As exhilarating as it is to watch The Godfather, there’s nothing enjoyable about the real-life characters who inspired it. Gangsters were real people, vicious and dominant — and one of their supreme leaders was once Frank Costello. He was the inspiration behind Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but the true story behind this mob boss is far less humanizing.
Having immigrated with his family from southern Italy to New York at four years old, Frank Costello was only 13 when he started getting involved with criminal activity. He was following the lead of his older brother Edward, who had found a way into the underground gang scene. But Frank soon showed that he was naturally built for that life in his own right.
It wasn’t long before Frank became quite the juvenile delinquent, committing petty crimes such as robbery and assault. These crimes didn’t go unnoticed. Throughout his teen years he was frequently arrested. But clearly a few slaps on the wrist weren’t enough to steer him off the dark path he was already embarking on.
He Spent His First Year Of Marriage In Jail
In 1918, Frank Costello married a young Jewish woman named Lauretta Geigerman, who was the sister of a close friend of his. But the 27-year-old newlywed had already been knee-deep in crime for a decade and a half — and he was about to get served big time.
In the very same year that they were married, Costello was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. He served 10 months in prison, which was one of his longest sentences yet — and not a great start to a marriage. It was the forecast for a stormy horizon.
Frank Costello and “Lucky” Luciano Came From Different Gangs
One of the most well known alliances in mobster history was that of Frank Costello and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano. They were a terrifying force to be reckoned with in New York City during the early 20th century. But unbeknownst to many, although they are commonly associated with one another, they actually came from two different gangs.
Costello, up in East Harlem, had been part of the Morello gang, while Luciano was from Manhattan’s Lower East Side gang. This caused a lot of controversy. Many members of Luciano’s family grew suspicious of their strong partnership, even as it was continuing to evolve.
Shattering Barriers Within The Mobster World
Many of the leading crime bosses in the heyday of the American Mafia were of Italian origin. Mobsters have a tendency to keep their business “in the family”, so to speak. But apparently that mentality didn’t extend further than local borders — the island of Sicily, in the case of the Lucianos.
Since Costello was originally from Calabria, Italy, the Luciano family ostracized him for not being Sicilian. In fact, despite the two regions being next to each other in southern Italy, they called him the “dirty Calabrian”. But Costello and Lucky Luciano himself didn’t care about such barriers. They proceeded to lead mob culture, ironically enough, into an era of acceptance within clan lines.
Not An American Citizen Until His 30s
Even though Frank Costello immigrated to America when he was only four years old, it took him a long time to acquire U.S. citizenship. In fact, he wasn’t able to become a citizen until he was 34! Although he and his family had moved to the supposed land of opportunity, clearly their options were more limited than others.
This uncomfortable situation by no means excuses Costello for the choices the mob boss eventually made. However, not being a citizen in the country you live in can lead to feelings of emotional alienation, which may have made it easier for him to justify his various crimes.
Powerful Alliances With Other Mobsters On The Rise
Mob boss Frank Costello’s rise to the top wouldn’t have been possible without his band of brothers. As he started to get more and more entrenched into the gang world, he teamed up with other rising mobsters, such as William “Big Bill” Dwyer, Owney “the Killer” Madden, and Dutch Schultz.
But who was the one helping these youngsters rise up in the ranks? They were mentored by mobster veteran Arnold Rothstein, and they seemed unstoppable. But below the surface, things were getting heated, and it wasn’t long before vulnerable cracks in their armor were discovered.
His Friends Became His Enemies Extremely Quickly
After Frank Costello was given a special promotion to oversee shipping of bootlegged beer products, a fellow acquaintance, Charles “Vannie” Higgins, was outraged. Higgins believed he should’ve received the job, and tensions between the two young mobsters on the rise began to get heated.
Soon, Higgins and his close mobster friends were targeting Costello and his crew, and things were about to get quite ugly. This feud was heated enough to receive its own nickname, the “Manhattan Beer Wars”. But that was nothing compared to what was about to happen.
How Frank Costello Changed The Face Of Mob Culture
At some point during the late 1920s, it became clear to Mafia leaders that it was no good fighting each other. In order to solve this problem, mob boss Johnny Torrio created an organization called “The Big Seven”, which included Frank Costello.
