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"Listen. I'm gonna tell you something, and he'll tell you too. When it comes to the action, I'm as good as anybody, and don't forget it."
―Sonny to Michael Corleone[src]

Santino "Sonny" Corleone, Sr. was the eldest child of the Corleone family, known for his violent temper and rash decisions.


Early Years

Young Sonny with his father in Sicily.

Sonny was the oldest, most impulsive and violent of Vito's sons and, before Michael's rise to power, the most involved in the Corleone crime family. It was he, who was supposed to head the family business after the death of Vito. Sonny, however, is not without a softer side. When he was 10, he met a homeless boy, Tom Hagen, who he convinced his father to let live with the family.

Entering the Family Business

As a child, Sonny witnessed his father murder Don Fanucci, making Sonny's descent into the world of organized crime inevitable.

Sonny was officially brought into his father's world of crime at the age of 16 after a botched liquor store robbery. His godfather, Peter Clemenza, had brought the matter to Vito, and Vito was far less than pleased. Unfortunately, Sonny revealed, how he had seen Fanucci's murder and Vito was helpless to protest for fear he would seem a hypocrite. Though Vito pleaded with him to finish school and get a legitimate job, Sonny insisted that he wanted to "sell olive oil". Vito knew that Sonny really wanted to learn the family business, and sent him to Clemenza for training. Clemenza taught Sonny how to shoot and use a garrote wire, but was disappointed when Sonny preferred using the gun.

Genco Abbandando originally placed Sonny as a bodyguard for his father, more so that the Don could instruct his son personally, often looking and sounding like a college professor during a lecture.

The Tactician

Sonny's talent for the business was revealed when he dealt with Irish thugs during the Pacification of New York. With his father in the hospital, Sonny formed his own crew and took to the streets, showing his hidden genius for urban warfare. Like Julius Caesar or Napoleon, he was able to take block after city block with relative ease, gaining a reputation as one of the most brutal and vicious leaders and executioners in the eastern underworld, overshadowed only by his father's brutal personal hitman Luca Brasi. Soon afterwards, he became a caporegime in his father's family.

The Test

Upon arriving at their new home in Long Beach, the Corleones fell victim to a group of conmen, who attempted to force Vito to pay to have them fix the boiler. Vito used the situation as a test for Sonny, but was displeased with the result; his eldest son had the workmen beaten before forcing them to repair the damage. Vito summarily impressed upon Sonny that he must be "the rapier, not the club". Though he had his apprehensions about his quick-tempered son, Vito planned for Sonny to eventually take over the family business.

Family Life

"Did you go to college to get stupid?"
―Sonny to Michael[src]

Sonny at the surprise birthday party for Vito.

In 1935, Sonny married Sandra, a young Italian immigrant, and they had four children, twin girls Francesca and Kathryn, and two sons Santino, Jr. and Frank. He was a kind and loving father, and a good (but unfaithful) husband. Unusually, his infidelities did not trouble his wife, who was scared of making love due to Sonny's large "appendage".

His devotion to his father earned his nickname, Sonny, as could be seen when he attacked Michael for deciding to tell their father that he had enlisted in the Marines and dropped out of college on their father's birthday in 1941. Sonny believed that people who fought in the military were "saps" because they risk their lives for strangers, and that "Your country ain't your blood."

At that same birthday celebration, Sonny would introduce his sister Connie to his friend Carlo Rizzi. Connie and Carlo would eventually marry, and at their wedding Sonny began his multiyear affair with Lucy Mancini, Connie's best friend and maid of honor.

Taking Over as Don

"No, not this time consigliere, no more discussions, no more meetings, no more Sollozzo tricks. You give 'em one message, I want Sollozzo, if not, it's all out war, we go to the mattresses!"
―Sonny Corleone[src]

Sonny beats up Carlo.

Sonny’s life was upturned when Virgil Sollozzo came to Don Vito with an offer of entering the drug business, backed by the Tattaglia family. While the Don does not want to enter the drug business, Sonny showed interest in the deal. This led Sollozzo to believe that if the Don could be taken out, Sonny would agree to work with him. An assassination attempt on the Don was arranged.

The assassination attempt failed but left Don Vito near death, although he eventually recovered. Sonny, now enraged and acting as the Corleone family's Don, prepares for an all-out war against the Tattaglias unless they agree to turn over Sollozzo. When they refuse, Sonny orders the death of Bruno Tattaglia, Don Philip Tattaglia's son, a move that damages the Tattaglia family considerably. Michael, who had previously kept separate from the family's criminal enterprise, volunteers to kill Sollozzo and his bodyguard, Captain McCluskey. Sonny, though impressed with his little brother's courage, is initially against the idea, thinking Michael is too inexperienced in Mafia matters. Additionally, despite his well-known violent streak, Sonny is reluctant to kill a policeman; it has long a rule in the American Mafia that law enforcement officials are not to be harmed to avoid attracting too much law enforcement attention. However, Michael eventually talks him into it, arguing that since McCluskey is corrupt and is serving as Sollozzo's bodyguard, he is fair game. Michael also knew that he would not appear suspicious to McCluskey or Sollozzo at the meeting, as it was well known that he was not involved in the business. Michael kills both Sollozzo and McCluskey, and is sent immediately to Sicily to avoid prosecution and wait out the inevitable crackdown on the Five Families.

