Many characters in The Godfather trilogy were based on real-life figures. The character Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) in The Godfather: Part III (1990) can be seen as a mixture of Joseph Colombo of the Colombo crime family, and John Gotti of the Gambino crime family.
Like Zasa, Joseph Colombo was very active in American politics. In 1970, Colombo formed the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which he later aligned with ultra-Zionist Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League.
In 1971, Paramount Pictures began filming The Godfather (1972) with the help of Colombo and the League. Originally, the film faced great opposition from Italian-Americans, but after producer Albert Ruddy met with Colombo, the League cooperated fully.
Also, like Zasa, there was an attempt on Colombo’s life at the second Italian Unity Day Rally in Columbus Square in Manhattan in 1971. Ironically, the shooting took place only a few blocks away from where The Godfather was in production at that very moment.
However, unlike his fictional counterpart, who is killed in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn by Vincent Corleone (Andy Garcia) in The Godfather: Part III, Colombo survived the attack, but was rendered paralyzed from the incident and finally succumbed to cardiac arrest in 1978.
Like Zasa, John Gotti was already a prominent mobster at the time of the release of The Godfather: Part III, and not only attracted much media attention, but basked in it as well. Similar to his real life inspiration, Zasa’s hot temper, near celebrity status, and eagerness to become involved in the drug trade, which is often credited as the leading cause of the decline of the American Mafia, doesn’t sit well with Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) more traditional views of how business should be conducted.
Following his convictions and life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, Gotti was portrayed by Anthony John Denision in the CBS TV movie Getting Gotti (1994), Armand Assante in the HBO TV movie Gotti (1996), Tom Sizemore in the NBC miniseries Witness to the Mob (1998), Sonny Marinelli in the TNT TV movie Boss of Bosses (2001), and Danny Nucci in the theatrical film Sinatra Club (2010).
Two years after his death in prison from throat cancer, A&E’s short-lived reality television series Growing Up Gotti (2004-2005) followed Gotti’s daughter Victoria and her three sons, and for years, Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father has been in pre-production, with Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Captain America: the First Avenger) set to direct and John Travolta set to star as the infamous gangster.