“In both of my Mafia books (The Godfather, The Last Don), I’ve wanted to show the parallel between the normal business world and the Mafia. Both operate with power. They crush their opposition. Hollywood can be as ruthless as the Mafia and just as clannish.
Interview by Robert Fleming
Though we usually refer to The Godfather movie as simply The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola was very gracious to have the opening title card be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. While the film is identified with the many giants that helped create the trilogy including Brando, Pacino, De Niro and Coppola himself, the creative process all started with Puzo and his novel.
Puzo was born to a poor immigrant family from Italy in New York City back in 1920. He was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, served in the Air Force during World War II, and used the G.I. bill to attend night classes at New York’s New School for Social Justice. He published his first short story when he was 30 and his first novel when he was 35. He worked for an extended time in pulp journalism where he heard various anecdotes about the Mafia and hoped to write a book on the subject.
“The reason I wrote The Godfather was to make money… I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks, and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was time to grow up and sell out, as Lenny Bruce once advised.”
Puzo got a $5,000 advance and it took him three years to write The Godfather. It was published in 1969 and became a number one New York Times Bestseller. He worked as a screenwriter on three Godfather movies with Coppola and won two Oscar awards. He wrote other novels and screenplays after The Godfather, but The Godfather proved to be his day in the sun.
But before the Godfather movies were made, before the paperback rights sold for $410,000, before 10 million copies of the book were sold, and before the book was even written Puzo was just another writer that needed to make a little more than he was making.
“I’d published two novels for which I’d received very fine reviews—especially the second one, The Fortunate Pilgrim, and I didn’t make any money (both books netted him a total of just $6,500.) …and I looked around and said, ‘Gee. I’ve got’—you know, I was working as a government clerk, and then I was working on the magazine…’I have five kids and I thought, I’d better make some money.’”
Larry King Live
August 2, 1996
Puzo also wrote an autobiography The Godfather Papers & Other Confessions. He died in 1999.