After struggling for over a decade to publish a commercially successful novel, author Mario Puzo struck bestseller gold with his crime saga, The Godfather (1969), a hugely successful book that popularized the Mafia in American culture and led Francis Ford Coppola to direct "The Godfather" (1972), widely considered to be one of the best films ever made. Working in close collaboration with Coppola, Puzo won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and repeated the feat two years later with the sequel "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), which some considered superior to its predecessor. Because of the success of the novel and the two films, Puzo finally found the financial success he had long craved. He went on to write the scripts for "Superman" (1978) and "Superman II" (1980), and received a cool $1 million to write Coppola's misfire, "The Cotton Club" (1984). Meanwhile, fiction like Fools Die (1978), The Sicilian (1984) and The Fourth K (1991), were less than stellar follow ups to The Godfather. Following a near fatal heart attack in 1991, Puzo rebounded with The Last Don (1996), which was turned into a CBS miniseries starring Danny Aiello. While that proved to be the last major success he saw during his lifetime, Puzo nonetheless was associated for almost single-handedly bringing the Mafia to the forefront of popular culture.
Born on Oct. 15, 1920 in New York City, Puzo was raised one of seven children in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood by his father, Antonio, a railroad trackman whose increasingly erratic behavior led to being institutionalized as a schizophrenic, and his mother, Maria, an immigrant from Naples who later became the model for Don Corleone. After being inspired to become a writer while attending Commerce High School, Puzo joined the United States Air Force during World War II, but his poor eyesight limited him to working with the military government of captured French towns. Upon his return to the United States, Puzo used the G.I. Bill to attend both Columbia University and the New School for Social Research, where he studied literature and creative writing. He published his first story, "The Last Christmans," in a 1950 issue of American Vanguard. Soon after, he published his first novel, The Dark Arena (1955), based on his World War II experiences which followed a former G.I. who returns to Germany to find his girlfriend. The book received modest praise, but was not a commercial success.
Because he was unable to make a living from writing, Puzo was an editor for publisher Martin Goodman's Magazine Management Company and also worked as an administrative clerk for government offices both in New York and overseas. After writing non-fiction for magazines like True Action and Male, Puzo published his second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), which was about an immigrant widow, not unlike his own mother, whose strength helps steer her family through the tumultuous times of the Great Depression and World War II. Widely hailed by critics and considered to be Puzo's finest work, the novel nonetheless was a second commercial disappointment. His third novel, a children's work called The Runaway Summer of David Shaw (1966), followed a similar financial fate as his previous two works. But his fortunes changed upon receiving a $5,000 advance from G.P. Putnam's Sons for his proposed Mafia novel after researching the East Coast branches of the Cosa Nostra. He set his sights on writing a bestseller and produced The Godfather (1969) after suffering bitter disappointment for over a decade. Though he was nearly 50 years old at the time of its publication, Puzo was able to finally making his living strictly as a writer.
The international success of The Godfather led Hollywood to come knocking on Puzo's door and option his work, which director Francis Ford Coppola turned into "The Godfather" (1972), a sprawling crime saga that earned Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, which he co-wrote with Puzo. He again shared an Oscar with Coppola for writing "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), a fragmented look at both the beginning and end of the Corleone crime family that critics hailed as being better than its predecessor. Puzo went on to write the screenplays for the grandly entertaining "Superman" (1978) and its nearly as successful sequel "Superman II" (1980) before demanding $1 million to write a screenplay for which he had no interest, "The Cotton Club" (1984), a rather humdrum crime drama directed by Coppola and starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. In between, Puzo sold the paperback rights to Fools Die for an astonishing $2.5 million in 1978, even though the book itself was deemed aimless and dull. Still, it remained the author's personal favorite.
Puzo went on to write The Sicilian (1984), a fictionalized account of Salvatore Giuliano, a political separatist who was considered to be something of a Robin Hood figure in Sicily. He entrusted rogue director Michael Cimino with the 1987 film adaptation of the novel, but the resultant bomb failed to overcome the director's lack of humor or Christopher Lambert's wooden lead performance. After "Mario Puzo's 'The Fortunate Pilgrim'" (NBC, 1988) was turned into a miniseries, he collaborated with Coppola one last time on "The Godfather, Part III" (1990), which picked up with Michael Corleone in 1979 and focused on his desire to shift the family to more legitimate business. Though well-received by critics and a success at the box office, the third installment paled in comparison to the previous two masterworks. Meanwhile, he published The Fourth K (1991), a speculative work that focused on the presidency of the fictional Francis Xavier Kennedy, nephew of John, Robert and Teddy, and a crisis involving the assassination of the Pope and the threat of nuclear annihilation in New York. Certainly his most ambitious novel, The Fourth K was another commercial failure.
Puzo returned to writing for Hollywood with "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" (1992), which chronicled the events of Columbus' famous discovery of America and was released on its 500th anniversary. But the built in publicity failed to generate into box office success, while the movie was savaged by critics. Meanwhile, Puzo nearly died of a heart attack in Las Vegas in 1991, but bounced back following quadruple-bypass surgery to write his comeback novel The Last Don (1996), which was turned into a CBS miniseries the following year starring Danny Aiello, Joe Mantegna and Daryl Hannah. The network paid a handsome sum for the film rights to the book, outbidding Coppola to the tune of $2.1 million. Puzo's work on "The Last Don" proved to be the last he saw completed in his lifetime. On July 2, 1999, he died of heart failure in his home on Long Island at 78 years old. The following year, the third book in his Mafia trilogy, Omertà (2000), was posthumously released and received mostly negative reviews. Despite his obviously waning skills in his later years, Puzo was best remembered for being godfather of Mafia fiction.
By Shawn Dwyer