Mario Puzo came to City College with a dream: to become a writer. But he did not know how, exactly, to do that, so during his time at the College in the years just before World War II, he read and he wrote and he took classes on writing and he visited the stacks in the library and he read other writers’ books as well as articles about becoming a writer. At home, his mother believed he was making a terrible mistake. Writers were children of royalty, not the sons of Italian immigrants. She wanted him to be a government clerk.
Then World War II made a decision for him: he became a soldier but poor eyesight kept him from a combat role. It was his experiences during the war and in post-war Germany that formed the basis for his first novel, “The Dark Arena.” His life as the son of immigrants with little education formed the basis for his second novel, “The Fortunate Pilgrim.” Neither book was a commercial success, although “Fortunate Pilgrim” was called a “minor classic” by a New York Times reviewer. By the mid-1960s, Puzo told Larry King in 1996, “I had five kids and I thought, ‘I’d better make some money.’”
The result was “The Godfather,” one of the best-selling novels in American publishing history. From the time of its publication in 1969 until the premiere of the movie, for which he co-wrote the screenplay, in 1972, “The Godfather” sold more than 20 million copies. This story of an American family and, yes, this story of the Mafia, grabbed the public imagination. Puzo said the model for Don Vito Corleone was his mother whose strength held their family together during very tough times.
Puzo wrote the screenplay for the film version of “The Godfather” and won an Academy Award for screenwriting, an honor repeated two years later with “The Godfather: Part II.” For all of its honors and for all of its sales, “The Godfather” was a book that Puzo “wished like hell I’d written it better.” Yet the language of “The Godfather” has remained a part of the American vernacular, nearly 50 years after he created it. His other books include “The Fourth K,” “Fools Die,” “The Sicilian,” “The Last Don” and “Omerta.” Among his screenplay credits were “Superman,” “Superman II” and “The Cotton Club.”
Puzo’s other lasting contribution to American culture was his feeling that Marlon Brando should play the title role in “The Godfather.” Paramount, the studio producing the movie, disagreed, claiming Brando was difficult to work with and pointing out he had not appeared in a commercially successful film in a decade. Nevertheless, Puzo sent a hand-written letter to Brando that began: “I wrote a book called ‘The Godfather’ which has had some success and I think you’re the only actor who can play the Godfather with that quiet force and irony…the part requires.” With the later support of the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, the studio relented and Marlon Brando was hired.
Puzo, who was born in Manhattan on October. 15, 1920, died at his home on Long Island on July 2, 1999. He was 78 years old.