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Michael Corleone

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If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.
~ Michael Corleone

Michael Corleone was the main protagonist in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather and a secondary protagonist in The Sicilian. He was also the main protagonist of the Godfather film trilogy that was directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Michael was born in 1920, the youngest son of Don Vito Corleone. He was the younger brother of Sonny and Fredo, and the older brother of Connie Corleone.

The Godfather

As first seen in The Godfather Michael was a young man in his mid-20s. He initially wanted nothing to do with the family business. Michael enrolled at Dartmouth College in order to escape the Corleone legacy. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, Michael dropped out to enlist in the Marine Corps and fights in the Pacific, despite his father's misgivings. Michael is awarded the Navy Cross for bravery and is featured in Life magazine in 1944.

Michael is discharged as a captain in early 1945 to recover from his wounds. He reenters Dartmouth, where he meets his future wife, Kay Adams. However, when his father is nearly assassinated in late 1945, he is thrust back into the world he has avoided for so long. Reaffirming his loyalty at his father's bedside Michael volunteered to kill both the men responsible; the drug kingpin Virgil Sollozzo and corrupt police captain Mark McCluskey. Sonny, who is running the family in their father's absence, was surprised that Michael was willing to go this far after years of wanting nothing to do with the family, especially that Michael is willing to kill a cop; it has long been a rule in the Mafia that policemen are not to be harmed. However, Michael argues that since McCluskey is serving as Sollozzo's bodyguard, he was fair game. Sonny agrees, and Michael kills both men at a restaurant.

Following the murders, Michael fled to Sicily, where he lives for two years under the watch of family friend Don Tommasino. While there, he falls in love with and soon marries a beautiful young woman named Apollonia. However, she was killed by a car bomb intended for Michael, planted by a corrupt bodyguard.

While in Sicily, Michael learned that Sonny had been murdered. Michael returned to New York around 1950 and became fully involved in the family's criminal enterprises, taking over Sonny's role as Vito's heir apparent. Rekindling his relationship with Kay he married her a year later. Michael tried to buy out casino owner Moe Greene stake in the casino, intending to move the family to Nevada.

After his father went into semi-retirement in 1954, Michael became operating head of the family, officially becoming Don after his father's death in 1955. Before his death, Vito warned Michael that the head of a rival family would make an attempt on Michael's life under the pretence of organizing a peace summit between the two families. His father's caporegime Salvatore Tessio inadvertently revealed that he had conspired with Emilio Barzini against him at his father's funeral, at which Michael decided to be godfather to Connie's child.

Michael arranged the murders of the leaders of the New York Mafia's other ruling families Dons: Emilio Barzini, Phillip Tattaglia, Carmine Cuneo, and Victor Stracci, as well as Moe Greene. During the baptism of Connie's child these men were all killed by Corleone associates. Tessio and Carlo Rizzi, his brother-in-law - who had earlier set Sonny up to be murdered - were eliminated a short time later. In one stroke, Michael reestablished the Corleone family as the most powerful crime family in the nation, and makes a reputation for himself as being even more cunning and ruthless than his father.

When Connie found out that Michael had Carlo killed after he stood godfather to their son, she flies into a rage. Michael dismisses this as hysteria and denied any involvement in the murder. Moments later, however, Michael met with his capos, where Peter Clemenza greeted him as "Don Corleone" and kissed his hand much as he did with his father. Another capo kissed Michael's hand as well. Kay saw this and realized that Connie was telling the truth after all, that her husband had become the new Don Corleone.

The Godfather Part II

In The Godfather Part II, set a few years after the move to Nevada, Michael is now in his late-30s and fully established as the head of the Corleone empire. Frank Pentangeli, head of the former Clemenza regime, now runs the family's business in New York. Michael's efforts at redeeming the family have been largely unsuccessful, however, because his many enemies have kept him involved in the criminal underworld. Michael began working out a deal with business partner and rival Hyman Roth over control of casino operations. However, Roth manipulated Michael's brother Fredo into providing him with information that was used to arrange an attempt on Michael's life. Roth also attempts to murder Pentangeli while convincing the capo that Michael was to blame.

Michael, Fredo and Roth traveled to Cuba under Fulgencio Batista to forge a partnership with the Cuban government that will allow them to be free to conduct their operations in Cuba without interference from the authorities, in return for generous payments to Batista. While in Cuba, Michael sent his bodyguard to eliminate Roth on New Year's Eve, but the plan fails because the old man is hospitalized. That night, Michael discovers that Fredo had conspired with Roth. During the New Year's Eve festivities, victorious rebel forces entered Havana, forcing Batista into exile and the crime bosses out of the country, their plans in Cuba ruined. Fredo, afraid of his brother, refused to flee with Michael. Roth, meanwhile, fled to Miami.


Michael in 1959, pondering his recent actions.

Back in the U.S., Michael meets with Fredo, who reveals that Roth's right-hand man, Johnny Ola, had promised to make him rich independently of the family if he informed on Michael, and that he withheld key information about the Senate investigation. Fredo also revealed that he has always resented his brother, and felt he should have taken over the family after their father's death. Michael disowned Fredo, and tells bodyguard Al Neri that nothing is to happen to his brother while their mother is alive; the implication is that, once she dies, Neri is to murder Fredo.