The Death of Sonny Corleone

"Look how they massacred my boy!"
―Vito Corleone[src]

The subsequent war stretches into years and reaches a stalemate. In order to advance their own interests and end the impasse, Tattaglia's secret partner and the Don of the most powerful of the Five Families, Emilio Barzini, enlisted the help of Sonny's brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, in setting a trap for the impulsive new Don. Sonny had recently inflicted a particularly vicious public beating on Carlo, after finding out that Carlo was abusing his wife Connie, Sonny's little sister. Sonny spared Carlo's life, as he could not bear to kill a helpless human being, and instead left him bruised and broken, with a warning that he would kill him if he ever harmed Connie again. Sonny's action would have major consequences, as Carlo was bitter and wished to exact his revenge.

Sonny being shot by Barzini hitmen.

To draw Sonny out into the open, Carlo inflicted a particularly vicious beating on Connie, who telephoned Sonny, begging for help. In a fit of rage, the unthinking Sonny leaves the family compound unaccompanied and heads for Connie's apartment to kill Carlo. As Sonny approaches a toll plaza, a number of Barzini's men emerge from the toll booths and the car ahead of Sonny's with submachine guns and viciously gun him down. The car is sprayed with bullets and though he takes several shots before he exits the car, Sonny tries to escape out the passenger's side, only to be shot further. He collapses in the adjacent toll lane and is shot a few more times by one of the assassins before the man kicks him in the face. He died at the age of thirty-one, two months short of his thirty-second birthday.

Sonny's death comes as a shock to Michael who was devastated upon hearing the news in Sicily. Vito was told the news by a saddened Tom Hagen, who had to have a drink before being able to tell him. Vito arranged to have Sonny's mutilated body fixed for his wake by enlisting a favor from Bonasera, the trusted undertaker. Vito then summoned a meeting of all the Families on the Commission to arrange an end to the war, swearing that he would not take revenge or investigate Sonny's death. However, Vito was aware that Michael would take action. To avenge his death, Michael killed Carlo Rizzi despite assuring Connie he would not harm him. Before his death, Carlo confessed to have been approached by Barzini to help kill Sonny. The deaths of the Dons of Five Families, including Barzini and Tattaglia, were also partially out of revenge for Sonny's death.

Sonny's Legacy

"Temper like his father..."
Michael Corleone[src]

Thirty years after Sonny died, his illegitimate son with Lucy Mancini, Vincent, began to assert himself within the family, personally eliminating family enemy Joey Zasa, before being appointed as Michael's successor as Don Corleone. Sonny's four legitimate children are not known to have ever played any significant role in the family.

Personality and Traits

"And don't lose that famous temper of yours, huh, Sonny? "
―Virgil Sollozzo[src]

Sonny was a short-tempered person, with severe anger issues, often flying into fits of rage. Sonny was trigger-ready and saw murder as the only way out of many problems. He was impulsive and almost never considered the long term consequences of his actions. He spoke unnecessarily on many occasions, most notably unintentionally causing the hit on his father by portraying family disunity by speaking out in favor of a deal his father disapproved of. Sonny also was vengeful and had many people killed after the failed attempt on his father Vito's life. Overall, he judged situations emotionally, not logically, a contrast with the cautious and thoughtful style of his consigliere and adopted brother Tom Hagen.

However, he loved his family and showed it with a protective attitude towards his siblings, especially when he beat up his sister Connie's husband Carlo Rizzi for abusing her. He was called "Sonny" due to the loyalty and respect he had for his father. Sonny was also caring with Tom, Fredo and Michael as well. He could also be generous and kind, as shown when he convinced his father to take in the homeless young orphan Tom Hagen, making him a part of the family.

While a known murderer, Sonny couldn't bring himself to harm anyone he viewed as helpless including women, children and people who don't fight back, which turn out to be life-saving for his wife-beating brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi, who, knowing this about his former friend, refused to fight back against Sonny. Leaving Carlo resentful but alive was Sonny's mistake, but his final mistake was impulsively driving off without backup during a war after hearing that Carlo had beaten Connie again, ultimately leading to his young death.

