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‘Godfather’ Author Mario Puzo Dies

July 3, 1999 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Mario Puzo was an obscure author saddled with a $20,000 debt and the task of supporting a wife and five children when he sat down to write his third novel. He decided that art was out and commerce was in.

``It was really time to grow up and sell out,″ Puzo recalled of those days in the late 1960s.

Puzo, who died Friday at the age 78, sold plenty: the 1969 book was ``The Godfather,″ which sold 21 million copies worldwide and spawned a pair of classic American films that collected nine Academy Awards. Before long, ``an offer he can’t refuse″ was part of the American lexicon.


Puzo, the Italian immigrants’ son who turned the Corleones into the Mafia’s first family of fiction, died of heart failure at his Long Island home.

The two-time Oscar winner, who wrote seven other novels and assorted Hollywood screenplays, had just completed the third book in his Mafia trilogy, ``Omerta.″

``He was an absolutely wonderful man,″ said Francis Ford Coppola, director of the ``Godfather″ movies. ``This is a personal loss.″

Puzo, working on his vintage manual typewriter, conjured up his mob story without ever meeting a mobster. His Corleones mingled old-world Sicilian values with new-world American violence.

Puzo and Coppola co-wrote the screenplays for ``The Godfather″ and two sequels, earning Academy Awards in 1972 and 1974 for their work. The first two films each won the best-picture Oscar.

The Corleones were brought to life on screen by Marlon Brando as the Don, Vito Corleone, and James Caan, Al Pacino and John Cazale playing sons Sonny, Michael and Fredo. In ``The Godfather, Part II,″ Robert De Niro played the young Vito.

The first screenplay contained some of the classic lines in film history:

_ ``I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.″

_ ``Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.″

_ ``Don’t ever take sides, with anyone, against the family.″

``His talent was obvious,″ said Caan, who played the volatile Sonny Corleone. ``I had the good fortune of working with him on `The Godfather,′ and the misfortune of not knowing him better. ... He will be missed.″

Puzo’s romanticized account of a Mafia family actually wound up influencing the real thing. Gambino family underboss Sammy ``The Bull″ Gravano, the turncoat antithesis of Puzo’s tight-knit mob, once recalled the afternoon when he saw ``The Godfather.″


``I left that movie stunned,″ he remembered. ``I mean, I floated out of the theater. Maybe it was fiction, but for me, then, that was our life. It was incredible. I remember talking to a multitude of guys, made guys, who felt exactly the same way.″

Puzo was born Oct. 15, 1920, in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, the son of illiterate Italian immigrants. His father deserted a wife and seven children when Puzo was 12, and the youth took a job with the New York Central Railroad.

By age 16, Puzo had decided to become a writer but World War II interrupted. After serving in Germany, Puzo came home and began writing pulp stories for now-defunct men’s magazines.

His literary ambitions were much higher, and he published his first novel, ``The Dark Arena,″ in 1955. The Saturday Review praised Puzo as ``a new talent.″

Puzo spent nine years on his next book, ``The Fortunate Pilgrim,″ an autobiographical piece about the Italian immigrant experience. Although cited as ``a small classic″ by The New York Times Book Review, it languished.

Now 45 and in debt, Puzo took a $5,000 advance from Putnam and opted to forgo literature for a best seller. ```The Godfather’ is not as good as the preceding two (novels),″ he once said bluntly. ``I wrote it to make money.″

``The Godfather″ exploded to the top of the best-seller lists. Puzo was often asked if he had ties to organized crime _ and his answer was always no.

``It might have been preferable to be in the Mafia,″ he said in 1996. ``I’m glad I’m a writer, but it’s hard work. Nobody likes to work hard.″

Writer and Puzo friend Gay Talese said ``The Godfather″ struck a powerful chord.

``In an America that has lost touch with family life, `The Godfather’ book and `The Godfather’ films emphasized the importance of family, the idea of fidelity to family and vengeful reaction to those who are disloyal to family,″ Talese said.

Puzo’s Oscar-winning work on the ``Godfather″ series led to other screenplays, including two Superman movies, ``The Cotton Club,″ and ``Christopher Columbus.″

Puzo’s other books included ``Fool’s Die,″ a 1978 effort on casinos; the No. 1-best-seller ``The Sicilian″ in 1984; ``The Fourth K,″ a futuristic political thriller about a fictional member of the Kennedy family, in 1992; and ``The Last Don″ in 1996, a return to his favorite topic, the Mafia.

That book became another runaway best-seller and was the basis for a highly rated television miniseries. It was also the second book in his Mafia trilogy.

Puzo spent the last three years on ``Omerta,″ which is about a mob family on the brink of legitimacy. ``Omerta″ is the word for the mob’s code of silence. The book is due out in July 2000.

When not writing, Puzo lived what he liked to call the ``bourgeois life,″ splitting time between his homes in Los Angeles and Long Island. He loved tennis, sports and gambling; he loved to visit Las Vegas.

Puzo is survived by his children, Anthony, Dorothy, Eugene, Virginia and Joseph; a sister, Evelyn Murphy, and brother, Anthony Cleri; his companion of 20 years, Carol Gino; and nine grandchildren. His wife, Erika, died in 1978.

A private service was scheduled for Monday.