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If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.
~ Michael Corleone
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
~ Michael Corleone's most famous quote as well as one of the most iconic movie quotes of all time.

Michael Corleone is the titular villainous protagonist of Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, and the deuteragonist of The Sicilian, as well as the titular protagonist of The Godfather film trilogy by Francis Ford Coppola.

Michael was born in 1920, the youngest son of Don Vito Corleone. He is the younger brother of Sonny and Fredo, the adoptive brother of Tom Hagen and the older brother of Connie Corleone. While initially wanting nothing to do with the "family business", he later succeeds his father as Godfather of the Corleone Family following Vito's retirement and death. Thanks to Michael's expert maneuvering, all of the Family's enemies and rivals are killed and the Corleone Family becomes the most powerful Mafia family in New York City. Michael tries to turn the family into a legitimate enterprise, but his ruthlessness and obsession with revenge keeps him in the criminal underworld, and ultimately destroys his family and his life.

He was portrayed by Al Pacino, who was twice nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Michael (Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather, and Best Actor for The Godfather Part II), who also portrayed John Milton in The Devil's Advocate, Richard III in Looking For Richard, Big Boy in Dick Tracy, David Fisk in Righteous Kill, Willy Bank in Ocean's Thirteen, Tony Montana in Scarface, Roy Cohn in Angels In America, Walter Burke in The Recruit, Lefty in Donnie Brasco, Wilhelm Zuchs in Hunters, and Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman.

Biography

The Godfather

As first seen in The Godfather Michael is a young man in his mid-20s. He initially wants nothing to do with the family business. Michael enrolled at Dartmouth College in order to escape the Corleone legacy. After the United States enters World War II in 1941, Michael drops out to enlist in the Marine Corps and fights in the Pacific, despite his father's misgivings. Michael is wounded in battle, but is awarded the Navy Cross for bravery and is featured in Life magazine in 1944.

Michael is discharged as a captain in early 1945 to recover from his wounds. He reenters Dartmouth, where he meets his future wife, Kay Adams, and has dreams of leading a more normal life away from his family. However, when his father is nearly assassinated in late 1945, he is thrust back into the world he has avoided for so long. Reaffirming his loyalty at his father's bedside, Michael volunteers to kill both the men responsible: the drug kingpin Virgil Sollozzo and corrupt police captain Mark McCluskey. He meets with Sollozzo and McCluskey at a restaurant, where he kills both of them.

Following the murders, Michael flees to Sicily, where he lives for two years under the watch of family friend Don Tommasino. While there, he falls in love with and marries a beautiful young woman named Apollonia. However, she is killed by a car bomb intended for Michael, planted by a corrupt bodyguard.

While in Sicily, Michael learns that his older brother Sonny, who took over as acting head of the family after Vito was wounded, has been murdered. Michael returns to New York around 1950 and becomes fully involved in the family's criminal enterprises, taking over Sonny's role as Vito's heir apparent. A year later, he rekindles his relationship with Kay and marries her, promising her that the Corleone family would be legitimate within five years. Michael tries to buy out casino owner Moe Greene's stake in the casino, intending to move the family to Nevada, but Greene refuses.

After his father goes into semi-retirement in 1954, Michael becomes operating head of the family, officially becoming Don after his father's death in 1955. Before his death, Vito warns Michael that the head of a rival family would make an attempt on Michael's life under the pretense of organizing a peace summit between the two families. At the funeral, Vito's caporegime Salvatore Tessio inadvertently reveals that he had conspired with rival Don Emilio Barzini against him.

Michael arranges the murders of the leaders of the New York Mafia's other ruling families Dons:Barzini, Philip Tattaglia, Carmine Cuneo, and Victor Stracci, as well as Moe Greene. During the baptism of his sister Connie's child, these men were all killed by Corleone associates. Tessio and Carlo Rizzi, Connie's abusive husband, who had earlier set Sonny up to be murdered, are eliminated a short time later. In one stroke, Michael reestablishes the Corleone family as the most powerful crime family in the nation, and makes a reputation for himself as being even more cunning and ruthless than his father.

When Connie finds out that Michael had Carlo killed, she flies into a rage. When Kay asks him about it, Michael denies any involvement in the murder. Moments later, however, Michael meets with his capos, where Peter Clemenza greets him as "Don Corleone" and kisses his hand much as he did with his father. Kay realizes that Connie was telling the truth, and that her husband has become the new Don Corleone.

The Godfather Part II

In The Godfather Part II, set a few years after the move to Nevada, Michael is now in his late-30s and fully established as the head of the Corleone empire. Frank Pentangeli, head of the former Clemenza regime, now runs the family's business in New York. Michael's efforts at redeeming the family have been largely unsuccessful, however, because his many enemies and his growing obsession with revenge have kept him involved in the criminal underworld. Michael begins working out a deal with business partner and rival Hyman Roth over control of casino operations. However, Roth manipulates Michael's brother Fredo into providing him with information that he uses to arrange an attempt on Michael's life. Roth also attempts to murder Pentangeli while convincing the capo that Michael was to blame.

