I remember growing up surrounded by art of many kinds, mainly music and film. And one example of that would be the seminal classic 1972 crime/drama film The Godfather. I found myself becoming completely caught up in this (to me) alien world of crime, vendettas and family pride. I truly believe it to be one of the great films ever put to celluloid, it was only years later when I was in my mid-20s, I decided to look up some of the lesser-known individuals in the film, it was through my research that I discovered Lenny Montana, who portrays the fiercely loyal and violent Luca Brasi was also a professional wrestler… oh and happened to be an enforcer and arsonist for the Colombo crime family.

    Lenny Montana, born March 13th 1926 as Leonardo Passafaro in Brooklyn, New York. His wrestling career began in neighbouring New Jersey in 1953 where he wrestled under the ring name The Zebra Kid. Billed at 6 feet 6 and weighing in at 230 pounds defiantly made him one to watch, for a man of his size he had a lot of speed and agility and knew how to effectively work for the crowd. It wasn’t long before Montana found success. Along with Golden Terror, he won the New Jersey Tag Team titles on April 4, 1953. He began to travel, 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 previously held the title three times before defeating the Zebra Kid. Montana’s 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.

    By the late 60s, Montana was wrestling on the carnival circuit, it was there that he met the then unknown Eddie Sharkey, he went on the become known as the trainer of champions. Training such wrestlers as Bob Backlund, Nikita Koloff, ODB, Rick Steiner and many many more. The two struck up a friendship and Lenny Montana convinced Eddie to venture into the murky waters of professional wrestling and well… the rest is history for Eddie Sharkey. Later that year Montana won the NWA Texas World Tag Team titles with Joe Christie, at this point Montana was wrestling under the name Len Crosby. He then won the AWA Tag Team titles with Hard Boiled Haggerty on October 4th 1960, In a match against Verne Gagne, Montana suffered a broken leg, forcing Haggerty 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 an 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[10] 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 at the last-minute Monsoon took on The African Savage as his partner instead. Montana 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.

    It was actually in the late 60s when Montana began working with the Colombo Crime family. Being tall and very heavy built his talents were mostly used as an enforcer and arsonist, he actually told the cast and crew of the godfather how he would tie a tampon (of which was dipped in kerosene) to the tail of a mouse, light it and let the mouse run through the building. He would also put a lit candle in front of a cuckoo clock so that when the clocks bird would pop out it would cause the candle to be knocked over to start a fire. Wouldn’t want to get on this guy’s bad side. Eventually, he was jailed at Rikers island. When released he became more of a bodyguard for the family.

    The filming of the godfather was actually strongly opposed by the Italian-American Civil-Rights League, with disputes between the head of the Colombo crime family Joe Colombo and legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. Eventually, a deal was made with the league and Joe Colombo cut the word mafia(Which is actually only used once in the entire film) and the league themselves would back the production of the film, which also meant mobsters themselves were on set. Which is how they met Lenny Montana which got him cast in the role of Luca Brasi. Montana was very nervous about appearing opposite Brando. Director Coppola incorporated this real-life tension into several scenes, showing Brasi repeatedly practising (and later fumbling) his congratulations to Corleone. Montana had little screen time in the film but his notable size caught the eye of producers and he appeared in several films and television shows after the godfather.

    Montana retired from acting in 1982 after his final film which he also co-wrote. He died on May 12th 1992 of a heart attack. He was 66 years old. He leaves behind a legacy of championships and crime. But also, a legacy of a hardworking husband and father of four children. A really interesting individual whose life was shared between three worlds of larger-than-life characters.