The boss of a crime family may called "Don" (mister, sir) or "Godfather". These two terms are only social titles and not the title of any position in the hierarchy of the organisation.
Officially, Don was the style for a principe, a duca or a conte (and any legitimate, male-line descendant thereof) who was a member of the nobility (as distinct from a reigning prince, duke or count, who was generally entitled to some form of the higher style of Altezza). This was how the style was used in the Almanach de Gotha for extant families in its third section. The feminine, "Donna", was borne by their wives and daughters. The last official Italian nobility law (not legally effective since 1948) stated that the style belonged to all members of the following families:
- whose main title is principe, duca or conte (both as the eldest male title or all members title);
- who have had a special grant;
- who belong to ancient Lombardy (duchy of Milan) and to whom it had been recognized;
- Sardinian families who bear both the titles of hereditary knight and nobleman/noblewoman (whatever the main title of the family).
Genealogical databases and dynastic works still reserve the title for this class of noble by tradition, although it is no longer a right under Italian law.
In practice, however, the style Don/Donna (or Latin Dominus/Domina) was used more loosely in church, civil and notarial records. The honorific was often accorded to the untitled gentry (e.g., knights or younger sons of noblemen), priests, or other people of distinction. It was, over time, adopted by organized criminal societies in Southern Italy (including Naples, Sicily, and Calabria) to refer to members who held considerable sway within their hierarchies.
Today in Italy, the title is usually only given to Roman Catholic diocesan priests (never for prelates, who bear higher honorifics such as monsignore, eminenza, and so on). In Sardinia, until recently it was commonly used for nobility (whether titled or not), but it is being presently used mainly when the speaker wants to show that he or she knows the don's condition of nobility.
Outside of the priesthood or old nobility, usage is still common in the south, mostly as an honorific form to address the elderly, but rarely if ever used in central or northern Italy. It can be used satirically or ironically to lampoon a person's sense of self-importance.
As in the Spanish usage, Don is prefixed either to the full name or to the person's given name, including crime bosses.
The form "Don Lastname" for criminals (as in Don Corleone) is an American custom. In southern Italy, mafia bosses are addressed as "Don Firstname" by other criminals and sometimes their victims as well, while the press usually refers to them as "Firstname Lastname", without the honorific.
Priests are the only ones to be referred as Don Lastname by the Italian press, although when talking directly to them they are usually addressed as Don Firstname, which is also the most widely form used by parishioners when referring to their priest.
The crime lords are highly popular key figures in the popular culture world.
- Marlon Brando portrayed Vito Corleone, a senior Don in the Sicilian Mafia, in The Godfather.
- In the 2016 computer animated Disney film Zootopia, the character Mr. Big is a parody of Vito Corleone.
- Al Pacino is known for portraying Michael Corleone from The Godfather trilogy and Tony Montana in Scarface