Along with Tony Bennett, Perry Como, and Dean Martin, Al Martino was one of the country’s favorite postwar Italian-American crooners, with such songs as “I Love You Because” and “I Love You More and More Every Day” to his credit. He also won fame for a small role, loosely based on Frank Sinatra, in the 1972 blockbuster The Godfather. Martino played washed-up singer Johnny Fontane, who wins a career-reviving movie role after Don Corleone’s henchmen persuade producer Jack Woltz to cast him—by slipping a horse’s head into Woltz’s bed.
Born Alfred Cini in South Philadelphia, Martino initially “worked as a bricklayer in his family’s construction business,” said the Philadelphia Daily News. Following service as a Marine in World War II, including being wounded at Iwo Jima, he began singing in local clubs and bars. He got his first big commercial break after convincing boyhood friend Mario Lanza not to record “Here in My Heart” because it might “overshadow” his own planned recording of the song. Martino’s version of “Heart” went to No. 1 in 1952 and earned him a contract with Capitol Records. “Ironically, for a man destined to perform in a Mafia-related movie, Martino ran into problems when his contract was taken over by a Mafia-connected management team. He was ordered to pay $75,000 as a safeguard against their investment.” After making a down payment, Martino fled to the United Kingdom to sing and didn’t return until 1958.
Martino earned his signature role as Johnny Fontane in The Godfather “in a manner that could have come from the film,” said the London Daily Telegraph. According to Martino, producer Al Ruddy offered him the part, but director Francis Ford Coppola rejected him in favor of Vic Damone. Martino decided to take action. “There was no horse’s head, but I had ammunition,” he recalled. “I had to step on some toes to get people to realize that I was in the effing movie. I went to my godfather, [mob boss] Russ Bufalino.” Damone bowed out, “leaving the way clear for Martino” to warble “I Have But One Heart” in the opening wedding scene, weep over his dead-end career, and get slapped by Marlon Brando for acting like a weakling. According to one cast member, “the slap was Brando’s attempt to extract some emotion from Martino’s wooden expression.”
Martino last week recorded his last song, Garth Brooks’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” the day before his death from a heart attack.