Puzo, Mario, 1920-1999
Mario Puzo was born in 1920 to Neopolitan parents in the Italian immigrant neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen in New York City. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was stationed in Germany. Although he did not engage in combat activities due to poor eyesight. Upon returning home, he enrolled at the New School for Social Research on the GI Bill and embarked on a professional life as a writer. During the 1950s and 1960s Puzo wrote essays and articles for Martin Goodman's Magazine Management company as well as a number of popular men's magazines, including Male and Swank. His first novel, The Dark Arena, was published by Random House in 1955. It was well-received but was not a financial success. Ten years later, in 1965, Puzo published his semi-autobiographical novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, which recounted his mother's experience emigrating to the United States from Italy. While The Fortunate Pilgrim was praised by critics-The New York Times dubbed it "a small classic"-the book's poor sales left Puzo in financial peril. The combined profits from Puzo's first two novels totaled $6,500 in the 1960s.
According to Puzo, writing The Godfather was a means to financial end. He was 45 years old, a father of five, and knee-deep in debt (owing "$20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and loan sharks"). Puzo recounted it was "really time to grow up and sell out." His publisher encouraged him to write about Italian Americans and suggested that a book about the Mafia would sell. Published in 1969, The Godfather chronicles the business dealings and melodrama of the Corleone crime family. The novel spent sixty-seven weeks on The New York Times best seller list and went on to sell an estimated 21 million copies worldwide. After the book's unexpected success Puzo told the press that he "wished like hell" he had "written it better."
Puzo also wrote the screenplays for all three of The Godfather films, collaborating with director Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather movie franchise went on to be an even bigger success than Puzo's original novel. The films won a combined nine Academy Awards, with Puzo himself winning best screenplay Oscars in both 1973 and 1975, and the trilogy grossed a combined $249 million at the box office. To this day, the first two movies are hailed by film scholars as some of the most significant American films of the twentieth century. Puzo's work on The Godfather trilogy helped to make him a household name as well as a desirable screenwriter in Hollywood. He went on to write screenplays for a number of big-budget films including: Earthquake (1974), Superman (1978), The Cotton Club (1984), and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1990).
Even with his successes in Hollywood, however, Puzo continued to identify himself primarily as a novelist, and he went on publish many other novels which centered on the reoccurring themes of the Italian immigrant experience, organized crime, and gambling. Other notable works of Puzo's later career include: The Sicilian (1984), The Fourth K (1990), The Last Don (1996), and Omerta, published posthumously (2000).
Puzo was a prolific writer. He authored numerous essays and reviews for contemporary magazines and published two works of non-fiction, The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (1972) and Inside Las Vegas (1977). He even tried his hand at children's fiction. The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw, published in 1966, tells the story of a young boy's adventures across America on horseback.
Mario Puzo died on July 2, 1999 in Bay Shore, Long Island.