Mario Puzo 1920–
American novelist, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Puzo's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 6, and 36.
Described by critic R. Z. Sheppard as "the godfather of Mafia fiction," Mario Puzo has built an empire of best-selling fictional tales from the world of organized crime. Puzo's best-known work, The Godfather (1969), the story of an Italian-American crime family, is purported to be the fastest-selling novel in American history. Its success led Puzo to continue in the same vein with the novels The Sicilian and The Last Don and the screenplays The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and The Godfather: Part III. Credited with defining the public image of organized crime, The Godfather remains popular thirty years later.
A native of New York City, Puzo was born and raised in an impoverished and predominantly Italian neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen. His father, an illiterate railroad laborer, abandoned the family when Puzo was twelve, leaving Puzo and his six siblings in the care of their mother, a formidable Italian immigrant who ran the household under strict rules. While developing an affinity for sports and gambling as an adolescent, Puzo also took an early interest in literature, particularly the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and decided at age sixteen to become a writer. Puzo's opportunity to liberate himself from the economic and social pressures of his upbringing came with the outbreak of the Second World War, upon which he enlisted in the United States Air Force and served in Germany. In 1946 he married Erika Lina Broske (now deceased), with whom he had five children. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Puzo studied literature and writing at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York. His first short story, "The Last Christmas," appeared in American Vanguard in 1950. Five years later he published his first novel, The Dark Arena (1955). In 1963 Puzo left a civil service position with the Army Reserve for employment with Magazine Management as an editor and contributor to various periodicals of adventure stories, book reviews, and short pieces, some of which are collected in The Godfather Papers and Other Writings (1972). Puzo's second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), received modest critical praise upon its publication but failed to win fame or fortune for its author. The next year a Putnam editor offered Puzo a sizeable advance for a novel about the Italian underworld, which became the unprecedented best seller The Godfather. At last treated to the material rewards of literary success, Puzo continued to write popular novels about the Mafia including Fools Die (1978), The Sicilian (1984), and The Last Don (1996). In the early 1970s he collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola to produce screenplays for the enormously popular film version of The Godfather (1972) and the sequel The Godfather: Part II (1974), both of which earned Academy Awards for best screenplay. Puzo also coauthored screenplays for other major feature films, including Earthquake (1972), Superman (1978), and Superman II (1981). In the early 1990s Puzo produced a third film with Coppola, The Godfather: Part III (1990), and the novel The Fourth K (1991). Since recovering from a near fatal heart condition and quadruple-bypass surgery in 1991, Puzo has continued to write screenplays and fiction in semi-retirement.
Puzo's depiction of the organized crime subculture is distinguished for its wide popular appeal and compelling insight into power and the dark side of human nature. Puzo's early novels, The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, exhibit the realistic narrative style typical of his later fiction and are considered minor classics of Italian-American literature. The Dark Arena involves an American soldier who returns to occupied Germany after the Second World War. Introducing the theme of violent retribution, Puzo's protagonist murders a black market drug supplier to vent his rage at government bureaucracy, corruption in postwar Europe, and his own failure to secure lifesaving medication for his German girlfriend. In The Fortunate Pilgrim, Puzo relates the experiences of an Italian woman who struggles to surmount poverty and crime in Hell's Kitchen. Though extolling her courage, cunning, and traditional values, Puzo's description of petty criminal activity in the poor Italian-American neighborhood offers ironic justification for the life of crime as an alternate means of achieving the American Dream. The themes of criminal legitimacy and revenge are central to The Godfather, in which Puzo chronicles the ascent of the Corleone Mafia family under the leadership of Don Vito Corleone, a criminal mastermind, and his sons Sonny, Freddie, and Michael. Drawing parallels to American corporate structure, Don Vito's benevolent authority is founded on supreme organizational control, calculated judgment, and swift retaliation against all enemies of the family, including traitors and the incompetent within the clan as well as members of opposing factions. In The Godfather Puzo begins to explore the dubious status of organized crime as a self-sufficient social entity governed by its own hallowed customs and rigid codes of behavior, particularly personal honor and loyalty. With The Sicilian, regarded as a sequel to The Godfather, Puzo revisits the Corleone family saga and the subject of the Mafia. The plot involves Michael Corleone's orders to locate and recruit Salvatore Giuliano, a notorious Robin Hood figure revered by the Sicilian peasantry for his crimes against the aristocracy. Michael's search for Giuliano allows Puzo to relate the troubled political history of Sicily and the Old World origins of the modern American Mafia. Returning again to the inner sanctum of the Mafia in The Last Don, Puzo introduces a new crime family, the Clericuzio, whose aging Don attempts to convert his illegal empire into legitimate businesses. In this novel, more directly than in others, Puzo addresses the conflicting interests of the successful criminal and the American legal system, whose official sanctions jeopardize the hard-won private fortunes of the Mafia family. As in most of Puzo's best-selling fiction, the story is dominated by strong male characters and vivid depictions of treachery, betrayal, and sadistic acts of violence that illustrate the excesses of ambition, wealth, and power beneath the placid surface of mainstream American society. Puzo also penned the best-selling Fools Die (1978), set primarily in Las Vegas during the 1950s and 1960s, and The Fourth K, a fast-paced thriller set in the near future. In Fools Die Puzo examines both the alluring and destructive aspects of power and corruption in the gambling, filmmaking, and publishing industries. He turned to world politics and terrorism in The Fourth K, in which the American president, a descendent of John F. Kennedy, works to defend the United States and himself against violent political extremists.
Puzo received quiet critical praise for The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, the latter of which is highly regarded for its skillful rendering of Italian immigrant values and city life. However, it is The Godfather, along with its book and film sequels, that is by far Puzo's most celebrated literary creation. Though criticized for glamorizing violent crime and reinforcing false ethnic stereotypes of Italian-Americans, the novel's central figure and Puzo's most compelling character, Don Vito Corleone, has become a near mythic figure and a permanent fixture in American popular culture. Interpreted by many as a cynical commentary on the reality of American individualism and the quest for the good life, Puzo's straightforward narrative reveals the indomitable influence of money and the necessity of violence for the survival of the self-made individual. Puzo often relies upon the sensational appeal of sex, drugs, and violence in his best-selling novels. While some critics object to Puzo's unabashed formula for large book sales, others find refreshing honesty and understated artistry in his naturalistic depiction of the Italian-American experience and ironic elevation of the chivalrous gangster.