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The Making of the Godfather

Mario Puzo

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  The Making of The Godfather

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  Because Mario Puzo’s essays are simultaneously buttressed and undermined by a wicked sense of humor, you can’t take him literally. For example, in “The Making of The Godfather,” he tells the reader that he went to Hollywood only to get out of the house. He promised his wife, he tells us, that if he ever hit it big, he’d get out from under her feet and go write someplace else. So what could he do? Having made his wife a solemn promise, he had no choice but to go to Hollywood and play tennis a lot while he hung out with celebrities and was feted as a famous writer. Ah, the sacrifices a man has to make for the sake of his marriage! This is funny, but the reader understands both that Puzo is entertaining us with an amusing version of the truth, and that he was cynical from the start about Hollywood and script writing, about movies and the powerbrokers who get movies made. Puzo asks the reader to see him as a likable schlub who also happens to be “one of the best technicians of the Western World” and, as the author of the acclaimed novel The Fortunate Pilgrim, an accomplished artist. He tells us that for most of his early life he was the family chooch, or screwup, and we sense that he still likes that designation. It allows him the freedom of a clown, though we also understand that he’s an artist of substantial gifts. This picture he presents of himself embodies the tone of “The Making of The Godfather,” which is both funny and serious, as well as passionate and cynical about writing and movie making and the connections between the two.

  If we were to take Puzo literally in “The Making of The Godfather,” we’d have to believe that he “never held it against Paramount that they got The Godfather so cheap,” or that he didn’t disapprove of the fact that the William Morris Agency might have sold him down the river (his words) in making the Paramount deal. Nothing, apparently, riles this Mario Puzo. He is so calmly cynical and accepting regarding the machinations of those in power that when he saw The Brotherhood—a movie for which he was paid and credited nothing though he believes it was stolen from his outline—he tells us, “I wasn’t angry because I thought Paramount hustled me.” Nor was he angry, we’re told, when Lancer Books claimed to have sold nearly two million copies of The Fortunate Pilgrim though they paid him for approximately 30 percent of that amount. He accepts all of this as “perfectly reasonable business behavior.” This is a Mario Puzo who has nothing in common with the Sicilians he writes about, a people who hold slights and acts of disrespect close to their hearts, a people you’d be well advised not to abuse, a people for whom “revenge is a dish best served cold.” No, this Mario Puzo accepts the outrages and injustices of the world as matters of fact, as ordinary examples of the way, of course, the world operates. All this will strike the reader as true and not true, as funny and not really very funny at all. It is true that the world, as Puzo sees it and convincingly portrays it, is a place of ordinary corruption. It is impossible to believe, though, that Puzo wasn’t wounded by it—certainly not after reading the body of his work, novel after novel in which corruption leads to chaos and violence in the lives of men who—seeing that the world is rigged against them—go about creating their own justice, to terrifying effect. Puzo as a lovable comedian who slides amusingly through a world of corruption is funny; Puzo as a victim of unscrupulous businessmen is not really very funny at all.

  The one thing Puzo ever truly believed in, he tells us, is art: “I didn’t believe in religion or love or women or men, I didn’t believe in society or philosophy. But I believed in art for forty-five years.” If we were to take him literally—which I have been arguing we should not—then at age forty-five he gave up on art and went about writing books that would make money. Again, this is true and not true. Surely he wrote The Godfather to make money—and he succeeded magnificently. He wrote the screenplays to The Godfather and its sequels to make money, and again he succeeded. And, yes, it appears that every novel that followed The Godfather was written to make money and with an eye toward the film version—and in all of this he succeeded, writing several more bestsellers that went on to film or TV adaptations. But it is also not true that he gave up on art. In every one of his novels he continued to explore his obsessive themes: the power of those animal impulses that lead to the corruption of men and society, of the violence in the human heart and the hypocrisy of culture. To these themes, pursued through stories of the criminal underworld, Puzo remained a faithful artist. He did all that any artist can do, which is to explore the mind’s and heart’s obsessions honestly.

  The essay that follows this introduction tells the story of Mario Puzo’s, the writer’s, journey to Hollywood, where he translated The Godfather into a feature film. The essay, like a good raconteur, shares amusing stories of the things that happened to Puzo in Hollywood. And while Puzo is busy at the work of entertaining the reader, he also takes some time to argue for the primacy of the writer in the construction of all narrative art, which is a lesson the film industry seems destined never to learn. But mostly the essay is, as the title makes clear, the story of the things that happened to Mario Puzo—including his famous and disastrous encounter with Frank Sinatra—along the way to the filming of The Godfather. It’s a read no real Godfather fan can refuse.

  Ed Falco

  Blacksburg, Virginia

  January 2013

  The Making of The Godfather

  The real reason I decided to write the piece that follows was, I think, because the wheels at Paramount refused to let me see the final cut of the movie when and how I wanted to see it. I hate to admit I have that much ego, but what the hell, nobody’s perfect.

