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In the novel and film, he is the oldest son of New York City Mafia Don Vito Corleone and Carmela Corleone. He has two brothers, Fredo and Michael, an adoptive brother, Tom Hagen, and a sister, Connie. In the film, Sonny was portrayed by James Caan, who reprised his role for a flashback scene in Part II. Director Francis Ford Coppola's son Roman Coppola played Sonny as a boy in the 1920s scene of that film.
Born in 1916, Sonny is depicted in both the novel and the movies as the most impulsive and violent of Vito's children and the most involved in his father's criminal operations. The novel provides additional backstory for Sonny: when he was 16, he committed a robbery. His father learns about it from Peter Clemenza, who stood as godfather to Sonny. When Vito asks Sonny why he did this, Sonny tells him that he saw his father kill the blackhander Don Fanucci years earlier. He then tells his father, "I want to learn how to sell olive oil." Vito realizes what Sonny really means, and sends him to Clemenza for training.
Role in the Godfather saga
Sonny "makes his bones" when he is 19, and soon afterward becomes a capo in his father's family. By the end of World War II, he is his father's underboss and heir apparent, respected and feared as a ruthless killer with an explosive temper. He is not without a softer side, however; at the age of 11, he takes in a homeless boy, Tom Hagen, who thereafter lives with the family and becomes the family's consigliere. As the oldest child, he serves as a protector to his younger siblings and is shown to have a very close relationship with his brother, Michael, and sister, Connie. The book also reveals that he cannot bring himself to harm women or children, or anyone who can't defend themselves.
Although Sonny has a wife, Sandra, and four children, he frequently cheats on her with other women, including Lucy Mancini, who served as one of his sister's bridesmaids. The normal course of events in Sonny’s life is upturned when Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo comes to Don Vito with an offer of entering the narcotics trade, backed by the Tattaglia Family. During the meeting, Sonny speaks out of turn and expresses interest in the plan. Vito refuses the offer, however, and Sollozzo tries to assassinate him in hopes that Sonny, as his father's successor, will go into business with him.
The assassination attempt fails but leaves Vito near death, although he eventually recovers. Sonny takes over as acting boss. When Sonny finds out that the Tattaglias also killed longtime Corleone enforcer Luca Brasi, he orders the death of Bruno Tattaglia, son and underboss of family boss Philip Tattaglia. He then issues an ultimatum to the Tattaglias: Turn over Sollozzo or face war. This sets off the first real conflict in the New York Mafia in a decade, and puts the novel's plot in motion. Sonny's death.Michael, who had previously distanced himself from the family's criminal enterprise, volunteers to kill Sollozzo and his bodyguard, police Captain McCluskey. Sonny is impressed by Michael's loyalty, but doubts that his "college boy" brother has it in him to commit murder. Additionally, despite his violent streak, Sonny is leery of killing a police officer, as it has long been a hard and fast rule in the American Mafia that police and other law enforcement officials are not to be harmed. However, Sonny ultimately gives Michael the clearance to carry out the hit after Michael convinces him that since McCluskey is serving as Sollozzo's bodyguard, he has crossed into their world and is fair game. Sollozzo and McCluskey set a meeting with him in a small Italian restaurant in the Bronx. Michael kills them both, and is sent immediately to Sicily to wait out the inevitable crackdown on the Five Families.
In retaliation, Don Emilio Barzini, the real mastermind of the conspiracy, enlists the help of Sonny's brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, in setting a trap for Sonny. Sonny had already beaten Carlo to a pulp upon learning that Carlo was abusing Connie. To draw Sonny out into the open, a vengeful Carlo inflicts a particularly vicious beating on Connie, who telephones Sonny, begging for help. In a fit of rage, Sonny speeds out of the family compound unaccompanied, and heads for Connie's apartment in Hell's Kitchen to confront Carlo. As Sonny approaches the Long Beach Causeway toll plaza, Barzini's men emerge with tommy guns and gun him down before he can flee.
Sonny's death does not go unavenged, however. Vito realises, during a Commission meeting with the heads of the other crime families, that Barzini was responsible, and following Michael's ascension to power, Michael orders the deaths of the other mafia heads to cement his position as the most powerful mafia head in New York. Michael also has Clemenza kill Carlo after getting him to confess by falsely promising him exile instead of death for Connie's sake.
Role in Godfather sequels
Sonny appears in the original Godfather and in its sequel, The Godfather Part II. In the latter film, he briefly appears in some flashbacks as a young child. A later scene portrays the family dinner in which Michael announces he is volunteering to fight in World War II. He is angered by Michael's decision, and he berates his brother for risking his life "for a bunch of strangers." The flashback reveals that Sonny introduced Carlo to Connie and the rest of the family, hence their later marriage.
