Italian #55: Mario Puzo

This request is from my cousin Dana and I will use the famous Mario to kick off a round of authors since writing has been a great domain for Italy and its descendants since Dante’s Inferno.

We all recognize his most famous novel The Godfather because his name is right there on the cover in big letters, it was a huge seller in the late Sixties through early Seventies and was quickly adapted into a hit movie by the same name. It led to a couple sequels along with a string of imitators, most by Martin Scorsese.

Let’s rewind some and then get back to when he was synonymous with that novel.

Mario was born in 1920 and grew up a native of NYC, namely Hell’s Kitchen. Sadly, his father suffered from mental illness and in the days before WWII, people were locked away, so his mother was on her own raising him alongside six other siblings. Like many of his generation, he was drafted into the military to fight the Nazis but upon returning to the States, Mario used the GI Bill to attend NYC’s City College and Columbia University.

What he did until he started working for Robbie Solomon’s “men’s magazines” (quotes because these were really semi-pornographic) by 1960 was a gap I couldn’t find an answer to.  He also chose to write under the name Mario Cieri I guess in anticipation of saving his real name for something worthier of admitting to writing. A quick aside, Robbie Solomon was Stan Lee’s uncle so Mario witnessed the birth of the Marvel universe in those neighboring offices.

Mario made his move by 1969 with The Godfather, a book based upon research and honestly, rumors and myths given how Organized Crime isn’t so colorful. Not bad though. It fueled the country’s imagination by being a best seller for 67 years and sold nine million copies. Keep in mind when this book was released, the actual truth about the Mafia had only surfaced recently with the Joe Valachi and the Kefauver hearings. FBI Director J Edgar Hoover continued to claim such a thing was fictional and big swaths of the American government agreed to spread the lie due to the Mafia’s power.

Accurate or not, it got Puzo into Hollywood’s orbit from then on. With Coppola they made two hit movies in the Seventies, won Oscars®, turn Pacino into a star, employed Coppola’s so-so talented sister Talia and created Gangster Tropes. The other big screenplay Mario got a crack at was Superman. Thankfully, the Salkinds employed additional writers to transform what he did into something immortalized and well-loved. His original take was satirical, snarky and would’ve set superhero movies back a generation. The core plot ideas (setting up the sequel with General Zod) and some visual jokes, the infamous phone booth of the Seventies, were kept. Mario was just a big enough name by 1974, you couldn’t remove it despite a major rewrite executed by four others.

Mario continue to write stories, put together more of the same. He re-united with Coppola to make a third Godfather flick which debuted in 1990. I saw it in the theater at the insistence of a girlfriend obsesses with Pacino. Boy did it suck. Goodfellas blew it away by the following year. Didn’t stop him though and it was OK. I think The Last Don by the mid Nineties on CBS as a miniseries was better suited to the storytelling he liked.

He was a writer to the end. Mario might have died of heart failed at age 78 on July 2, 1978, yet he left behind a couple more books to be completed posthumously and a pitch on some speculative history to be made into a flick or miniseries.

I’ve never read his books. My brother did, said they’re similar to Ian Fleming, just sex and violence, nothing terribly deep. Regardless of quality, those who built upon his work, especially Scorsese and James Ellroy, owe him a debt of gratitude.

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