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‘Godfather’ Creator Mario Puzo Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mario Puzo, who gave the world a story it couldn’t refuse with his novel “The Godfather” and then helped turn that saga into a trilogy of epic films, died Friday at his Long Island home. He was 78.

Puzo, who had been in poor health for several years and had a history of diabetes and heart trouble, apparently died of heart failure, said his literary agent, Neil Olson.

‘The Godfather,” the story of the Corleone crime family, sold 21 million copies worldwide and was turned into the 1972 movie classic of the same name, starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall. The overwhelming success of that film brought a sequel in 1974, which many critics believed to be better than the original movie. With Francis Ford Coppola, Puzo wrote the screenplays for both, and for 1990’s “The Godfather, Part III,” which received mixed reviews.

The trilogy became part of American popular culture. The horse’s head under the studio boss’s sheets in “The Godfather” was an unforgettable image, and “an offer he can’t refuse” made it into Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations.”

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“Mario was a writing treasure and a treasured friend,” said producer Robert Evans, who saw the potential of “The Godfather” when the treatment, then called “Mafia,” was brought to him at Paramount Pictures. He offered Puzo $12,500 for it, plus $75,000 if the movie was made. Puzo said years later, “I thought I was really hornswoggling Paramount.”

Evans recalled Friday that “we became instant pals on our first meeting at the studio when he had only a 30-page treatment under his arm. I opened my humidor and offered him a Cuban Monte Cristo cigar. It was then we realized we shared a mutual passion. Call it love at first sight. And it was only uphill from there.”

The producer added, “Being one of the many involved in bringing ‘The Godfather’ to the screen remains among the professional highlights of my life.”

The first two films were made by Paramount for a combined $21 million and have made hundreds of millions of dollars in box office receipts, TV rights and video sales.

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Puzo was born Oct. 15, 1920, in Hell’s Kitchen, then a predominantly Italian neighborhood on New York’s West Side, one of seven children of Italian immigrants. His father, a trackman for the New York City Railroad, deserted the family when Puzo was 12.

No Firsthand Experience With Mob

Even as a child, the writer often said, he was aware of the criminal element in the neighborhood and of the intricate system of favors that flourished there.

“We didn’t think it was criminal,” he once said. “It was just the way society worked.”

Years later, when he created the Corleones, organized crime family in “The Godfather,” people wondered whether he had firsthand experience with the mob.

Puzo said no, that “after the book became famous, I was introduced to a few gentlemen related to the material. They refused to believe that I had never had the confidence of a don.”

“The Godfather, Part II” broke the sequel jinx when it won the best-picture Oscar, as the original had done.

Francis Ford Coppola, who directed all three movies, said Friday that Puzo was “an absolutely wonderful man” and that he felt “a personal loss.”

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The two had had some artistic differences over the script for the first movie, on which Coppola did the final rewrite.

Puzo didn’t see the final cut until the film’s release. He told Variety, “If a novelist goes out to Hollywood to work on his book, he has to accept the fact that it’s not his movie.” But he added, “The truth is that if I had been bossing the making of the movie, I would have wrecked it.”

Puzo never pretended that “The Godfather” was great literature. He wrote it because he needed the money.

Returning from Army service in Europe, where he met his German wife, Erika, he worked at various jobs, including a stint as a government clerk, to support his family. His first novel, “The Dark Arena,” set in occupied Germany and published in 1955, was a critical success but a commercial flop.

Puzo then spent nine years crafting perhaps his finest work, “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” an autobiographical chronicle of Italian immigrant life in New York. Again, he received critical acclaim. Again, the book did not make money.

There was a minor Mafia character in that book that, at his publisher’s suggestion, became the genesis of a Mafia novel. The novel was turned down by four or five publishers before Putnam gave him a $5,000 advance.

“He had written artistic novels enough,” his attorney and friend of 25 years, Bert Fields, said Friday. “He was now going to write a commercial novel--and he wasn’t ashamed of it. He had paid his dues, and now he was going to make some money, so he sat down and turned out ‘The Godfather.’ ”

Its success didn’t really surprise Puzo, Fields said, although “it went beyond what he had even hoped.”

