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Sicilian Culture: The People

Mario Puzo
October 15, 1920 - - - July 2, 1999

Official Mario Puzo Online Library:

BAY SHORE, NY (Reuters) - Mario Puzo, author of the best-seller "The Godfather" which spawned the Mafia film trilogy, died Friday of heart failure at his Long Island home, his agent said. He was 78. Puzo, who won Oscars for screenplays for "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II," had just completed his latest organized crime book "Omerta," his agent, Neil Olson, said. Born in the tough New York neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side, Puzo wrote several other novels chronicling organized crime families, including "The Sicilian" (1984) and "The Last Don" (1996) which was made into a hit 1997 television miniseries. "He had a great life. It's the true American immigrant success story, and it's reflected in his books," Jon Karp, Puzo's editor at Random House, told Reuters. "His book are going to last for all time," Karp added. "For as long as people want a good story, they're going to be reading Mario Puzo." But it was 1969's "The Godfather," which sold more than 21 million copies, with which Puzo would always be associated, although the author said he wished he had "written it better ... I wrote below my gifts." Still, the saga of the Corleone family become one of the best-selling books of all time, and the films "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II" both won the best picture Academy Award. The first film also won a best actor Oscar for Marlon Brando, whose portrayal of Don Corleone became one of his trademark roles. It was a casting decision for which Puzo took partial credit. "That was my suggestion," he told Larry King on CNN in an interview to promote "The Last Don." "I had read somewhere that, and it may be true, that Danny Thomas wanted to play it, and no reflection on Danny Thomas but I got so scared that I wrote Brando a letter and he called me up and he told me that no studio would take him. "I went back to Paramount and I said, 'Brando's the guy,' and they all said no. And then when (director) Francis (Ford Coppola) came on the film, he finessed them into accepting his decision." Born in 1920 to illiterate Italian immigrants, he served in Germany during World War II and attended New York's City College on the G.I. bill. He started writing pulp stories for "Male" and other men's magazines and published his first novel in 1955, "The Dark Arena," to enthusiastic reviews. His second book, "The Fortunate Pilgrim" (1964) which Puzo took nine years to write, was an autobiographical family novel about Italian immigrants and brought Puzo some of his strongest reviews. Puzo himself said it was his best book, but when it did not bring in a lot of money, the author said he "looked around and I said ... 'I'd better make some money,"' and he set out to do just that, with a $5,000 advance from Putnam. The result was "The Godfather," which became a seminal work in the American pantheon of popular literature and was the basis for three Hollywood films, with a fourth installment in the Corleone family saga rumored in recent weeks. Puzo also wrote the screenplay or story for films that ranged from hits to flops, including "Earthquake" (1974), "Superman" (1978), "The Cotton Club" (1984) and "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" (1992). But it was with "The Godfather" that he made his mark. Puzo explained the story's popularity this way: "It's wishful thinking. I think everybody would like to have somebody that they could go to for justice, without going through the law courts and the lawyers. 'The Godfather' was really, to me, a family novel, more than a crime novel," he added. He admitted that the book came "from research," but was adamant that "I never -- people still think I am connected to the Mafia," but he swore he was not. Puzo enjoyed what he called a "bourgeois life" with homes in Los Angeles and Long Island and frequent gambling trips to Las Vegas, augmented by avid tennis playing and sports enthusiasm. Puzo, whose last novel "Omerta" (Sicilian for "code of silence") which his editor called "vintage Puzo" and will be published next year, is survived by his companion of 20 years Carol Gino and five children.

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