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Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.
~ Sal Tessio after being exposed as a traitor
Salvatore "Sal" Tessio is a major character from The Godfather novel and films. He was one of the two original caporegimes of the Corleone Family. He is a major character turned antagonist in the first film and novel and a supporting character in the second film.
In the first film, he was portrayed by the late Abe Vigoda, who also voiced Salvatore Valestra in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. In the second film, he was portrayed as a young man by John Aprea.
Born in Sicily, Tessio immigrated to the United States at a young age. By 1917 he was living in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. During that time he became friends with another young Sicilian immigrant named Peter Clemenza. Clemenza introduced him to his neighbor Vito Corleone and the three were soon friends. The three carried out petty crimes together and performed favors in exchange for loyalty.
The three men came to the attention of the local padrone, Don Fanucci, who attempted to extort money from them. Frightened, both Tessio and Clemenza wanted to pay off Fanucci, convinced that he was Mafia connected. However, Vito thought Fanucci was an independent operator who was tricking local immigrants into thinking he was a member of the Mafia. He talked Tessio and Clemenza into only giving Fanucci a fraction of what he demanded. Vito met Fanucci in a cafe and gave him the money. Fanucci was impressed with Vito's courage and accepted the money. This confirmed to Vito that Fanucci was not a member of the Mafia. During a festival he shot and killed Fanucci - with the sounds of the festival covering up the noise.
The killing established Vito as the leader of the group. Together they took over Fanucci's neighborhood, treating the people there with far more respect then Fanucci ever did. Vito soon became a powerful and respected figure in the neighborhood. Vito set up Genco Pura Olive Oil Importers as a front for his criminal activities.
By the 1930s, Vito had established the Corleone crime family as one of the five mafia families in New York City. He founded the Commission with other mafia families. Tessio became one of the two original caporegimes in the family with Clemenza. Tessio ran Corleone operations in Brooklyn. The two respected Vito so much that they no longer called Vito by his first name, instead calling him Don Vito, Don Corleone or Godfather.
When an assassination attempt was made on Vito in 1945, Tessio tried unsuccessfully to rein in Vito's son and successor Sonny's fierce temper. After Sonny was murdered and Vito's youngest son Michael went into hiding in Sicily in 1947, Tessio presumably ran the Corleone family along with a still recovering Vito, Clemenza and consigliereTom Hagen. (Vito's middle son, Fredo, was considered too "weak and stupid" to be trusted with serious power.)
In the early 1950s, Vito retired as the Don of the family, with Michael as his successor. Tessio thought highly of Michael, but didn't think that he would be able to maintain the family after Vito died. He began plotting with Vito's rival Don Emilio Barzini to have Michael assassinated, leaving Tessio to take over the Corleone family. Shortly before Vito died he warned Michael that a traitor would approach him about attending truce talks with Barzini after his death and that Michael would be assassinated at that meeting.
Vito died in 1955. At Vito's funeral Tessio approached Michael and told him that Barzini wanted to talk peace and that he could arrange it to take place in Brooklyn. This confirmed to Michael that Tessio was the traitor. Consigliere Tom Hagen was surprised at this, thinking Clemenza would have turned, not Tessio. Michael responded that this was the smart move and that Tessio had always been the smarter of the capos. A few days later, as they prepared to leave for the talks, Willie Cicci informed Tessio that Michael would come in a separate car. Tessio complained that this was messing up his arrangements, at which point Hagen told him he couldn't come either. As soldiers surrounded him Tessio realized that he had been found out. He told Hagen to tell Michael that it had not been personal, only business. Hagen assured Tessio that Michael knew that. Tessio asked Hagen if he could get him off the hook, Hagen said he couldn't do it. Tessio was led away to be killed as Hagen looked on.