Leonardo Passafaro (occasionally Passaforo), also known as Lenny Montana, was born on March 13, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York. He was an American actor of Italian descent, and indeed was fluent in both English and Italian. He is probably best known for playing the role of Luca Brasi in The Godfather. However, prior to pursuing an acting career, Montana was a professional wrestler…..and a Mob enforcer with the Colombo family.
He began his wrestling vocation during his late twenties, and he found success relatively quickly. His first match was in 1953 in nearby New Jersey, and standing at 6ft 6ins and weighing in at a minimum of 235lbs at that time, he was a daunting opponent. In April of that year, he and Golden Terror won the New Jersey Tag Team titles. Soon after this, Montana began to travel around the U.S. and won the NWA Central States Heavyweight Championship in October in Kansas City. However, he lost this title just two months later after suffering a defeat by three-times holder Sonny Myers. Then, in 1956 Montana, along with Canadian ex-football player Gene Kiniski, won the NWA Texas Tag Team Championship in Dallas. To supplement his ‘day job’ income, Montana was also employed as a bouncer at this time.
During the latter part of the 1950s, he was a popular wrestler working the carnival circuit. During this time, he met and struck up a close friendship with future trainer and owner of Pro Wrestling America, Eddie Sharkey. After seeing Sharkey’s talents, Montana recommended that he should try professional wrestling. Montana also confided to Sharkey the then-unacknowledged fact that all the match outcomes are predetermined in the professional arena.
Later in 1960, Montana, along with Joe Christie, won the NWA Texas World Tag Team titles, followed in October by winning the AWA World Tag Team Championship with Hard Boiled Haggerty in Minneapolis. However, in a later match against Verne Gagne, the only thing Montana won was a broken leg. Following recovery, he began wrestling in Tampa Bay, Florida. It’s said that because of his massive stature, he would often pin his opponents in under one minute. During this time, Montana had a notable, but profitable, feud with a pro wrestler by the name of Eddie Graham, and their bouts sold out often during 1961. In May 1962, Montana defeated Graham in a NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship match. Later that year, he won the NWA Southern Tag Team Titles alongside Gypsy Joe. Montana then went on to form a majorly successful partnership with Tarzan Tyler, and during 1963 they went on to win three titles: the NWA International Tag Team titles twice in April and June, and the NWA World Tag Team Championship in October.
Montan used various aliases and stage names throughout his professional wrestling career, including Zebra Kid, Len Crosby and Chief Chewacki.
It was around the mid 1960s when Montana started to become interested in acting, and he began to meet with casting agents in LA. His wrestling career was being put on the back burner and he went into semi-retirement, though was still wrestling occasionally.
In the late 1960s Montana became involved with the Colombo crime family, as an enforcer and occasional arsonist. This resulted in a brief vacation at Rikers Island. Upon his release, he worked as a bodyguard for several high-ranking members of the Colombo family.
In April 1970, Joe Colombo, who at the time was boss of the Colombo family, created the .Italian-American Civil Rights League. This followed charges filed against his son Joseph Colombo Jr. for melting down coins in order to resell as silver ingots. In response to this, Joseph Colombo Sr. claimed FBI harassment of Italian Americans and began to set up pickets outside FBI headquarters in order to protest the federal persecution of all Italians. The league then began holding rallies, where tens of thousands would attend in support of the cause. In February 1971, Joseph Colombo Jr. was acquitted of the charge after the chief witness in the trial had been arrested on charges of perjury.
Filming for The Godfather movie was to begin on March 23, 1971. However, when details of the film became public knowledge, some core members of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, namely Joe Colombo and, it’s said, also Frank Sinatra, were unhappy with the direction it was taking. These disputes were threatening the whole production of the film. The league insisted that certain words such as ‘Mafia’ and ‘Cosa Nostra’ be completely omitted from the script before filming commenced, and in return they would back the production. Producer Al Ruddy agreed to this and filming went ahead. Having the League’s blessing meant that many mobsters would be around to watch what was happening during filming. It was during this time that Lenny Montana met Al Ruddy and director Francis Ford Coppola – who immediately snapped him up for the role of Luca Brasi. Maybe they noticed his 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame?! The original actor who was to play Luca Brasi had recently passed away from a stroke, and this offered a fantastic opportunity for Montana in his first ever acting role. He had made a brief appearance as a grocer in a 1969 movie by the name of Change of Habit, but was uncredited for this.
The apparent nervousness and tension portrayed by Montana was, in fact, partly genuine. He was in awe of playing opposite Marlon Brando, and Coppola included this real-life nervousness into several scenes, showing Brasi repeatedly practising and repeating his congratulations to Vito Corleone. Montana had precious little time in the film, and was only shown in a few scenes, but his significant height and build caught the eye of several producers. He was cast in more movies and television programs after appearing in The Godfather, such as Godfather-type parody The Funny Face of the Godfather (1973), Patty (1976), Fingers (1978), Matilda (1978), The Jerk (1979), Seven (1979), Battle Creek Brawl (with Jackie Chan, 1980), and Blood Song (1982). He also appeared in episodes of Magnum PI and Kojak. Montana was often typecast as muscle or as an intimidating gangster in most of these projects.
Montana went into retirement from acting in 1982, following his appearance in the movie Blood Song, which he co-wrote.
Lenny Montana died from a heart attack on May 12, 1992, in Lindenhurst, New York. He was 66 years old. He was laid to rest at Saint Charles Cemetery, Suffolk County, New York.
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