Michael, Fredo and Roth travel to Cuba under Fulgencio Batista to forge a partnership with the Cuban government that will allow them to be free to conduct their operations in Cuba without interference from the authorities, in return for generous payments to Batista. While in Cuba, Michael sends his bodyguard to eliminate Roth on New Year's Eve, but the plan fails because the old man is hospitalized. That night, Michael discovers that Fredo had conspired with Roth. During the New Year's Eve festivities, Fidel Castro's rebel forces enter Havana, forcing Batista into exile and the crime bosses out of the country, their plans in Cuba ruined. Fredo, afraid of his brother, runs away into the crowd. Roth, meanwhile, flees to Miami.

Michael in 1959, pondering his recent actions.

Back in the U.S., Michael meets with Fredo, who reveals that Roth's right-hand man, Johnny Ola, had promised to make him rich independently of the family if he informed on Michael, and that he withheld key information about the Senate investigation. Fredo also reveals that he has always resented his brother, and feels he should have taken over the family after their father's death. Michael disowns Fredo, and tells bodyguard Al Neri that nothing is to happen to his brother while their mother is alive; the implication is that, once she dies, Neri is to murder Fredo.

Meanwhile, Pentangeli has been persuaded to testify against Michael in the Senate's investigation of organized crime. However, Michael arranges for Pentageli's brother Vincenzo to travel from Sicily to attend the hearings. Seeing his brother in the hearing room and understanding the threat, Pentageli renounces his earlier sworn statements, throwing the hearings into chaos and effectively ending the government's case against Michael.

Meanwhile, Kay realizes that Michael will always live in a world of crime and violence, and decides to leave him and take the children with her. Michael begs her to reconsider, but an un-mollified Kay reveals that what she had initially told Michael was a miscarriage was in fact an abortion; she tells Michael that she doesn't want to bring another of his children into the world. Enraged, Michael hits Kay in the face and banishes her from the family; they divorce later that year, with Michael keeping custody of the children. He would later give up custody of the children to Kay after realizing it would be best for them.

Following the death of their mother, and at the behest of his sister Connie, Michael appears to reconcile with his brother. It is only a ploy to draw him in, however; soon afterward, Neri murders Fredo on Michael's orders. At the same time, Michael sends consigliere Tom Hagen to convince Pentageli to commit suicide in order to spare revenge against the rest of his family, and sends caporegime Rocco Lampone to kill a heavily-guarded Roth at Miami International Airport upon his return to the U.S.

The Godfather Part III

An older Michael Corleone in 1979.

In The Godfather Part III, set in 1979 to 1980, an aging Michael is wracked with guilt over his ruthless rise to power, especially having Fredo killed. He has taken great steps to make the family legitimate, preparing to hand over his interests in gambling to the other Mafia families, setting up a charitable foundation, and even being recognized by the Vatican for his good works. After the ceremony, he has an uneasy reunion with Kay, who tells him that both she and Anthony know the truth about Fredo's death. Anthony, meanwhile, wants to quit law school to become an opera singer, something Michael reluctantly allows after Kay persuades him.

This new connection to the Church gives Michael the opportunity to purchase a controlling stake in the large property company, Immobiliare. He also begins to rekindle his relationship with Kay, and begins grooming Sonny's illegitimate son Vincent Mancini as the new head of the family business. The relationship is not without friction, however, as Michael is deeply troubled by his beloved daughter Mary's romance with Vincent, fearing that it will put her in danger.

On the night Michael announces that he is dissolving his gambling empire, one of his enforcers, Joey Zasa, wipes out most of The Commission in an elaborate helicopter attack in Atlantic City. Michael and his old friend Don Altobello escape with Vincent's help. Traumatized by the attack, Michael has a diabetic stroke, leaving him briefly incapacitated, and in his absence, Connie gives Vincent and Neri the go-ahead to kill Zasa. Michael is angered by Connie and Vincent acting against his wishes, but nevertheless relies on them to help him defeat Altobello, whom he has deduced was the brains behind the attack.

Michael soon discovers that Immobiliare, specifically the wily Licio Lucchesi and the scheming Archbishop Gilday, are out to fleece him, and he seeks the assistance of Don Tommasino. Tommasino directs him to Cardinal Lamberto (the future Pope John Paul I), to whom Michael makes his first confession in 30 years, breaking down in tears when admitting that he ordered Fredo's murder. Lamberto tells Michael that it is just that he suffers for his terrible sins, but that he still has a chance for redemption.

Michael shortly before his death in 1997.

Michael later returns to Sicily to watch Anthony perform at the Teatro Massimo. However, he soon becomes aware of an assassin, Mosca, whom Altobello, in league with the plotters, had hired to kill him. Mosca kills Tommasino, and Michael vows before his old friend's coffin to sin no more.

