50 years of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather

 The landmark crime novel (or is it a family novel?) was a smash hit in its own right and spawned an even more acclaimed and influential movie series. It changed the way America thought about organized crime, birthed some memorable quotes and entered our consciousness like few other works of modern fiction. Here are 50 bullet points to celebrate 50 years of the Godfather phenomenon.

        The Godfather was published on March 10, 1969.

Godfather Original Book

        Puzo’s novel spent 67 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, including time at number 1. It sold over 9 million copies in two years and an estimated 20 to 30 million copies to date.

        The book tells the story of New York City’s fictional Corleone crime family during the decade or so after World War II. The clan’s aging patriarch, Sicilian immigrant Don Vito Corleone, manages the family business with the help of his sons, including youngest son Michael, who attends college, serves in the Marines and initially wants nothing to do with illegal activities. Nevertheless, he gets drawn in and later becomes the head of the family himself.

        Author Mario Puzo was born in 1920 in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood to Italian immigrant parents. They were from Naples, not Sicily like his fictional Corleones.

Mario Puzo

        Puzo was aware of organized crime in his NYC neighborhood, but he steered clear of trouble while growing up and had no personal experience with the mob. He said, ”I’m ashamed to admit that I wrote The Godfather entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-God gangster. I knew the gambling world pretty good, but that’s all.”

        Puzo tried his hand at writing short stories and plays before publishing his first novel, The Dark Arena, at age 28.

        Puzo’s second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, came out in 1965. The New York Times called it a “small classic” and Puzo always considered it his best and most literary work. The story was based on Puzo’s mother’s experience as an Italian immigrant in the Big Apple. 

        Despite a modicum of critical success, Puzo’s early books didn’t sell much, and the author found himself $20,000 in debt.

        Puzo admitted that he wrote The Godfather to make money: “It was really time to grow up and sell out.” After it was rejected by Alfred A. Knopf, Putnam bit on the project and paid Puzo a $5,000 advance.

        The Godfather got positive reviews upon its release. Newsweek called it a “big, turbulent, highly entertaining novel” and the New York Times said it was “a solid story that you can read without discomfort at one long sitting.”

        There had been gangster stories in pop culture before, but The Godfather was different in the way it depicted the families and home lives of the mobsters. They were fully-rounded characters—flawed human beings with a strong sense of family and honor.

        The original book jacket’s distinctive typography and illustration were carried through more or less unchanged to the Godfather movie posters and other promo materials. The typeface became so identifiable that it was even used for the covers of Mario Puzo’s later non-mafia-related books.

is now a movie

        The book jacket’s designer was Neil Fujita, who started out designing covers for Columbia Records in the 1950s.

        The dedication printed at the beginning of the book reads “For Anthony Cleri.” Cleri was Mario Puzo’s brother, at least according to Puzo’s obituary.

        The epigraph chosen by Puzo to open the book is “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” a quote attributed to Honoré de Balzac.

        Puzo admitted that The Godfather wasn’t high-brow literature. He told interviewer Larry King, “If I’d known so many people were going to read it, I would have written it better.”

        Don Vito Corleone, played in the film by Marlon Brando, seems to be an amalgam of many different real-life mafia bosses, including Carlo Gambino and Frank Costello. Puzo said it was his own mother’s voice he heard when writing Vito’s dialogue.

        The character Johnny Fontaine, a popular singer whose career is given a boost by Vito Corleone, is generally thought to be based on Frank Sinatra. Sinatra is known to have connections to mafia figures, though it’s unclear how much his career was advanced by illegal activity.

        Paramount Pictures bought the film rights to The Godfather before the novel was even published, based solely on Puzo’s unfinished manuscript. Puzo’s agent urged him to turn down the offer, but Puzo needed money, partly due to gambling debt, so he agreed to the deal.

        Several directors turned down the job of helming the film, among them Elia Kazan, Sergio Leone, Peter Bogdonovich and Otto Preminger. The job eventually went to Francis Ford Coppola, and the rest is cinematic history.

        Coppola didn’t want to direct it either, but he took the job because his production company was having money trouble thanks to budget overruns on the George Lucas-directed THX 1138.