  That incident as described also made me come to the decision that I would never write another movie unless I had final say. I so instructed my agent. Which in practical terms means I’m out of the movie business.

  Before all this happened I signed to write two more movies, which at this time are almost done. So I think I’m qualified to say that the movie script is the least satisfying form for a writer. But like most everything else it’s fun to try one time.

  Most movies are lousy, and they are lousy because the people who have final say really don’t know how story and character work. Hollywood still hasn’t caught on that it’s money in the bank to promote a writer to a status equal to that of producer, director, and (dare I say it) studio chief.

  The Book

  I HAVE written three novels. The Godfather is not as good as the preceding two; I wrote it to make money. My first novel, The Dark Arena (1955), received mostly very good reviews saying I was a writer to watch. Naturally I thought I was going to be rich and famous. The book netted me $3,500 and I still didn’t know I had a whole fifteen years to wait.

  My second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, was published ten years later (1965) and netted me $3,000. I was going downhill fast. Yet the book received some extraordinarily fine reviews. The New York Times called it a “small classic.” I even like the book myself and immodestly think of it as art.

  Anyway I was a hero, I thought. But my publisher, Atheneum, known as a classy publishing house more interested in belle-lettres tha
n money, was not impressed. I asked them for an advance to start on my next book (which would be a BIG classic), and the editors were cool. They were courteous. They were kind. They showed me the door.

  I couldn’t believe it. I went back and read all the reviews on my first two books. (I skipped the bad ones.) There must be some mistake. I was acknowledged as a real talent at least. Listen, I was a real writer, honest, a genuine artist, two acclaimed novels behind me, every word in them sweated over and all mine. No help from anybody. It couldn’t be true that my publisher would not give me an advance for another novel.

  Well, we had another talk. The editors didn’t like the idea behind my new novel. It sounded like another loser. One editor wistfully remarked that if Fortunate Pilgrim had only had a little more of that Mafia stuff in it maybe the book would have made money. (One of the minor characters was a mob chief.)

  I was forty-five years old and tired of being an artist. Besides, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was really time to grow up and sell out as Lenny Bruce once advised. So I told my editors OK, I’ll write a book about the Mafia, just give me some money to get started. They said no money until we see a hundred pages. I compromised, I wrote a ten-page outline. They showed me the door again.

  There is no way to explain the terrible feeling of rejection, the damage, the depression and weakening of will such manipulation does to a writer. But this incident also enlightened me. I had been naïve enough to believe that publishers cared about art. They didn’t. They wanted to make money. (Please don’t say, “No kidding.”) They were in business. They had a capital investment and payrolls to meet. If some lunatic wanted to create a work of art, let him do it on his own time.

  I had been a true believer in art. I didn’t believe in religion or love or women or men, I didn’t believe in society or philosophy. But I believed in art for forty-five years. It gave me a comfort I found in no other place. But I knew I’d never be able to write another book if the next one wasn’t success. The psychological and economic pressure would be too much. I had never doubted I could write a best-selling commercial novel whenever I chose to do so. My writing friends, my family, my children and my creditors all assured me now was the time to put up or shut up.

  I was willing, I had a ten-page outline-but nobody would take me. Months went by. I was working on a string of adventure magazines, editing, writing free-lance stories and being treated by the publisher, Martin Goodman, better than any other publisher I had ever had. I was ready to forget novels except maybe as a puttering hobby for my old age. But one day a writer friend dropped into my magazine office. As a natural courtesy I gave him a copy of the Fortunate Pilgrim. A week later he came back. He thought I was a great writer. I bought him a magnificent lunch. During lunch I told him some funny Mafia stories and my ten-page outline. He was enthusiastic. He arranged a meeting for me with the editors of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. The editors just sat around for an hour listening to my Mafia tales and said go ahead. They also gave me a $5,000 advance and I was on my way, just like that. Almost-almost, I believed that publishers were human.

  As soon as I got my hands on the Putnam money, I naturally didn’t work on the book. (Luckily part of the advance was payable on the handing in of the complete manuscript or I would never have finished it.) The thing is, I didn’t really want to write The Godfather. There was another novel I wanted to write. (I never did and now I never will. Subject matter rots like everything else.)

  All my fellow editors on the adventure magazine told me to get cracking on the book. They all were sure it would make my fortune. I had all the good stories, it was writing to my strength. Everybody I knew was sure it was the right thing to do and so finally I started. And quit my job.

  It took me three years to finish. During that time I wrote three adventure stories a month for Martin Goodman on a free-lance basis. I sneaked in a children’s book that got a rave review from The New Yorker magazine, the first time they knew I was alive, and I wrote a lot of book reviews. Also magazine pieces, two of which were for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, who, though they do not stuff your pockets with gold, treat your work with enormous respect. It is also, in my opinion, the best place to appear, if you’re out to influence our society. Anyway in those three years I wrote more than in my whole previous life put together. And it was mostly all fun. I remember it as the happiest time of my life. (Family and friends disagree.)