Soon afterward, weary of the bloody, lonely life of a Don, Michael retires and makes his nephew the new head of the family, on condition that he end the relationship with Mary. Realizing that powerful interests in Italian politics and business are working to prevent the family's takeover of Immobiliare, Michael, with Vincent's assistance, once again prepares to move against his enemies. This bloody wave of murders takes place as Michael, reconciled with Kay and Anthony, watches his son perform in the opera Cavalleria Rusticana. That same night, however, Mosca advertently kills Mary in an assassination attempt on her father. Mary's death breaks Michael's spirit, and he cries out in agony over her corpse. He retires to Sicily, where he dies years later in the courtyard where he married Apollonia, completely alone. According to a timeline graphic included in a The Godfather DVD box set, Michael Corleone's death occurs in 1997. The re-edited version of the film, The Godfather Part III Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, removes Michael's death scene, making the exact date of Michael's passing more ambiguous.

The Sicilian

Michael is a secondary protagonist of Puzo's novel The Sicilian, which takes place during his exile in Sicily. He learns from Clemenza about the legendary exploits of the novel's main character, Salvatore Guiliano (based on Salvatore Giuliano, but Puzo changed his name slightly), and is eager to meet him, but Guiliano is murdered before the meeting can take place. For copyright reasons, Michael was left out of the film adaptation of the novel.

Other media

Sequel novels

Michael Corleone appears in Mark Winegardner's sequel novels The Godfather Returns and The Godfather's Revenge. In Godfather Returns, set roughly during the time of Godfather Part II, Michael battles with a new enemy, traitorous Corleone capo Nick Geraci, while attempting to legitimize the family. In Godfather's Revenge, set just after the second film, he moves to protect his criminal empire against a powerful political family, while dealing with his guilt over having Fredo killed.

Video game series

Michael Corleone appears in the video game adaptations of the first and second Godfather films. In those games he doesn't share any likeness to Al Pacino, due to Pacino already permitting his likeness to the game Scarfare: The World is Yours for Tony Montana.

The Godfather

He first appears when protagonist Aldo Trapani is fighting off thugs that are trying to kill Vito Corleone at the hospital, after previously failing to assassinate him at a market. Both Michael and Aldo manage to dispose of the thugs before backup arrives to protect Vito Corleone. Later on Aldo helps Michael escape after he assassinates Virgil Sollozzo and Captain Mark McCluskey and drops him off at the docks, allowing Michael to escape the country to Sicily. Michael reappears later in the game when he returns from his exile and takes over the Corleone crime family as the new don, and promotes Aldo to Capo. During the baptism, Aldo carries out Michael's orders and assassinates the heads of the five crime families in New York City. After Michael leaves to expand his family operations in Nevada, Aldo becomes the acting boss of the Corleone crime family in New York.

The Godfather 2

Michael reappears in the sequel game, in which he attends a meeting with other crime families in Cuba, which is held by Hyman Roth. Aldo is present during the meeting, alongside Aldo's Underboss Dominic. But Fidel Castro's movement breaks out in Cuba resulting in chaos, and Aldo is killed when fleeing to the airport along with Michael, Dominic and Fredo. Michael, Dominic and Fredo escape on the plane, and Michael appoints Dominic as the new head of the family in New York City.

Reception

Much like the movie itself, Al Pacino's portrayal of Michael Corleone has received widespread critical acclaim. Michael was recognized as the 11th most iconic villain in film history by the American Film Institute.

Quotes

Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains - or his signature - would be on the contract. That's a true story. That's my family, Kay. It's not me.
~ Michael to Kay.
Today, I will settle all family business.
~ Michael Corleone.
I don't feel I have to wipe everyone out, Tom. Just my enemies.
~ Michael to Tom Hagen.
I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!
~ Michael to his brother Fredo.
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
~ Michael Corleone.
All my life I kept trying to go up in society. Where everything higher up was legal. But the higher I go, the crookeder it becomes.
~ Michael Corleone.
What betrayed me? My mind? My heart? Why do I condemn myself so? I swear, on the lives of my children: Give me a chance to redeem myself, and I will sin, no more.
~ Michael Corleone.

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The Commision
Vito Corleone | Philip Tattaglia | Emilio Barzini | Carmine Cuneo | Victor Stracci | Vincent Forlenza | Michael Corleone

Corleone Family
Vito Corleone | Sonny Corleone | Fredo Corleone | Michael Corleone | Connie Corleone | Vincent Corleone | Luca Brasi | Peter Clemenza | Salvatore Tessio | Tom Hagen | Al Neri | Rocco Lampone | Paulie Gatto | Marty Malone | Willie Cicci | Frank Pentangeli | Joey Zasa | Aldo Trapani | Dominic Trapani

Tattaglia Family
Philip Tattaglia | Bruno Tattaglia | Virgil Sollozzo | Mark McCluskey | Don Altobello

Barzini Family
Emilio Barzini | Emilio Barzini Jr. | Fabrizio

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Anthony Squigliaro | Carlo Rizzi | Moe Greene | Nick Geraci | Hyman Roth | Francesco Ciccio | Don Fanucci | Jack Woltz | Joe Galtosino | Johnny Ola | Licio Lucchesi | Louie Russo | Archbishop Gilday | Frederick Keinszig | Mosca | Mosca of Montelepre | Strollo | Spara | Rosato Brothers | Pat Geary | Jerry Wagner | Kevin Moonan | Giuseppe Mariposa | Questadt

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