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To Fields, Puzo was “the quintessential American--not the Mayflower kind, but the gritty, up-from-the-ghetto, second-generation kind.” Fields was often a guest at storybook Italian family celebrations “with Italian music, the men playing boccie ball, the women cooking.”

He and Puzo had talked by telephone two weeks ago. Among the things they discussed was the possibility of doing a “Godfather, Part IV” film, again with Coppola. Puzo was also writing a historical novel set in Italy.

Monetary Rewards of Hollywood

The author did express surprise at the vast sums of money Hollywood handed him for creating 11 screenplays. When Puzo was offered $250,000 upfront plus a hefty percentage for writing “The Godfather, Part III,” Fields commented, “Mario would be willing to stand on the corner and sell tickets” for that kind of money.

Some reviewers expressed moral indignation over “The Godfather.” Film critic Judith Crist objected vehemently to Puzo’s “presentation of murderers as delightful family men--the criminal salt of the earth.” But moviegoers flocked to the film.

And others saw the film’s message differently. Writer Gay Talese told the Associated Press on Friday, “In an America that has lost touch with family life, the ‘Godfather’ book and the ‘Godfather’ films emphasized the importance of family, the ideal of fidelity of family, and vengeful reaction to those who are disloyal to family.”

Puzo’s success as a screenwriter fueled other Hollywood work. He was the co-writer of several other movies, including “The Cotton Club,” “Christopher Columbus,” and two of the Superman movies.

Puzo wrote several other best-selling books, including “The Sicilian” in 1984 and “The Last Don” in 1996. That year he told the Associated Press that his was a “very romanticized” Mafia. And he asked, “When would I have time to be in the Mafia? I starved before the success of ‘The Godfather.’ If I was in the Mafia, I could have made enough money so I wouldn’t have to write.”

For the last three years he had been working on “Omerta,” a book about a mob family flirting with legitimacy. His editor at Random House, Jonathan Karp, said of Puzo, “Mario was, really, a classic case of an American success story--raised by illiterate parents, educated on the G.I. Bill, a struggling writer who didn’t make it big until the age of 49.”

Puzo “was a great craftsman to the very end,” Karp added. “He cared deeply about his characters, rewrote constantly, and infused his stories with an irresistible combination of moral irony and surprise. That’s why so many of us loved his books and admired the man.”

Singer Al Martino, who played a singer, Johnny Fontaine, in “The Godfather,” said Puzo was instrumental in his getting the role. “Coppola wanted an actor for the part, not a singer,” he said. They became good friends who spoke often by telephone, most recently on Wednesday, when they, too, talked about a possible “Godfather, Part IV.”

Puzo, who was once described as resembling “an out-of-shape middleweight boxer,” was a dedicated dieter, but also a connoisseur of fine Italian cuisine. He was an excellent tennis player and an enthusiastic gambler who, until a heart attack several years ago, frequented the gaming tables of Las Vegas. He split time between his homes in Los Angeles and Long Island and claimed that he read 16 hours a day. He greatly admired authors John le Carre and Larry McMurtry, whose “Lonesome Dove” he considered “a perfect novel.”

As a child of the Depression, Puzo never dreamed of achieving the good life, feeling “hopelessly trapped by my family, by society, by my lack of skills and education.” But the G.I. Bill made it possible for him to study literature and creative writing at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. His first published short story, “The Last Christmas,” appeared in American Vanguard in 1950. Five years later, Random House published “Dark Arena.”

In a New York Times interview with Camille Paglia in 1976, when he was promoting a CBS miniseries based on “The Last Don,” Puzo offered his opinions on everything from the relationship between the sexes--"Men become successes because they want beautiful women to love them"--to his resentment at being labeled an Italian American--"I’m American!”

He is survived by his children, Anthony, Dorothy, Eugene, Virginia and Joseph; a sister, Evely Murphy; a brother, Anthony Cleri; and his companion of 20 years, Carol Gino. His wife, Erika, died in 1978. A private service is planned Monday.


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