Meanwhile, Pentangeli had been persuaded to testify against Michael in the Senate's investigation of organized crime. However, Michael arranges for Pentageli's brother Vincenzo to travel from Sicily to attend the hearings. Seeing his brother in the hearing room and understanding the threat, Pentageli renounces his earlier sworn statements, throwing the hearings into chaos and effectively ending the government's case against Michael.

Kay came to the realization that Michael would always live in a world of crime and violence, and decided to leave him and take the children with her. Michael begs her to reconsider, but an unmolified Kay reveals that what she had initially told Michael was a miscarriage was in fact an abortion; she tells Michael that she didn't want to risk giving birth to another son. Enraged, Michael hit Kay in the face and banishes her from the family; they divorce later that year, with Michael keeping custody of the children. He would later give up custody of the children to Kay.

Following the death of their mother, and at the behest of his sister Connie, Michael appears to reconcile with his brother. It is only a ploy to draw him in, however; soon afterward, Neri murders Fredo on Michael's orders. This act haunts Michael for the rest of his life. What he did not realize at the time was that his son Anthony had seen the murder, which further alienated father and son.

At the same time, Michael sent Tom Hagen to convince Pentageli to commit suicide in order to spare revenge against the rest of his family, and sent Rocco Lampone to kill a heavily-guarded Roth at Miami International Airport upon his return to the U.S.

The Godfather Part III


An aged Michael Corleone in 1979.

In The Godfather Part III, set in 1979-80, an aging Michael has taken great steps to make the family legitimate, preparing to hand over his interests in gambling to the other Mafia families, setting up a charitable foundation, and even being recognized by the Vatican for his good works. This new connection to the Church gives Michael the opportunity to purchase a controlling stake in the large property company, Immobiliare. He also begins to rekindle his relationship with Kay, and begins grooming Sonny's illegitimate son Vincent Mancini as the new head of the family business. The relationship is not without friction, however; Michael is deeply troubled by his beloved daughter Mary's romance with Vincent, fearing that it will put her in danger.

On the night Michael announces that he dissolving his gambling empire, one of his enforcers, Joey Zasa, wiped out most of The Commission in an elaborate helicopter attack in Atlantic City; Michael and his old friend Don Altobello escape with Vincent's help. Traumatized by the attack, Michael has a diabetic stroke, leaving him briefly incapacitated; in his absence, Connie gives Vincent and Neri the go-ahead to kill Zasa.

Michael soon discovers that Immobiliare, specifically the wily Licio Lucchesi and the scheming Archbishop Gilday, are out to fleece him, and he seeks the assistance of Don Tommasino. Tommasino directs him to Cardinal Lamberto (the future Pope John Paul I), to whom Michael makes his first confession in 30 years, breaking down in tears when admitting that he ordered Fredo's murder. Lamberto tells Michael that it is just that he suffers for his terrible sins, but that he still has a chance for redemption.


Michael shortly before his death in 1997.

Michael later returns to Sicily to watch Anthony perform at the Teatro Massimo. However, he soon becomes aware of an assassin, Mosca, whom Altobello, in league with the plotters, had hired to kill him. Mosca kills Tommasino, and Michael vows before his old friend's coffin to sin no more.

Soon afterward, weary of the bloody, lonely life of a Don, Michael retireed and made his nephew the new head of the family, on condition that he end the relationship with Mary. Realising that powerful interests in Italian politics and business were working to prevent the family's takeover of Immobiliare, Michael, with Vincent's assistance, once again prepares to move against his enemies. This bloody wave of murders takes place as Michael, reconciled with Kay and Anthony, watches his son perform in the opera Cavalleria Rusticana. That same night, however, Mosca inadvertently kills Mary in an assassination attempt on her father. Mary's death breaks Michael's spirit, and he cries out in agony over her corpse. He retires to Sicily, where he dies years later, completely alone. (According to a timeline graphic included in a The Godfather DVD box set, Michael Corleone's death occurs in 1997.)

The Sicilian

Michael is a secondary character in Puzo's novel The Sicilian, which takes place during his exile in Sicily. He learns from Clemenza about the legendary exploits of the novel's main character, Salvatore Guiliano (based on Salvatore Giuliano, but Puzo changed his name), and is eager to meet him, but Guiliano is murdered before the meeting can take place. For copyright reasons, Michael was left out of the film adaptation of the novel.

Sequel novels and video game

Michael appears in Mark Winegardner's sequel novels The Godfather Returns and The Godfather's Revenge. In Godfather Returns, set roughly during the time of Godfather Part II, Michael battles with a new rival, Nick Geraci, while attempting to legitimize the family. In Godfather's Revenge, set just after the second film, he moves to protect his criminal empire against a powerful political family, while dealing with his guilt over having Fredo killed.

He appears in The Godfather: The Game and The Godfather II, but is neither voiced by nor modeled after Al Pacino in either game.

Behind the Scenes

  • Michael Corleone was portrayed by Al Pacino, who was twice nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Michael. (Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather, and Best Actor for The Godfather Part II).
  • Corleone was recognized as the 11th most iconic villain in film history by the American Film Institute. Some critics considered Michael Corleone to be a tragic hero.

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