  I’m ashamed to admit that I wrote The Godfather entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster. I knew the gambling world pretty good, but that’s all. After the book became “famous,” I was introduced to a few gentlemen related to the material. They were flattering. They refused to believe that I had never been in the rackets. They refused to believe that I had never had the confidence of a Don. But all of them loved the book.

  In different parts of the country I heard a nice story: that the Mafia had paid me a million dollars to write The Godfather as a public relations con. I’m not in the literary world much, but I hear some writers claim I must have been a Mafia man, that the book could not have been written purely out of research. I treasure the compliment.

  I finally had to finish The Godfather in July, 1968, because I needed the final $1,200 advance payment from Putnam to take my wife and kids to Europe. My wife had not seen her family for twenty years and I had promised her that this was the year. I had no money, but I had a great collection of credit cards. Still I needed that $1,200 in cash, so I handed in the rough manuscript. Before leaving for Europe, I told my publisher not to show the book to anybody; it had to be polished.

  My family had a good time in Europe. American Express offices cash five-hundred-dollar checks against their credit cards. I used their offices in London, Cannes, Nice and Wiesbaden. My children and I gambled in the poshest casinos on the French Riviera. If just one of us could have gotten lucky, I would have been able to cover those checks that American Express airmailed back to the United States. We all lost. I had failed as a father. When we finally got home, I owed the credit card companies $8,000. I wasn’t worried. If worse came to worse we could always sell our house. Or I could go to jail. Hell, better writers had gone to jail. No sweat.

  I went into New York to see my agent, Candida Donadio. I was hoping she’d pull a slick magazine assignment out of her sleeve and bail me out as she’d often done in the past. She informed me that my publisher had just turned down $375,000 for the paperback rights to The Godfather.

  I had given strict orders it wasn’t to be shown to even a paperback house, but this was no time to complain. I called my editor at Putnam, Bill Targ, and he said they were holding out for $410,000 because $400,000 was some sort of record. Did I wish to speak to Clyde Taylor, their reprint rights man, who was handling the negotiations? I said no; I said that I had absolute confidence in any man who could turn down $375,000. I hung around New York, had a very late lunch with Targ, and over our coffee he got a call. Ralph Daigh of Fawcett had bought the paperback rights for $410,000.

  I went up to the adventure magazine office to quit my freelance job and tell all my friends there the good news. We had some drinks and then I decided to get home to Long Island. While waiting for my car, I called my brother to tell him the good news. This brother had 10 percent of The Godfather because he supported me all my life and gave me a final chunk of money to complete the book. Through the years I’d call him up frantic for a few hundred bucks to pay the mortgage or buy the kids shoes. Then I’d arrive at his house in a taxi to pick up the money. In rain or snow he never took a taxi, but he never complained. He always came through. So now I wanted him to know that since my half of the paperback rights came to $205,000 (the hard-cover publishers keep half), he was in for a little over twenty grand.

  He is the kind of guy who is always home when I call to borrow money. Now that I had money to give back, he was naturally out. I got my mother on the phone. She speaks broken English but understands the
language perfectly. I explained it to her.

  She asked, “$40,000?”

  I said no, it was $410,000. I told her three times before she finally answered, “Don’t tell nobody.” My car came out of the garage and I hung up. Traffic was jammed, and it took me over two hours to get home out in the suburbs. When I walked in the door, my wife was dozing over the TV and the kids were all out playing. I went over to my wife, kissed her on the cheek, and said, “Honey, we don’t have to worry about money anymore. I just sold my book for $410,000.”

  She smiled at me and kept dozing. I went down to my workroom to call my brothers and sisters. The reason for this was because every Italian family has a “chooch,” a donkey. That is, a family idiot everybody agrees will never be able to make a living and so has to be helped without rancor or reproach. I was the family “chooch” and I just wanted to tell them I was abdicating the family role.

  I called my older sister.

  “Did you hear?” I said.

  My sister’s voice was pretty cool. I started getting annoyed. Nobody seemed to think this was a big deal. My whole life was going to change, I didn’t have to worry about money. It was almost like not having to worry about dying. Then my sister said, “You got $40,000 for the book. Mama called me.”

  I was exasperated with my mother. After all those explanations she had gotten it wrong. Her eighty years were no excuse. “No,” I told my sister, “it was $410,000.”

  Now I got the reaction I wanted. There was a little scream over the phone and an excited minute of conversation. But I had to get back to my mother. I called and said, “Ma, how the hell could you get it wrong? I told you five times that it was $410,000 not $40,000. How could you make such a mistake?”

  There was a long silence and then my mother whispered over the phone, “I no maka a mistake. I don’t wanta tell her.”