Joseph Colombo, Sr. was born into an Italian American family. His father, Anthony Colombo, was an early member of the Profaci crime family, which would eventually be renamed after his son. In 1938, he was found strangled in a car with his mistress. Joe Colombo attended New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn for two years, then dropped out to join the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1945, he was diagnosed with neurosis and discharged from the service. His legitimate jobs included ten years as a longshoreman and six years as a salesman for a meat company. His final job was that of a real estate salesman.
Colombo owned a modest home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn and a five-acre estate in Blooming Grove, New York. His five children include sons Christopher Colombo, Joseph Colombo Jr. (1946 – 2014) and Anthony Colombo (1945 – 2017).
Colombo followed his father into the Profaci family. He became one of the family's top enforcers, and soon became a capo.
In 1961, Joe Gallo and his crew kidnapped Colombo and other members of the Profaci leadership. Gallo was demanding a more equitable split of income from Profaci, who had incensed many family members with his opulent life style and high family taxes. After several weeks of negotiation, Profaci and the Gallo brothers reached a deal. Colombo and the other hostages were released. Later in 1961, Profaci reneged on the deal and the First Colombo War started.
On June 6, 1962, Profaci died and Joseph Magliocco succeeded him as boss. Magliocco was soon drawn into a plot with Bonanno crime family boss Joseph Bonanno to murder Lucchese crime family boss Tommy Lucchese and Gambino crime family boss, Carlo Gambino. Magliocco wanted to retaliate against the two bosses for their support of the Gallos, and supported Bonanno's bid to take over Mafia Commission. Magliocco gave the contract to Colombo, who promptly revealed the plot to Lucchese and Gambino. The Commission forced Magliocco to retire and named Colombo as the new boss.
At the age of 41, Colombo was one of the youngest crime bosses in the country. He was also the first American-born boss of a New York crime family. Unlike his fellow bosses, he wasn't shy about confronting law enforcement. For instance, when he was called in for questioning about the murder of one of his soldiers, Colombo appeared without a lawyer and dressed down the detective who called him in, Albert Seedman (later the NYPD chief of detectives). "I am an American citizen, first class," he snapped. "I don't have a badge that makes me an official good guy like you, but I work just as honest for a living."
On May 9, 1966, Colombo was sentenced to 30 days in jail for refusing to answer questions from a grand jury about his financial affairs. This would be Colombo's first and last jail sentence.
In the spring of 1970, Colombo created the Italian-American Civil Rights League. On April 23, 1970, Joseph Colombo Jr. was arrested on extortion charges. In response, Joseph Colombo Sr. claimed FBI harassment and sent pickets to the east side offices of the agency. Colombo's actions generated a massive response from many Italian-Americans who felt demeaned by the federal government and the entertainment industry. Colombo then formed the League to serve as their action group. On June 29, 1970, 150,000 people attended an "Italian-American Unity Day" rally in Columbus Circle in New York City. The participants included five U.S. Congressmen and several prominent entertainers.
Under Colombo's guidance, the League grew quickly and achieved national attention. Unlike other mob leaders who shunned the spotlight, Colombo appeared on television interviews, fundraisers and speaking engagements for the League. In 1971, Colombo aligned the League with Rabbi and political activist Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League, claiming that both groups were being harassed by the federal government. At one point, Colombo posted bail for 11 jailed JDL members.
In the spring of 1971, Paramount Pictures started filming The Godfather with the assistance of Colombo and the League. Due to its subject matter, the film originally faced great opposition from Italian-Americans to filming in New York. However, after producer Albert Ruddy met with Colombo and agreed to excise the terms "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the film, the League cooperated fully.
In early 1971, Joe Gallo was released from prison. As a supposedly conciliatory gesture, Colombo invited Gallo to a peace meeting with an offering of $1,000. Gallo refused the invitation, said he had never agreed to peace between the two factions, and said that he wanted $100,000 to stop the conflict. At that point, acting boss Vincenzo Aloi issued a new order to kill Gallo.
On March 11, 1971, after being convicted of perjury for lying on his application to become a real estate broker, Colombo was sentenced to two and half years in state prison. The sentence, however, was delayed pending an appeal.
On June 28, 1971, Colombo was shot and seriously wounded at the second Italian Unity Day rally. As Colombo was approaching the podium to address the crowd, Jerome Johnson, a black street hustler, approached Colombo. Wearing press credentials from the league and disguised as a photojournalist, Johnson fired three shots from an automatic pistol into Colombo's head and neck. Colombo's son and several others wrestled Johnson to the ground. At that point, one of Colombo's bodyguards quickly reached Johnson and shot him in the stomach several times. The crowd quickly dispersed, although some made a feeble attempt to continue the festival.
Colombo remained paralyzed for the next seven years. On August 28, 1971, after two months at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, Colombo was moved to his estate at Blooming Grove. In 1975, a court-ordered examination showed that Colombo could move his thumb and forefinger on his right hand. In 1976, there were reports that he could recognize people and utter several words. On May 22, 1978, Colombo died of cardiac arrest at St. Luke's Hospital (later St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital) in Newburgh, New York.
Colombo's funeral was held at St Bernadette's Catholic Church in Bensonhurst and he was buried in Saint John Cemetery in the Middle Village section of Queens.
The New York Police Department eventually concluded that Johnson was a lone gunman. Since Johnson had spent time a few days earlier at a Gambino club, one theory was that Carlo Gambino organized the shooting. Colombo refused to listen to Gambino's complaints about the League, and allegedly spat in Gambino's face during one argument. However, the Colombo family leadership was convinced that Joe Gallo was the prime suspect. Gallo had just recently indicated his willingness to continue the family feud. In addition, since Johnson was African-American, the family assumed that Gallo had recruited Johnson through his African-American friends from prison.
After the Colombo shooting, Joseph Yacovelli became the acting boss. However, Yacovelli was just a front man for Carmine Persico, who took control of the family. Colombo's shooting would start the Second Colombo war with the Gallo crew.Colombo features in the first episode of UK history TV channel Yesterday's documentary series Mafia's Greatest Hits.
In Christopher, an episode of the Sopranos, Silvio Dante claims that Colombo was the founder of the first Italian-American anti-defamation organization. In fact, the American Italian Anti-Defamation League was founded before Colombo's Italian-American Civil Rights League.
In 2015 Joe Colombo's oldest son, Anthony Colombo authored "Colombo: The Unsolved Murder" a biography/ memoir with co-author Don Capria