The Godfather | Study Guide

Mario Puzo

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The Godfather | 10 Things You Didn't Know


"Revenge is a dish best served cold" is only one of the timeless quotes from The Godfather. Written by Mario Puzo and published in 1969, the tale of family loyalty and betrayal, crime and corruption traces the lives of the fictional Corleone crime family in New York from 1945–55. Critics stress that the text highlights the corruption of the American dream—the idea that immigrants can come to America and, by hard work rather than crime, create successful lives.

Reviews ranged from the Saturday Review's "A staggering triumph" to the New York Times's slightly less complimentary one, which warned, "Allow for a touch of corniness here. Allow for a bit of overdramatization there. Allow for an almost total absence of humor. Still Puzo has written a solid story that you can read without discomfort at one long sitting." Made into a blockbuster trilogy of movies, The Godfather has had a lasting impact on the way readers and viewers think of Italian-Americans, the Mafia, and the American dream.

1. A rejection note from the New Yorker inspired Puzo to keep writing.

Puzo worked as a pulp magazine writer after World War II for cheap fiction magazines with names like Male and Man. He wrote adventure stories for them until he was 35, trying and failing to get his more literary work published. He stated that he was writing magazine articles, book reviews, and children's books during this time, "knocking out millions of words." Then, in 1951, he got a form letter from the New Yorker rejecting one of his stories. At the bottom, a handwritten note read, "Sorry and Thanks." Puzo was thrilled, and said:

I'll never know who the guy was, but he couldn't know how that phrase came at a time when the author of the story was really desperate, really needed something like that.

Four years later, he completed and published his first novel, The Dark Arena.

2. Some of the most famous quotes from The Godfather may have come from a French author.

The epigraph at the beginning of The Godfather reads, "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." Puzo attributes the quote to French author Honoré de Balzac, who published novels in the first half of the 19th century. The actual quotation is from Le Père Goriot and reads: "Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu'il a été proprement fait." This translates directly to "The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed." The quotation was shortened over time until it gradually became the statement in the epigraph of The Godfather.

The line, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse," said by Don Corleone to his godson, refers to the fact that the Don is going to force a movie producer to hire his godson by threatening the producer's life. This line, too, may have been inspired by Balzac's novel, in which the character Vautrin says, "In that case I will make you an offer that no one would decline."

3. The novel is based on a group of real-life Mafia figures in New York.

Puzo claimed that he never met a "real honest-to-God gangster," but his depictions of mob characters bore strong resemblances to real-life Mafia figures. The character Don Corleone was much like mob boss Frank Costello, who kept a low profile in Mafia conflicts and worked with politicians and businessmen from the mid 1930s to the 1950s to increase his power. The character Moe Greene was based on Bugsy Siegel, who helped build Las Vegas and who, like his fictional counterpart, was shot by the mob in 1947 after allegedly stealing money.

4. The original draft of The Godfather was 744 pages long.

Puzo received a $5,000 advance from the publisher G.P. Putnam's Sons after he gave them a 10-page outline of what would become The Godfather. The book was originally titled Mafia, and the manuscript was 744 pages long. Puzo edited the manuscript down to a more manageable size using a red pen. It sold at an auction in 2016 for $625,000.

5. Don Corleone, the head of the Mafia family, was based on Puzo's own mother.

Puzo was one of 12 children of illiterate immigrants from Naples. His father deserted the family when Puzo was 12, but his mother was determined to keep the family together. Puzo noted:

I never came home to an empty house; there was always the smell of supper cooking. My mother was always there to greet me, sometimes with a policeman's club in her hand (nobody ever knew how she acquired it).

That ruthlessness, sense of family, and dignity his mother showed in the face of hardship were reflected in the character of Don Corleone, and Puzo claimed that as he wrote the Don's words, he heard the sound of his mother's voice in his ear.

6. A character in The Godfather is based on singer Frank Sinatra.

Supposedly, the character of singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather was based on singer and actor Frank Sinatra, who was enormously popular from the 1940s to the 1960s. The subplot in which Fontane—Don Corleone's godson—tries to get a part in a movie is said to reflect Sinatra's attempt to win a part in the film From Here to Eternity.

Sinatra wasn't pleased by the similarities and, when he ran into Puzo in a restaurant, shouted at him and called him names. Sinatra also supposedly forced the singer Vic Damone to quit his role as the figure based on Sinatra in the Godfather film. He tried to do the same with Damone's replacement but failed. Another story even claims that Sinatra tried to get the role of Don Corleone, eventually played by Marlon Brando.

7. The Godfather was one of the best-selling novels in history.

The Godfather was an immediate success after its publication, remaining on the New York Times best-seller list for 67 weeks. It sold more than 21 million copies worldwide and was the most popular novel at the time in the United States, England, France, and Germany. According to Forbes magazine, the book has earned more than $160 million.

8. The horse's head in the famous film scene was real.

One of the best-known and most horrific scenes in the film version of The Godfather takes place when Vito Corleone learns his godson, Johnny Fontane, wants a part in a movie. Corleone tells Fontane that he'll make the producer of the film "an offer he can't refuse." The "offer" is a threat that takes the form of a severed horse's head placed in producer Jack Wolz's bed. The head, it turned out, was real; the director Francis Ford Coppola got it from a dog food manufacturer.

9. Actor Marlon Brando turned down the Best Actor Academy Award for his role in the film adaptation of The Godfather.

Marlon Brando played the part of Vito Corleone in the 1972 film version of The Godfather. His memorable portrayal of the Mafia don won him an Academy Award for Best Actor. However, Brando famously refused to show up for the ceremony as a protest against the way Native Americans were portrayed in film.

A Native American woman named Sacheen Littlefeather went onstage in his place, turning down the award in Brando's name and reading a speech he had composed that claimed, "The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing him as savage, hostile and evil."

10. There was a contest for writers to create a sequel to The Godfather.

In 1984 Mario Puzo wrote a sequel of sorts to The Godfather. Titled The Sicilian, it takes place during the years that Michael Corleone was exiled in Sicily. After Puzo's death, his publisher had a contest to find a writer to compose two additional sequels to the novel. The Godfather Returns (2004) and The Godfather's Revenge (2006) were written by Mark Winegardner. A prequel, The Family Corleone, was written by Ed Falco in 2012, after meeting with the approval of Tony Puzo, Mario Puzo's son. It was based on an unproduced screenplay written by the elder Puzo. While some reviewers admired all three books, and Puzo's own sequel, none of the novels achieved the praise (and sales) of the original novel.

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