Lenny Montana: The Man Who Played Luca Brasi

A good time to acknowledge the birthday of Lenny Montana (Leonardo Passafaro, 1926-1992), for after his years as a professional wrestler, Montana was an enforcer and arsonist for the Columbo crime family — and we recently spent a few hours learning about the late Jerry Columbo in the documentary McMillion$. 

Montana of course means “mountain” in Italian, and Lenny stood 6’6″ tall. Originally from Brooklyn, he began wrestling professionally in New Jersey in the early ’50s under the name The Zebra Kid. He won numerous titles, including many for tag team matches with a succession of partners. By the end of the decade Montana was wrestling in carnivals. He began to supplement his income by working as a bouncer. By the late ’60s he was a soldier in the Columbo family.

After serving a brief stretch at Rykers for his criminal activities, Montana became a bodyguard for leading figures in the Columbo family, which is how he found his way onto the set of The Godfather (1971), where his huge size got him noticed by Francis Ford Coppola, who cast him in the comical, if ill-fated, part of Luca Brasi. As we wrote here the other day, the part was originally intended for Timothy Carey, who turned down the part.

“Don Corleone…you have invited me into your home…”

Montana’s memorable turn in the film got him cast in over a dozen more films over the next decade, including They Went That-a-Way and That-a-Way (1978) with Tim Conway and Chuck McCann; Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979), …All the Marbles (1981, a female wrestling film featuring Peter Falk which sounds like a precursor to G.L.O.W.), and his last one, Blood Song (1982), which he cowrote and produced (shades of Christopher Moltisanti?), and which starred Frankie Avalon. I reckon Montana took a bath on the venture, as he retired from show business after that, at the young age of 56. A decade after that? He slept with the fishes.

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous