Michael Corleone is a fictional character in Mario Puzo's novels, The Godfather and The Sicilian. He is also the main character of the film trilogy that was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in which he was portrayed by Al Pacino.
Born in 1920, to Vito and Carmela Corleone, Michael was deeply loved by his father, even prompting Vito to murder blackmailer Don Fanucci so he could support Michael and the rest of his family. He became a bright and handsome young man and of all of Vito Corleone's children, Michael was said to be most like him in terms of intelligence, personality, and cunning.
The Prodigal Son
Michael initially wanted nothing to do with the Corleones' "family business", and enrolled at Dartmouth College in order to escape any potential involvement in crime. In truth, his father never wanted Michael to be involved in the family's criminal enterprise, and actually hoped he'd go into politics. After the United States' entry into World War II in 1941, he enlisted in the Marines (training under Sergeant Bradshaw) and fought in the Pacific, even though his father had expended great effort to wrangle a deferment for him. For his bravery in battle, Michael was awarded the Navy Cross, and was also featured in Life magazine in 1944. Michael was discharged as a Captain to recover from wounds- along with friend Hank Vogelsong - in 1945 (unbeknownst to him, the doctor treating him had been bribed by his father to exaggerate his injury in order to send him home). Returning to Dartmouth, he met a young teaching student, Kay Adams; where the two eventually fell in love. Kay and Michael returned to New York, to attend his sister Connie's wedding. He assured Kay on numerous occasions that he wanted a more normal life, and wanted nothing at all to do with the Mafia.
However, when his father was nearly assassinated in 1945, he volunteered to murder the men responsible, Virgil Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey, a police captain who was acting as Sollozzo's bodyguard, following McCluskey's assault on Michael at the hospital where his father was treated for his injuries.
Michael's older brother, Sonny Corleone, was shocked at this suggestion, since it had long been a hard and fast rule in the American Mafia that policemen were not to be harmed. However, Michael showed his cunning when he argued that McCluskey was fair game since he was serving as Sollozzo's bodyguard. He also suggested that the family use their contacts in the newspaper to play up McCluskey's connection to Sollozzo and being "involved in the rackets" of organized crime, thereby relieving some of the flack that the Corleones would receive afterward. After committing the murders, Michael fled to Sicily.
Under the protection of his father's old friend Don Tommasino, Michael remained in hiding for two years, living in Dr. Taza's old villa and receiving warm hospitality from the Mayor of Bagheria, Bendino.
Michael's time in Sicily has a profound effect on him. While there, he learned of the Mafia's roots and there he also fell in love with, and soon married, a beautiful young woman named Apollonia, but she was killed by a car bomb intended for Michael. After this incident, Michael decided to fully join his father's business.
During this time, Michael was visited by Clemenza, who told him that his father wanted him to escort Salvatore Giuliano safely back to America with him.
As he learns more about Guiliano's reputation and exploits, Michael becomes extremely interested in meeting him, but Giuliano is killed by his dearest friend, cousin, and second in command Gaspare Pisciotta. Upon returning from Sicily, Michael speaks with his father, who proceeds to explain what happened with the plan to escort Giuliano from Sicily and how it all went wrong, that ultimately Michael was used as a pawn to ensure his own safety in a deal Vito made with Don Croce Malo to obtain evidence collected by Giuliano to use against Don Croce and the Christian Democratic Party; without the evidence in his possession, Giuliano's days were numbered and his fate was sealed after he made a final but failed attempt on Don Croce.
Michael voices his thoughts to Vito, who tells him, "That is Sicily."
The New Don
While in Sicily, he learns that his older brother Sonny was murdered and returns to New York. There, he reluctantly becomes involved in his family's criminal enterprises, taking over for his deceased brother as underboss of the family under Vito's supervision and subtly attacking the other families' businesses through the use of his secret caporegime, Rocco Lampone. At the same time, he persuades his father that it is time to remove the family from the Mafia. He marries Kay a year later, promising to make the Corleone family legitimate within five years. They have two children, Anthony and Mary. They're born within two years of each other, leading Michael to joke that Kay is "more Italian than Yankee".
Vito goes into semi retirement in 1954, and Michael becomes operating head of the family. At first, longtime capos Peter Clemenza and Salvatore Tessio, as well as consigliere Tom Hagen, aren't sure that Michael is strong enough to keep the family going, especially as the Barzini and Tattaglia families move in on the Corleones' territory. Clemenza and Tessio are even more convinced of this when Michael refuses to allow them to retaliate. In truth, Michael and his father began planning to wipe out Barzini and Tattaglia soon after Michael's return to the United States. Soon after taking over day-to-day control of the family, Michael tries to buy out casino owner Moe Greene's stake in his Las Vegas casino, intending to move his family to Nevada. Greene angrily refuses Michael's offer.
