The Godfather | Study Guide

Mario Puzo

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Mario Puzo | Biography


Mario Puzo was born on October 15, 1920, in a tough area of New York City known as Hell's Kitchen. His father worked for the New York Central Railroad as a trackman. However, when Puzo was 12, his father abandoned his family, leaving his mother, Maria, to raise and support her many children. Because of the widespread crime in Hell's Kitchen, Maria ordered Puzo to remain at home instead of going outside where he could be influenced or harmed by bad people. As a result, Puzo had only indirect contact with the criminal world.

During high school, Puzo got a job working for the New York Central Railroad. However, he also began to have ambitions of earning his living as a writer. After the United States entered World War II, Puzo joined the Army and served in Germany. There he met Erika Broske, whom he married after the war. Also, after the war, Puzo left the military, obtained a position as a government clerk, and studied at the City College of New York. He also began to write stories for magazines. Soon he began work on a novel called The Dark Arena, which was published in 1955. A somber tale about a U.S. veteran who returns to Germany after World War II, The Dark Arena garnered favorable reviews but failed to click with the public. Nine years later, Puzo published another novel called The Fortunate Pilgrim, which also received good reviews but sold few copies. The Fortunate Pilgrim deals with the lives of Italian immigrants in New York City.

At this time, Puzo faced a financial crisis. He owed $20,000 to relatives and various entities, including finance companies and banks. Desperate, Puzo decided to write a novel that he felt certain would become a best seller. He called this work The Godfather, the story of an Italian-American crime family called the Corleones and their trials and tribulations in the criminal world of post-World War II America. The book describes the strong family bond between members of the Corleone family as well as their ruthless criminal activities. Because of his realistic depiction of mobsters, many people, including members of the Mafia (organized body of criminals operating between Sicily or Italy and the United States), believed Puzo had first-hand knowledge of organized crime. However, this was not the case. Puzo never had contact with criminals even though he grew up in the notorious Hell's Kitchen. He made use of the many stories he heard about gangsters during his childhood. Also, he did extensive research into organized crime. Finally, Puzo based the character of the godfather, Vito Corleone, on the personality of his mother Maria. As a result, Vito is portrayed as a strong leader of his family who loves his children and has no qualms about using ruthless methods to achieve wealth and power for their benefit.

Puzo's confidence in the commercial potential of The Godfather proved to be justified. Although he received a meager advance of $5,000 from his publisher, Puzo soon became wealthy as the sales of the novel skyrocketed. The paperback rights for the novel sold for $410,000. The novel became a best seller in the United States as well as in England, France, and Germany. In fact, The Godfather remained on the best-seller list in the United States for 67 weeks. In 1972 the novel was adapted into the now legendary film The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola and Puzo teamed up to write the screenplay. The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Screenplay for Puzo and Coppola. One critic has described the film as "smartly scripted, beautifully acted, and gorgeously directed." The initial movie was followed by two hit sequels, The Godfather II (1974) and The Godfather III (1990). The films have contributed greatly to the enduring popularity of the novel.

Critical reviews of the novel The Godfather were mixed. For example, in 1969 Dick Schaap of The New York Times said that most of the novel was well-written and the character of Vito Corleone was believably drawn. However, he claimed that some chapters digressed into subplots that detracted from the forward thrust of the story.

Nine years after the publishing of The Godfather, Puzo's wife Erika died. He went on to write several more novels including Fool's Die (1978) and The Sicilian (1984) and screenplays for several films, including Superman (1978) and Cotton Club (1984). His last two novels The Last Don (1996) and Omerta (published posthumously in 2000) along with The Godfather form a Mafia trilogy. Puzo died of heart failure on July 2, 1999 at his home in Bay Shore, New York.
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