The organization was created in order to prevent petty wars between gangs, which only seemed to weaken the mob community as a whole. In 1929, Costello and the rest of the Big Seven created the National Crime Syndicate. To the public, this seemed to have established a unified front within the mob.
Frank Costello Really Spoke That Way In Real Life
When Marlon Brando was given the role of Vito Corleone in the film adaptation of The Godfather, he immersed himself into the role completely, taking method acting to its fullest. That meant researching the life of Frank Costello, who the character was mainly intended to be based on.
As part of his preparation process, Brando began listening to old tapes of Costello talking, and modeled his character’s voice after Costello’s. Considering the fact that Vito Corleone’s unique, soft-spoken voice is one of his most iconic features, it adds another layer of depth to the real-life criminal knowing that was his character trait as well. But the softness ended there.
Taking Out Major Mafia Bosses
As much as the mob tried to keep the peace within their ranks, eventually that proved to be easier said than done. In 1931, a dispute broke out between elite mobsters Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Lucky Luciano was then promised Masseria’s job if he had him killed, and that’s what precisely he did.
Not long after, Luciano caught wind that Maranzano was targeting him as well, so he enlisted Frank Costello and some others for help. They had Maranzano killed as well, making them pseudo-leaders of the 1930s mob. This series of morbid events was also known as the Castellammarese War.
Starting ‘The Commission’
“The Commission” was famously the reason the police were eventually able to take down the mob. Much like the meeting of the clans depicted in The Godfather, this essentially represented a union between the major five mob families — and Frank Costello was a big part of its inception.
Lucky Luciano was its primary founder, but Costello was his right-hand man, and certainly influenced his decision-making quite a bit. In fact, even as a mob boss, Frank Costello was known for not killing others unless it was absolutely necessary — a trait that the mob isn’t exactly known for.
Lucky Luciano’s Consigliere
Once Luciano became the boss, a new hierarchy was created, and Frank Costello came out on top. In fact, Costello became Luciano’s consigliere, or chief advisor. This esteemed role is arguably the highest possible position a mobster can have other than being the actual boss.
It wasn’t long before Costello started to bring in a fortune for the Commission, proving to Luciano that he had made the right decision. However, as things often did in the mob, other people with less power were growing impatient with their place in the pecking order.
The New York Gambling Scene
Frank Costello made millions for the mob by controlling New York’s slot machines, among other gambling platforms. Together with his partner Philip “Dandy Phil” Kastel, Costello brought over 25,000 slot machines into New York, and it became a lucrative business for the pair for the next three years.
Eventually, New York City’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, had these slot machines destroyed by dumping them into the river. But that wasn’t enough to stop Costello, who subsequently built another massive slot machine operation in Louisiana, together with another partner, New Orleans-based Carlos “Little Man” Marcello.
How Frank Costello Became The Boss
As so often happens in the mob world, members are promoted not necessarily because they’ve proved their worth, but because higher-up members get arrested or killed. That’s exactly what happened with Frank Costello, who had been in prime position to ascend to power when his boss, Lucky Luciano, was arrested in 1936.
However, it was Luciano’s underboss, Vito Genovese, who was given the title of acting boss. But after Genovese was indicted that same year, Luciano awarded Costello with the highly coveted gig. Now it was Costello’s turn to be the man in charge.
Pulling Political Strings Behind The Scenes
In the early 1950s, after Frank Costello had been the mob boss for over a decade, it was reported that he had been secretly working with a politician by the name of Carmine DeSapio, and thus influencing the political climate behind the scenes.
Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver was in charge of incarcerating Costello for this crime, which resulted in a sentence of 18 months. But Costello was about to get in a whole lot more trouble. Law and order was knocking on his door, and he could no longer ignore it.
Frank Costello Evaded Paying Over $73K In Taxes
It seems almost obvious to say that Frank Costello had cheated the tax system. The repercussions would be swift and fierce. In fact, Costello was sent to prison for five years in 1952 due to having incurred $73,417 through income tax evasion between the years 1946 and 1949.
However, due to his sheer influence and power, he was released after a mere two years, and a hefty $50,000 bail. Like most mob leaders, prison was only a slight hiccup, a rite of passage on the road to success.
Frank Costello Was A Lot Darker In Real Life
While Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone and the real-life Frank Costello shared countless similarities, there was one striking difference in their presentation. Although Corleone certainly gave an aura of menace in The Godfather, we never actually see him directly kill someone, in any scenes.