Vito dies in 1955, and Michael officially becomes Don. Shortly before his death, Vito warned Michael that after he was gone, the Barzini family would make an attempt on his life under the pretense of organizing a meeting to make peace between the two families, using a traitor within the Family, who would offer to arrange the meeting and guarantee Michael's safety. At the funeral, Tessio inadvertently reveals himself to be the traitor by making that offer. Shortly after the funeral, Michael puts his plan into action. He orders the simultaneous murders of the leaders of the New York Mafia's other Dons during the baptism of Connie's newest child. Barzini, Philip Tattaglia, Carmine Cuneo, and Victor Stracci, as well as Tessio and (in the film) Moe Greene (who had been murdered in a separate incident earlier in the novel) are all killed in different locations at the same time. He also orders the murder of Carlo Rizzi, his brother-in-law, who beat his sister Connie and set Sonny up to be killed. Carlo was led to believe that he would be Michael's second-in-command when they moved to Nevada. However, this was merely a ploy to make Carlo vulnerable, per Vito's advice to "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." At Michael's house, Michael confronts his brother-in-law, telling him that he knew about Carlo's betrayal in setting up Sonny for his assassination. Michael asks Carlo who he conspired with; Carlo tells him it was Barzini. Michael tells Carlo that he's out of the family and that he'll be taken to Las Vegas. When Carlo gets into the car, he's garotted to death by Clemenza as they drive away.
When Connie finds out that Michael had Carlo killed while he stood godfather to their baby, she flies into a rage. Michael dismisses it as hysteria, and when pressed by Kay, denies any involvement in the murder to placate her. Just moments later, however, he meets with his capos. Clemenza greets him as "Don Corleone" and kisses Michael's hand. Unbeknownst to Michael, Kay is watching this meeting, and realizes that Connie was telling the truth after all — and that her husband has become a powerful Don, even more ruthless than his father.
The move to Nevada
A few years after the move to Nevada, Michael, now in his mid-thirties, named Clemenza as consigliere and head of the family's New York operations. Clemenza died of a supposed heart attack, and was replaced by longtime family friend and soldier Frank Pentangeli.
Although he is now firmly entrenched as the most powerful crime boss in the nation, he steps up his efforts to make the Corleone family legitimate. For instance, he buys a construction company and several other businesses in an effort to lead a more normal life. However, his efforts at redeeming the family were largely unsuccessful, as his many enemies kept him involved in the underworld. He begins working out a deal with Hyman Roth, a longtime business partner of the family as well as a rival, over control of casino operations. Unknown to Michael, Roth was actually maneuvering to have Michael killed in revenge for the death of Moe Greene, his longtime friend. Roth manipulated Michael's brother Fredo into unwittingly providing him with information used to arrange an attempt on Michael's life. He also attempted to murder Pentangeli, making him think that Michael was to blame.
Michael concludes on his own that Roth was behind the assassination attempt, but suspects that he had help from a mole in the Corleone family. He decides to make Roth think they still have a good business relationship, but only as a ploy to find out who Roth paid to set up the hit.
Michael and Roth travelled to Cuba to forge a partnership with Fulgencio Batista's government, allowing 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 sent his loyal bodyguard Bussetta to kill both Roth and his right-hand man, Johnny Ola, on New Year's Eve. That night, he discovered Fredo was the one who'd sold him out to Roth, leading Fredo to flee during Castro's takeover that night. Bussetta managed to kill Ola, but when he tried to smother Roth to death, he was shot to death by soldiers. Roth recovered and tried to flee to Israel.
Meanwhile, Kay grows increasingly repulsed by Michael's growing immersion in criminal life. Fearing her unborn son will tie them to the Mafia forever, she secretly has it aborted, while Michael is away in Cuba, and passes it off as a miscarriage.
Shortly afterward, Pentangeli and Cicci are persuaded to testify against Michael in the Senate's investigation of the Mafia. It turns out that the hearing was part of Roth's scheme to eliminate Michael. Fredo returned to Tahoe at this point, and claimed he only dealt with Roth and Ola in hopes of getting rich on his own. He also reveals that he has long resented being passed over to head the family, feeling that as the second-oldest son, he should be the boss. Michael appears to believe that Fredo didn't know about Roth's attempt on his life. However, he severs all ties with his brother anyway, when Fredo admits he withheld vital information from him about the hearings, namely that the Senate lawyer, Questadt, belonged to Roth. He tells his bodyguard, Al Neri, that Fredo is to die–but doesn't want anything to happen to him while their mother is still alive.
