike) were celebrating alongside Nicky, a casino host, when Zasa saw Lou Pennino scratching the Cadillac that Zasa had put up as a prize in a raffle. When Pennino was confronted, he fled and a hitman, who was disguised with a hood and robe on, carrying The Virgin Mary statue in the festival procession, whipped out a sawed-off shotgun and shot and killed Anthony "The Ant" Squigliaro. Anthony ran for cover while Nicky managed to escape, leaving Big Mike and other bodyguards trying to engage a shotgunner, only to be gunned down by another hitman. Zasa then fled on foot, and when trying to enter a locked shop, was shot three times in the back by a police officer on horseback, revealed to be Vincent Mancini.
Don Altobello and Lucchesi considered it an unexpected bonus that he had been eliminated, as his behavior was becoming something of an embarrassment.
Personality and traits
- "You all know Joey Zasa. He is, I admit, an important man. His picture is on the cover of the New York Times magazine. He gets the Esquire magazine award, for the best-dressed gangster! The newspapers praise him, because, he hires Blacks into his family, which shows he has a good heart. He, is famous. Who knows? Maybe one day, he will make all of you popular."
- ―Michael Corleone to the Commission[src]
A dangerous, methodical enforcer in his prime, Zasa was known to be flamboyant and hungry for fame, making himself something of a public figure in Little Italy, earning him the displeasure of the Corleones. Despite this, he was also one of the old guard to an extent, and kept to the rituals of the Sicilian lifestyle.
He was seen as trying to emulate Vito Corleone's cult of personality in Little Italy. However, he was a Don in an era where Mafia was seen in a rather negative light, compared with Vito's time in the 1920s.
Despite naming him the Don of New York and the leader of the remaining Corleone operations in illegal activities, Michael despised Zasa for his behavior, seeing him as a rash, flamboyant sycophant lacking the cunning to run a crime family. Also, he avoided him as much as he could, since he was trying to become a legitimate businessman, while Zasa was the final string tying him to the criminal underworld.
Behind the scenes
- Joey Zasa is a composite of mobsters Joe Colombo, 'Crazy Joey' Gallo, and John Gotti. In fact, John Gotti, like Zasa, was very crude and flashy and he was known as "the most elegant gangster".
- Ironically, Joe Colombo, through his Italian-American Civil Rights League, wanted to stop the production of The Godfather, before making a deal with producer Al Ruddy which would involve that the words "Mafia" or "Cosa Nostra" would not be used in the film. Colombo was assassinated a few months later during a public speech, only a few blocks away from where a scene in The Godfather was being filmed. Zasa's Meucci Association is a reference to Colombo's league.
- He was portrayed by Joe Mantegna, who also played Joseph De Lena in The Last Don.
- Joey Zasa is named after Francis Ford Coppola's paternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Zasa.
- Zasa was killed during the Feast of San Gennaro.