He was born to Carmine “The Lion” Franzese and Maria Corvola in Naples Italy, although his birth year is a source of confusion. Federal prison records say that he was born February 6, 1917. However, his son Michael Franzese says that his father was actually born in 1919. In the late 1930s Franzese joined the Profaci crime family (later named the Colombo crime family) under boss Joe Profaci. Franzese bore a close physical resemblance to boxer Rocky Marciano, one of his friends. His first arrest came in 1938, for assault. In 1942, in the midst of World War II, he was discharged from the United States Army because he displayed ”homicidal tendencies.” Although never being arrested for it, court papers accused him of committing rape in 1947. Franzese operated out of New York City and New Jersey and was involved in racketeering, fraud, and loansharking. He is believed to have been elevated to caporegime, or captain, in the Colombo crime family in the mid 1950s and by 1964 he had been promoted to underboss. Frank Sinatra is alleged to have once kissed Franzese’s ring in respect for his high position in the mafia. In 1966, it is also alleged Franzese was able to avoid a conviction for murdering a rival and dumping the body into a bay.
One of the most famous mob signatures is also reputedly a Franseze invention: the Mafioso kiss. Some claim that the “mob kiss” started when Franseze and Joey Brancato, both big guys in the Colombo outfit, bumped into each other one day on the corner of Lorimer Street and Metropolitan Avenue, and they kissed on the cheeks. The moment the men kissed, it became a street rule. Soon mobsters all over town were planting the “Franzese Kiss.”