Lenny Montana (born Leonard Passafaro) (March 13, 1926 – May 12, 1992) was an American actor, who played the role of feared hitman Luca Brasi in The Godfather. Prior to becoming an actor, he had a successful career as a professional wrestler.
Early wrestling career
He was born in Brooklyn, New York City in 1926 of Italian American heritage. He was fluent in both the English and Italian languages. His wrestling career began in neighboring New Jersey in 1953. He wrestled under the Zebra Kid gimmick, and was billed at the height of 6 foot 6 inches. It wasn't long before Montana found success. Along with Golden Terror, they won the New Jersey Tag Team titles on April 4, 1953. Lenny began to travel on the road, wrestling in the Midwest. He soon won the NWA Central States Heavyweight Championship, defeating Dave Sims on October 1, 1953 in Kansas City. However he lost the title on December 11, 1953 to Sonny Myers, who had held the title a previous three times before defeating the Zebra Kid. His final success of the 1950s came in 1956, winning the NWA Texas Tag Team Championship with Gene Kiniski, defeating Herb Freeman and Ray Gunkel on September 18 in Dallas under the alias Len Crosby. He also worked as a bouncer during this time to earn extra money, refusing patrons and removing drunken customers at several bars and clubs.
Later wrestling career
By the late 1950s, Montana was on the road with the Carnival Circuit as a wrestler. As a popular wrestler within the circuit, Montana met the then unknown Eddie Sharkey in 1960. The two struck up a friendship. After seeing what Sharkey could do, Montana recommended that he try his hand at professional wrestling. Montana also clued in Sharkey on the then-unacknowledged truth about professional wrestling, that all the outcomes are predetermined. Later on in that year, Montana won the NWA Texas World Tag Team titles with Joe Christie, under the Len Crosby name. Then with Hard Boiled Haggarty, he won the AWA World Tag Team Championship on October 4, 1960, defeating Stan Kowalski and Tiny Mills (wrestling as Murder Inc.) in Minneapolis. But in a match against Verne Gagne, Montana suffered a broken leg, forcing Haggarty to choose a new partner. After recovering from his injury, in 1961 Montana began to wrestle in Florida. He came to the Tampa Bay area and began to wrestle under The Zebra Kid alias. At his great size, he would often pin his opponents in under one minute. The Zebra Kid had a notable feud with Eddie Graham; their battles sold out Fort Homer Hesterly Armory many Tuesday nights in 1961. Things came to a head when Montana defeated Eddie Graham in a NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship (Georgia version) title match on May 1, 1962. On November 23, 1962, he won the NWA (Georgia) Southern Tag Team Titles with his partner Gypsy Joe, defeating 'Grizzly' Jake Smith and Luke Brown. Montana then went on to form a powerful partnership with Tarzan Tyler, in which they would win three titles. First, the NWA International Tag Team Titles on April 9, 1963 defeating Ted Evans and Chief Little Eagle, then again winning the NWA International Tag Team Titles later in June 1963, defeating billed champions Chief Little Eagle and Dick Steinborn. Finally, the duo won the NWA World Tag Team Championship in Georgia, during October 1963, they defeated Karl Von Brauner and Kurt Von Brauner. Montana was due to be Gorilla Monsoon's tag team partner in 1964, but it never happened due to Monsoon becoming partners with The African Savage at the last minute. Lenny had been interested in acting, and was meeting with casting agents in Los Angeles at the same time he was due to team up with Bison. Montana began to wrestle less and less, and went into semi-retirement; however he appeared in matches up until his acting career took off in the early 1970s.
Working for the Colombo Family
Montana became involved with the Colombo Organized Crime family in the late 1960s. Tall and very heavily built, his talents were mostly as an enforcer and an arsonist. He would tie a tampon to the tail of a mouse, dip it in kerosene, light it, and let the mouse run through a building, or he would put a candle in front of a cuckoo clock so that when the clock's bird would pop out the candle would be knocked over and start a fire. Eventually, Montana ended up doing time in Riker's Island Prison. Upon being released, as a friend of the family, Montana would act as a bodyguard for many of the senior members of the Colombo Family.
The beginning of an acting career, role in The Godfather
The filming of the classic film The Godfather faced strong opposition from the Italian-American Civil Rights League, the disputes headed by Joe Colombo and also heavy opposition from Frank Sinatra threatening its whole production. Producer Al Ruddy eventually made a deal with the league and Joe Colombo to cut the word Mafia from the script, and the league were behind the production of the film. This meant many mobsters would be present on the set of The Godfather. It was in 1971 that Montana was acting as a bodyguard for a senior Colombo Family member that he met Francis Ford Coppola and Al Ruddy. After being introduced to the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Montana, they quickly cast him for the role of Luca Brasi. When Bettye McCartt, Al Ruddy's assistant, broke her watch, Montana offered to get her a new one. A week later, Montana returned with a "gift from the boys" – an antique diamond watch. He was picked for the part after the original actor playing the character died of a stroke. This would be his first film appearance. His role was that of brutal mob enforcer Luca Brasi, a hitman used by Don Corleone (Marlon Brando). Montana was so nervous about appearing opposite Brando that he kept practicing his lines over and over again. Francis Ford Coppola rewrote the scene to feature this. Montana also suffered an attack of nerves during the scene where his character thanked the Don; Coppola also wrote this into the script as Brasi being overwhelmed by the Don's invitation to his daughter's wedding. He had little screen time in the role of Luca Brasi, but his notable height and physique caught the eye of producers, and he appeared in several movies and television programs after appearing in The Godfather.
Film and TV career
After appearing in The Godfather, Montana was an actor in demand. One of the first of these roles was the Italian spoof film L'Altra faccia del padrino (AKA The funny face of The Godfather) in 1973. Montana had the role of Saro, and an artist's rendition of Montana appeared on the film's poster. He established himself as an efficient character actor and appeared in Patty (1976), Fingers (1978) as the pizzeria owner Luchino, Matilda (1978), They Went That - A - Way & That - A - Way (1978), The Jerk (1979), Seven (1979), Below the Belt (1980), Defiance (1980), Battle Creek Brawl (1980) alongside Jackie Chan, Evilspeak (1981), ...All the Marbles (1981) and finally Pandemonium in 1982. Montana also made a cameo appearance as Skipper in 1982 movie Blood Song. He also acted on television as well as the big screen, appearing in Search (1973), Strike Force (1975), which starred a young Richard Gere, Contract on Cherry Street (1977), which featured Frank Sinatra, Kojak (1978), They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way (1978) and Magnum, P.I. (1982). Montana was usually cast as "muscle" for hire or an intimidating mobster.
Retirement and later life
Montana retired from acting after appearing in the B movie Blood Song, which he also co-wrote. He died of a heart attack on May 12, 1992 while in Lindenhurst, New York. He was 66 years old. His likeness was used as his character Luca Brasi in The Godfather Game. Terence McGovern provided the voice acting. Montana was survived by his wife and four children.
Championships and accomplishments
- NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship (Georgia version) (1 time)
- NWA International Tag Team Championship (Georgia version) (2 times) - with Tarzan Tyler
- NWA Southern Tag Team Championship (Georgia version) (1 time) - with Gypsy Joe
- NWA World Tag Team Championship (Georgia version) (1 time) - with Tarzan Tyler
- Lenny Montana at the Internet Movie Database