In The Godfather Part III, Vincent Mancini is introduced as the illegitimate son of Sonny and Lucy Mancini. Vincent succeeds Michael as head of the Corleone family at the end of the film. Vincent inherites Sonny's fiery temper which causes Michael to fear that Vincent will meet an early death like Sonny. Vincent's existence in the film contradicts the literary universe, as Puzo's original novel stated that Lucy never bore a child with Sonny.
- Vito Corleone — Father; played by Marlon Brando; in Part II played by Robert De Niro as young adult Vito Corleone.
- Carmela Corleone — Mother; played by Morgana King.
- Costanza 'Connie' Corleone-Rizzi — Sister; played by Talia Shire.
- Fredo Corleone — oldest brother; played by John Cazale.
- Michael Corleone — Youngest brother; played by Al Pacino.
- Tom Hagen — Adopted brother; played by Robert Duvall.
- Mary Corleone — Niece; played by Sofia Coppola.
- Anthony Vito Corleone — Nephew; played by Anthony Gounaris in The Godfather, played by James Gounaris in The Godfather Part II, and played by Franc D'Ambrosio in The Godfather Part III.
- Sandra Corleone — Wife; played by Julie Gregg.
- Francesca Corleone — daughter, born 1937.
- Kathryn Corleone — daughter, born 1937.
- Frank Corleone — son, born 1940.
- Santino Corleone Jr. — son, born 1945.
- Vincent Corleone — illegitimate son with Lucy Mancini born circa 1946, played by Andy García.
- Paulie Gatto: Sonny ordered Peter Clemenza to kill Paulie because he betrayed Don Vito Corleone. (1945)
- Bruno Tattaglia: Sonny ordered Salvatore Tessio to kill Bruno because he plotted Don Vito Corleone's attempted assassination with Virgil Sollozzo. (1945)
- Virgil Sollozzo: Sonny ordered Sollozzo "The Turk" killed because he plotted Don Vito Corleone's attempted assassination with Bruno Tattaglia. (1947)
- Captain Mark McCluskey: Sonny ordered Captain McCluskey killed because he was assisting the Tattaglia Family. (1947)
Behind the Scenes
- Coppola staged Sonny's death scene in The Godfather to be reminiscent of the final death scene of Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) in Bonnie and Clyde.
- Coppola had the car radio play the 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 novel by several years.
- Among the actors auditioning for the role of Michael during casting for The Godfather, one unknown off-Broadway actor named Robert De Niro also read for Sonny's part, as well as Michael's and Carlo's, without success. Raw footage of him in the scene where Paulie Gatto offers to kill Rizzi can be seen on the DVD. Eventually, Coppola cast Caan in the role and gave De Niro the part of Paulie, but he "traded" him to the film The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight for Al Pacino, who soon got the part of Michael. Anthony Perkins not only auditioned for Sonny, but also for Tom Hagen.
- Originally Caan was to be cast as the main character Michael Corleone (Sonny's youngest brother), while Carmine Caridi was signed as Sonny. However Coppola demanded that the role of Michael be played by Al Pacino instead. The studio agreed to Pacino but insisted on having Caan be cast as Sonny, so he remained in the production.
- Caan was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film, competing with co-stars Pacino and Robert Duvall, giving the movie three entries in that category.
- Sonny's death scene has been parodied several times on The Simpsons, including in the final scene of "All's Fair in Oven War," an episode in which Caan lent his voice. In that episode, the tollbooth death scene is re-enacted as part of Cletus Spuckler's revenge on Caan for "stealing" his wife Brandine's heart. The scene where Sonny beats Carlo Rizzi has also been parodied, in the episode "Strong Arms of the Ma". In the episode "Mr. Plow", Bart is pelted with snowballs in a similar fashion to that of Sonny's final moments.
- The tollbooth scene was parodied along with the execution montage in the final scene of the "Dabba Don" episode of the series Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. In this scene the Ant Hill Mob from Wacky Races gun down Judge Mightor from their car.
- Bill Simmons, a columnist for ESPN.com, frequently compares the "Sonny Corleone move" to the "Michael Corleone move" when referring to hasty, rash decisions that end badly when a patient, reasoned approach would have been far more successful. Often, this analogy applies to free agent signings and trades in the NBA.
- In the episode "The Sundance Kids" of HBO's Entourage, after pelting Ari Gold with snowballs, Turtle makes a reference to Sonny's death by saying "we went Sonny Corleone on your ass." Also, in Season 3 in the episode "What about Bob?" Turtle makes a similar reference when he says "Vince, what the hell is going on? I feel like Sonny Corleone at the toll booth!".