When audiences are captivated by an actor's performance in a movie, it's common to describe them as being "born for that role." However, few actors were as tailor-made for a part than that of Lenny Montana as Luca Brasi in the legendary 1972 film, "The Godfather." According to the Vintage News, Montana was a mob enforcer before playing one on the big screen. Not even the most dedicated method actors could claim such authenticity when preparing for their roles.
But before Montana worked for the mob in film and in real life, he was born Leonardo Passafaro in 1926 in Brooklyn, New York. His first successful career was in professional wrestling, wherein he performed in a gaudy outfit as Zebra Kid, as noted by Vintage News. However, you'd be silly to make fun of him; in his prime, he was over 6 feet tall and weighed more than 230 pounds. It was his hulking figure that no doubt helped secure him a job as a mob enforcer in the 1960s, and it was only a matter of time before he'd end up in front of the camera.
How a mob enforcer ended up in The Godfather
According to Vanity Fair, the filming of "The Godfather" had commenced before an actor was cast as Don Corleone's enforcer Luca Brasi. While the search continued for the small yet important role, some members of the mob in New York City were hanging around the production as part of a deal set up by the film's producer, Al Ruddy, in order for the crew to shoot there. A mafia don happened to be on the set one day, along with his massive bodyguard, Lenny Montana. When director Francis Ford Coppola saw him, he knew he was perfect for the part, and cast him immediately.
As stated in Vanity Fair, Montana would regale the cast and crew with wild stories from his experience in the criminal underworld. Associate producer Gray Frederickson recalled, "He used to tell us all these things, like, he was an arsonist. ... He'd tie tampons on the tail of a mouse, dip it in kerosene, light it, and let the mouse run through a building. Or he'd put a candle in front of a cuckoo clock, and when the cuckoo would pop out, the candle would fall over and start a fire." However, Montana apparently also had a massive heart in his massive frame; one story goes that when Ruddy's secretary Bettye McCartt broke her watch, Montana returned to her a week later with an antique diamond-encrusted watch — along with a warning not to wear it in Florida.
How Lenny Montana learned to loosen up on set
Even though Lenny Montana's role as Luca Brasi was relatively brief, it was memorable. However, according to the New York Post, the wrestler-mob enforcer-actor required some extra attention to get over his nerves of being in a major film and interacting with Marlon Brando. This prompted director Francis Ford Coppola to turn to James Caan, who played Santino "Sonny" Corleone in "The Godfather," to get Montana to loosen up.
As stated in the New York Post, Caan had a wicked sense of humor, so he concocted a plan for Montana to play on Brando when he shot his scene with him. Speaking to the Post, Caan recounted how he instructed Montana to stick his tongue out when his character said "Don Corleone." His tongue, apparently, had a piece of tape that Caan fashioned with the words "f*** you." Understandably, Montana was reluctant. However, he ultimately went along with the plan, which immediately got the cast and crew rolling in laughter. This, apparently, was enough to calm Montana's nerves, and he was able to shoot one of the most famous scenes in the movie.