To be fair, we do see him commit murder in a flashback scene in the sequel, The Godfather: Part II, but that was with Robert DeNiro, and we’re focusing on Marlon Brando’s version of the character. The Godfather “sells” Corleone as a family man that viewers can relate to. But if they saw what he actually did in real life, they would probably become repulsed.
Vito Genovese Tried To Have Costello Killed
In 1957, rising mob boss Vito Genovese decided that Frank Costello was becoming too much of a liability, and sought to have him killed. He quickly enlisted the help of Vincent “The Chin” Gigante to carry it through, and that’s when things got dicey.
It seemed as though Costello’s heyday was about to come to a close. In May 1957, Gigante attempted to assassinate Costello by shooting him point blank outside of his apartment. Unfortunately for the motivated youngster, he only succeeded in wounding the mob boss.
And Costello Surprisingly Gave Up His Power
Vincent Gigante’s attack on Costello, while not fatal, alarmed the mob boss, alerting him that his life was in imminent danger. Instead of ordering a swift retaliation on Genovese and Gigante, he willingly relinquished control, making way for Genovese to step in the driver’s seat.
Again, this proves that Costello wasn’t your typical ruthless mafioso with no boundaries. By cordially allowing Genovese to take his place even though he’d tried to have him killed, Costello showed that he cared more about his life than his own beloved throne.
A Boss Even In Retirement
Even after Frank Costello had supposedly retired from the mobster life, he continued to control underground affairs in the mafia. In fact, he was still being called “The Prime Minister of the Underworld” well into his old age, giving off an all-encompassing aura of power.
Costello maintained close relationships with all the major bosses in New York, from Carlo Gambino to Tommy “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese. When one stops to think about it, this information actually sheds a lot of light on the way he was portrayed in The Godfather.
People Would Visit Frank Costello In His Sanctuary
Throughout Frank Costello’s old age, he would sit calmly on his throne while people came to him for advice. Mobsters would come to see Costello in his Waldorf Astoria penthouse, where they’d ask him questions and even ask him favors.
This seems eerily similar to the way he was represented in the very first scene of The Godfather. Perhaps The Godfather represented Costello’s old age best, in the sense that we never actually see him committing crimes, but rather, taking action from “behind the scenes”.
An Unlikely Hobby
Towards the end of his life, Frank Costello started getting into gardening. In fact, his very own flowers were displayed prominently in local horticultural shows. While it may seem surprising to some, we actually think it makes a lot of sense.
After living a life rife with sin and chaos, it’s not hard to see why gardening would’ve provided the peace and tranquility he’d been missing out on in his years. This, too, echoes the scene of Marlon Brando’s character’s death in The Godfather, playing in his vegetable garden with his grandson. Still, it’s a fun fact that most people don’t know about Costello.
Targeted Even After Death
While relaxing in his Manhattan home in February 1973, Costello suffered a heart attack. He was quickly rushed to the hospital, but they were unable to save his life. His memorial service was attended by around 50 friends, family, and interestingly enough, law enforcement officials.
But a year later, in a shocking and unfortunate development, the mausoleum in which he was buried was unceremoniously bombed. This was allegedly perpetrated by a past enemy of his, mobster Carmine Galante. The mafia certainly has a way of never forgetting grudges. And that extended to Hollywood depictions.
The Mob Threatened Producers To Not Make The Film
When The Godfather was being filmed, the mob wasn’t happy about it. Mob boss Joe Colombo ordered his deputies to send the producers a message — which included threatening Paramount executive Robert Evans that his wife and child were in danger.
Eventually, producer Al Ruddy — after mobsters had trashed his car — negotiated a deal with Colombo. They’d be allowed to make the film, as long as they never actually used the word “mafia” once. Not a bad deal, considering how iconic the film became!
Frank Costello’s Father Wasn’t Killed In Sicily
In an early flashback scene in The Godfather: Part II, we learn that Don Corleone was born in Southern Italy, where his father was assassinated by the merciless Don Ciccio. But in real life, Frank Costello’s father was never murdered in that manner.
In fact, Costello’s father had left Italy years before his son ever did. His father had moved to New York City, where he opened up a grocery store in East Harlem. In 1895, he was joined there by his sons, Frank and Edward, along with his wife.
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