Authors: Mario Puzo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and screenwriter

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Dark Arena, 1955, revised 1985

The Fortunate Pilgrim, 1964

The Godfather, 1969

Fools Die, 1978

The Sicilian, 1984

The Fourth K, 1990

The Last Don, 1996

Omerta, 2000

The Family, 2001 (completed by Carol Gino)

Screenplays:

The Godfather, 1972 (adaptation of his novel; with Francis Ford Coppola)

The Godfather: Part II, 1974 (with Coppola)

Earthquake, 1974 (with George Fox)

Superman, 1978 (with David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton)

Superman II, 1981 (with David Newman and Leslie Newman)

The Godfather: Part III, 1990 (with Coppola)

Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, 1992 (with John Briley and Cary Bates)

Nonfiction:

“The Godfather” Papers, and Other Confessions, 1972

Inside Las Vegas, 1977

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw, 1966

Biography

The mega-seller The Godfather by Mario Puzo (PEW-zoh), a generational saga of a New York crime family, inaugurated an unprecedented era of best-sellers characterized by sweeping scale, compelling characters, breakneck action, and a lurid fascination with greed, violence, and sex. Puzo was born into an immigrant family of seven children in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen slum. His father, Antonio, a railway trackman, abandoned the family when Puzo was twelve. His family was sustained by the Old World wisdom and moral integrity of Puzo’s mother, Maria. Early on, Puzo discovered libraries and by sixteen was determined to become a writer, even as he found unpromising work as a messenger for the city railroads.{$I[A]Puzo, Mario}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Puzo, Mario}{$I[tim]1920;Puzo, Mario}

During World War II he served in the U.S. Air Force in East Asia and Germany and briefly after the war in a public relations post. Puzo then returned to New York and, using the G.I. Bill, studied literature and creative writing at the New School for Social Research and later at Columbia University. In 1946 he married Erika Lina Broske, whom he had met overseas. His career as a civil service administrator provided for his family (three sons and two daughters) but did little to satisfy his dream of writing. He wrote at night, publishing his first story, “The Last Christmas,” in 1950.

In The Dark Arena, Puzo’s first novel, Walter Mosca, an emotionally ravaged veteran, returns to Europe to find his wartime mistress, a German native, amid the moral squalor of the occupied zone. When she is dying from an infected tooth after being denied penicillin because of bureaucratic provisions, Mosca purchases the drug illegally. When that drug proves useless, Mosca exacts a bloody revenge against the black-market supplier, thus introducing Puzo’s theme of justified vengeance in a corrupt world.

Encouraged by favorable critical response (although disappointed by modest sales), Puzo left the civil service in 1963 to work as an editor and freelance magazine writer. In 1964 he published what he considered his best work, The Fortunate Pilgrim, a quasi-autobiographical chronicle of an Italian immigrant family, directed by an indomitable matriarch, struggling to realize the American Dream in 1920’s New York. Again the book was a critical success but generated dismal sales, and Puzo found himself at forty-five unable to support his family and slipping into deep debt.

After a publishing agent overheard Puzo recounting childhood stories of organized crime, Puzo was offered a five-thousand-dollar advance for a book about the New York underworld. He dashed off a manuscript, he later admitted, written purely for the money. The Godfather, which provided an intimate look into the customs of organized crime, would become a sensation. Not simply about the underground crime syndicate and gangland wars, it is also a Machiavellian parable of power, a morality tale about the importance of loyalty, and an absorbing family saga, particularly the coming-of-age of Vito Corleone’s quiet son, Michael, who initially resists his role within his family’s business but eventually emerges as the new Godfather. The book would become the biggest selling novel of the 1970’s, despite critical discontent with both its perpetuation of Italian stereotypes and the compassion and respect Puzo accorded the criminal element. The resulting film and its sequel, The Godfather: Part II, both directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who cowrote the screenplays with Puzo, became classics in the crime genre and earned for Puzo two Academy Awards for screenplay adaptation.

After growing up in poverty and struggling in obscurity to be a “serious” writer, Puzo, suddenly wealthy, never apologized for relishing the high life that success afforded. Throughout the 1980’s, in addition to scripting big-budget spectacle-effects movies, he cranked out a series of slick entertainments. His glitzy page-turners enjoyed commercial success despite critical disdain for his heavy-handed plotting and often overwritten prose, fondness for two-dimensional characters, and emphasis on kinky sex and gratuitous violence. In 1988, Coppola proposed to Puzo a third installment of The Godfather saga, and together they produced the shooting script for the 1990 release The Godfather: Part III, in which an aging Michael Corleone struggles to legitimize his family business and redeem his troubled soul, only to get involved in an international banking intrigue, the assassination of a pope, and a brutal family power struggle at the end of which he is dead.

Following a life-threatening quadruple bypass surgery in 1991, Puzo eased into semiretirement. He published The Last Don, an ambitious valedictory that, along with the expected violence and sex, explores the United States’ hypocritical justice system as an aging don’s attempts to make his empire legitimate by becoming a Hollywood power broker are thwarted by a bloody turf war within the family and by the amorality of the film world. Weakened by health problems, Puzo turned to a lifelong interest in the Borgias, the Italian Renaissance clan that was a complicated intrigue of power and betrayal, sexual excess, and flagrant corruption. That work, ultimately completed by his longtime companion Carol Gino and published posthumously as The Family, closed Puzo’s career.

It is easy to dismiss Puzo as a market-driven pulp king, but his best work probes American justice, the bonds that compel families, the boundaries of ethnic identity and the difficult drama of assimilation, and the complex morality that defines the criminal mind. In Don Vito Corleone, Puzo fashioned a character who has joined an American mythic tradition that includes Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby: defiant outsiders who rely on private codes of conduct in a hypocritical and corrupt world.

BibliographyFerraro, Thomas J. “Blood in the Marketplace: The Business of Family in The Godfather Narratives.” In Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Examines the metaphor of organized crime and the family.Gardaphé, Fred L. “The Middle Mythic Mode: Godfathers as Heroes, Variations on a Figure.” In Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Treats Puzo within the immigrant tradition of postwar novelists and the mythic dimensions of the Godfather figure in Italian American tradition.Green, Rose Basile. “Mario Puzo.” In The Italian-American Novel: A Document of the Interaction of Two Cultures. 2d ed. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974. Examines the Corleone family within the context of immigrant literature and the crime genre.Torgovnick, Marianna DeMarco. “The Godfather as the World’s Most Typical Novel.” South Atlantic Quarterly 87, no. 2 (1988): 329-353. Reads the novel as Bildungsroman.
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