Michael is initially unconcerned when Cicci testifies against him. However, he is alarmed when Pentangeli is called as a surprise witness, since there is no insulation between them. Knowing Pentangeli's testimony could easily send him to jail, Michael has his brother, Vincenzo, fly in from Sicily. Vincenzo's icy stare is enough for Frank to recant his testimony. After Michael returns from the hearing, Kay tells him that she plans to leave him and take their two children with her. Michael tries to get her to reconsider, but Kay, unmoved, tells him that her "miscarriage" was actually an abortion. Enraged, Michael slaps Kay across the face and banishes her from the family; the two divorce later that year.
Following the death of their mother and at Connie's behest, Michael appeared to reconcile with his brother, but secretly ordered Fredo's murder, an act he would regret for the rest of his life and which he eventually confesses to the future pope. He also sent Rocco Lampone to kill Roth while he was returning to Miami.
An old foe returns
Michael's troubles were only momentarily halted, for his treacherous capo, Nick Geraci soon re-emerged, having lived in a cave near Lake Erie following his departure from the family. Michael sent out a manhunt against him, led by Thomas Neri and the DiMiceli brothers, but this failed due to the unreliability of Michael's CIA contact, Joe Lucadello. At this time, Carlo Tramonti, the Don of New Orleans caused a stir in the Commission by announcing his plans to assassinate President James Shea.
Eventually, Geraci was brought out into the open with the help of Don Stracci and Don Frank Greco. Michael had his former associate executed by Eddie Paradise during an ambush on Staten Island. Don Tramonti and the treacherous Lucadello were also killed.
By 1979, Michael, now 59 years old, has moved back to New York and taken great steps to making the family legitimate. He has sold most of his casinos and reorganized his now-vast business holdings as the "Corleone Group". Some years earlier, he turned over what remains of his criminal interests in New York to Joey Zasa, a longtime member of the old Clemenza regime. However, he largely keeps Zasa at arm's length.
Michael initially kept custody of Anthony and Mary as a result of his divorce from Kay. However, sometime in the 1960s, he turned over custody of the children to their mother. They have had a somewhat frosty relationship over the years, made even chillier by the fact that Kay knows Michael killed Fredo.
Still guilty over his bloody rise to power, he is now using his wealth and power to restore his reputation. He has set up charitable foundation, and is named a Commander of the Order of St. Sebastian by the Roman Catholic Church for his good works.
Michael's new connection to the Church gave him the opportunity to pursue his biggest deal ever–taking over the real estate company, Immobiliare. Michael is already the company's largest shareholder, and reaches an agreement in principle to acquire controlling interest by buying the Vatican's 25 percent stake. He also began to rekindle his relationship with Kay, as well as taking Sonny's illegitimate son, Vincent Mancini, under his wing, after the headstrong youth attacked Michael's subversive New York boss, Joey Zasa, at a party. Zasa later wiped out most the Commission, yet Michael and his old friend Don Altobello escaped. Michael had a stroke, and whilst incapacitated, Connie gave Vincent and Al Neri the go-ahead to kill Zasa.
The Immobiliare plot
Michael soon discovered that the Immobiliare deal is actually an elaborate swindle concocted by company chairman Licio Lucchesi and corrupt Vatican officials Archbishop Gilday and Frederick Keinszig to cover up their looting of the Vatican Bank. Hoping to salvage the deal, he sought the assistance of Don Tommasino. Tommasino directed him to the honest Cardinal Lamberto, who persuades him to make his first confession in 30 years. Michael tearfully confesses his many crimes, including the murder of Fredo.
Michael later returned to Sicily to watch Anthony perform at the Teatro Massimo. However, he soon became aware of two assassins, Mosca and Spara, whom Don Altobello, in league with the plotters, had hired to kill him. Mosca killed Tommasino, and Michael vowed before his dead friend's coffin to sin no more.
Following this vow, Vincent, who had been spying on Altobello, revealed that Lucchesi was behind the plot against Michael's life. He asked for permission to strike back. Weary of the bloody, lonely life of a Don, Michael retired and made his nephew the new head of the family, on condition that he end his relationship with Mary. That night, Michael, reconciled with Kay and Anthony, watched his son perform in the opera Cavalleria rusticana. That same night, Vincent, with Michael's tacit blessing, wipes out Lucchesi, Gilday and Keinszig in a bloody wave of murders. However, Mary was inadvertently killed in an assassination attempt on her father, being shot to death in front of her whole family. Devastated by this loss, Michael retired to Sicily and bought Don Tomassino's old villa, where he lived with his first wife. He died there in 1997, distraught and alone, of a stroke while sitting in a chair in front of his villa.