In sequel novels

The Godfather Returns and The Godfather's Revenge

As, except for flashbacks, both Mark Winegardner sequel novels The Godfather Returns and The Godfather's Revenge take place after Sonny's death, Sonny has a small role in these novels. He is mentioned a few times- Tom reminisces about Sonny a few years after his death and it is mentioned by a reporter that Sonny had been charged with many crimes, which Tom corrects by saying that he had never been convicted of anything. Sonny's daughter Francesca Corleone plays a large role in both novels. In Returns, she learns from her twin sister Kathy that their family was involved in the Mafia, and that their father had not died in a car accident like they had been told. Francesca marries and has a son who she nicknames Sonny after her father. However, like her father, Francesca has a temper and she runs over and kills her husband after learning that he had an affair and was working against the family. The crime is pinned on her husband's mistress by Michael and Tom Hagen. In Revenge, Francesca begins working for the Vito Corleone Foundation and marries again, this time to family friend Johnny Fontane.

The Family Corleone

Sonny plays a large role and is the protagonist in Ed Falco's 2012 novel The Family Corleone. In 1933, Sonny is a teenager who wants to join his father's business, but knowing that Vito wouldn't allow it, has started his own gang with his best friend Bobby "Cork" Corcoran, whose widowed sister Eileen he is having an affair with. His gang mostly sticks up trucks importing illegal alcohol. As Sonny only robs non-Corleone trucks, unknowingly, the Corleone family is being blamed for the robberies. As the Corleones investigate who is actually responsible for the robberies, tensions increase between the Families, and also between Irish and Italian organized crimes groups.

Eventually, it is discovered that the stolen alcohol is being sold to Luca Brasi's gang. Don Vito Corleone goes personally to Luca Brasi to ask who is responsible, and Brasi directs him to Sonny's men, as Sonny never came in person to the sales. After capturing and interrogating them, one of Sonny's men gives him up. Sonny is brought in and he confirms that he was the mastermind behind the scheme. A frustrated Don Corleone realizes that he must bring Sonny into the family business after Sonny reveals that he witnessed the Don order the murder of Tom Hagen's father Henry. Sonny begins accompanying his father as a bodyguard, though most of his father's lessons about controlling his impulsiveness were lost on Sonny. Around this time, Sonny ended his affair with Eileen and began courting Sandra Colombo, the granddaughter of Signora Anita Colombo.

After tensions between the Families rise into full out war, Vito is shot in the shoulder. He was being shot by Stevie Dwyer in an assassination attempt, though, attempting to shoot Dwyer, Sonny's friend Cork accidentally shoots Vito. Sonny is ordered to make his bones by killing his friend. Sonny finds Cork, and though he explains the truth and Sonny believes him, Sonny also realizes that no one else will believe him and that someone will have to take revenge for the shooting of his father, even if it was accidental. Sonny intentionally provokes Cork into attacking him by revealing his affair with Eileen and shoots and kills him. Sonny is disgusted by his actions and barely leaves his room for a few weeks, taking visits from his mother and Tom Hagen.

By the time of his wedding to Sandra in 1935, Sonny is recovered and excited to be a part of the family business.

In video games

The Godfather: The Game

"Nothing worth a fuck gets done except by force, or the fear of it."
―Sonny Corleone to Aldo Trapani[src]

Sonny Corleone in the video game.

In The Godfather: The Game, Sonny had planned to eliminate Philip and John Tattaglia but they withdrew, and Sonny assigned Tessio to eliminate the family, using rising enforcer Aldo Trapani as a hitman. Sonny and Trapani also engaged in a war against the Cuneos, attacking a distribution racket run by Artie "The Moose" Manzanero. The two Corleones seized control of the network after a long a bloody firefight, an act which sealed Sonny's fate, he was too dangerous to be allowed to live. Aldo Trapani tracked the killers to The Tunnel Club and eliminated the Tattaglias, but was unable to act further as Don Vito rose from his sickbed in order to hastily call a truce.

Behind the scenes

  • Sonny's death scene is a reminiscent of the final death scene of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the film Bonnie and Clyde.
  • Just before Sonny is killed, he listens to a broadcast of the baseball playoff game won by Bobby Thomson hitting the Shot Heard Round the World. This would place Sonny's death on October 3, 1951, contradicting the original Godfather novel by several years.
  • Sonny and Tom's birth year was given as 1910 in the original novel, though this was changed to 1916 in The Godfather Part II.
  • Sonny was named after Sonny Capone, Al Capone's son.
  • During the video game he states to Aldo that when he is calm he is worse than when he is angry.
  • Sonny may be based on Bill Bonanno who was been groomed by his father Joe Bonanno to be Boss of the Bonanno family and when his father disappeared he led the family in a war against rival mobsters.
  • According to James Caan, the character of Sonny was partially inspired by late comedian Don Rickles.[2]
  • In The Godfather: The Game, Tyler Rocca's head structure is similar to Sonny's.


Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 The Godfather Supplements
  2. Elber, Lynn. "'Mr. Warmth' Don Rickles dies at 90". Pioneer Press. Digital First Media, 6 Apr. 2017. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.