The author of ''The Godfather'' changed the face of the American gangster in modern literature and film

By L.S. Klepp
July 16, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Mario Puzo, who died July 2 of heart failure at his Bay Shore, N.Y., home at age 78, forever changed the way gangsters are portrayed in American pop culture. His 1969 novel The Godfather, and the three Godfather movies he cowrote with director Francis Ford Coppola, were such seductive stories that they seduced even the Mafia itself. ”I left that movie stunned,” said the noted Mob canary Sammy ”The Bull” Gravano. ”I mean, I floated out of the theater…. I remember talking to a multitude of guys, made guys, who felt exactly the same way.”

A heavyset man with large appetites for food and gambling, Puzo may have looked like a gangster, but he said that when he wrote the book he had never met one — it was all research and imagination. Later he was introduced to some genuine wiseguys, who couldn’t believe he had never been one of them. But Puzo, who once admitted to a ”sympathy for evil,” also declared a hatred of violence and insisted that real Corleones made him nervous.

He started The Godfather when he was 45, $20,000 in debt, with a wife and five kids to support. Over the years it sold more than 21 million copies, and the first two Godfather films won the 1972 and 1974 Best Picture Oscars. Ironically, Puzo never thought much of the novel, though as his longtime friend, novelist Joseph Heller, says, ”I believe he got over it.” The monumental success of The Godfather was quite a leap for an unpretentious guy who had grown up in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s West Side. He and six siblings were raised by his tough, illiterate Italian immigrant mother, his model for Vito Corleone. After serving in the Army during World War II, Puzo realized his boyhood dream of becoming a writer, turning out stories for men’s magazines and publishing two pre-Godfather novels, including what he always said was his best work, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), a richly textured account of Italian immigrants. By the time of his death, Puzo had seven titles to his credit and had recently finished Omerta, the last of his Mafia trilogy (with The Godfather and The Last Don), which Random House plans to publish next summer. Shortly before he died, Hollywood was buzzing with talk of a possible Godfather IV, though the rumors remain unconfirmed.

Though he lived in New York, Puzo opted out of the glitzy literary scene, preferring to spend time with his family or play cards with friends when he wasn’t working. Heller says that on his deathbed, surrounded by those who loved him, Puzo’s last words were ”I never knew dying could be such a social occasion.”

(additional reporting by Dave Karger)

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