Coppola on set

        It’s hard to fathom, but Paramount brass wanted the movie to be set in present-day Kansas City instead of 1940s and 50s NYC. Fortunately, as the book became more successful, the studio relented and ponied up a larger budget.

        Puzo and Coppola collaborated on the screenplay, writing separately but deciding together what would make it into the movie.

        The film is largely faithful to the book, no doubt thanks to Puzo’s participation. The book goes into more detail about the day-to-day operations of the Corleone empire, and several characters in the book had more fully-formed back stories that were left out of the film.

        The character that changed the most from page to screen is probably Michael’s wife, Kay, played by Diane Keaton in the films. In the book, Kay is blindly in love with Michael and learns to quietly tolerate his lifestyle. In the movies, she disapproves of his criminal involvement and the couple ends up divorced.

        Puzo suggested Marlon Brando for the role of Don Corleone. The studio resisted before being persuaded by director Francis Ford Coppola.

        Robert DeNiro auditioned to play Sonny in the original Godfather film, but the role went to James Caan instead. Of course, DeNiro went on to play the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, for which he won Best Supporting Actor.

        The Godfather won three Oscars—Best Picture, Actor (Brando) and Adapted Screenplay—and was nominated for eight more.

        It was the highest-grossing film of 1972 and was the highest of all time until it was surpassed by Jaws a few years later.


        The line “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” appears in the book and the film. It ranked 2nd in AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes” list, finishing behind “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” from Gone With the Wind.

        A couple of the film’s other best-known lines, “Luca Brasi swims with the fishes” and “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” do not appear in the book.

        The Godfather was criticized for unfairly linking organized crime with Italian Americans. In fact, the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League demanded that the film not include the word “mafia.”

        Reportedly, real-life gangsters changed their manner of dressing and speaking to match that of the characters in the film.

        The Godfather Part II came out in 1974, with Puzo again co-writing the script with Coppola. This film serves as both prequel and sequel to the first one, with two interweaving storylines. The backstory of Vito Corleone was taken from the original novel, while the continuing story of Michael was created for the film.

        Part II also won Oscars for Best Picture (the first sequel to do so), Director (Coppola), Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro) and Adapted Screenplay (Puzo and Coppola).

        The Godfather Part III came out in 1990, with Puzo and Coppola again writing the screenplay. The film got mixed reviews and is considered by most to be far inferior to its predecessors—but it got seven Oscar nominations anyway.

        Puzo published The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions, an autobiographical look at the creation of the book and first film, in 1972.

        After the success of The Godfather, Mario Puzo worked on other screenplays, including Earthquake, Superman, Superman II and The Cotton Club.

        Puzo wrote several more books after The Godfather. His 1978 novel, Fools Die, dealt with the high-stakes gambling worlds of Las Vegas and Hollywood.

        Puzo’s novel The Sicilian was published in 1984. It includes Michael Corleone but mostly focuses on the character Salvatore Guiliano, who was based on real-life Sicilian criminal Salvatore Giuliano. This book was also turned into a movie, but it is not considered part of the Godfather series.

        In 1988, The Fortunate Pilgrim, one of Puzo’s novels written pre-Godfather, was made into a miniseries starring Sofia Loren.

        Puzo’s biggest flop was The Fourth K, a 1990 political novel about a fictional member of the Kennedy family.

        Puzo covered familiar territory in The Last Don, published in 1996. Another story of an aging Mafia boss, this book became a CBS miniseries in 1997. Omerta, published posthumously in 2000, is another mafia tale.

        Puzo refused to write an official Godfather sequel but gave his permission for one to be written after his death. The Godfather Returns, penned by Mark Winegardner, was published in 2004. The Godfather’s Revenge, also by Winegardner, followed in 2006 and The Family Corleone, by Ed Falco, appeared in 2012.

        The Godfather book and films solidified our collective fascination with organized crime, leading to other major pop culture sensations like Goodfellas and The Sopranos.

•     The Godfather Effect is a 2012 book by Tom Santopietro. It covers the films and novel and their effect on American culture. As noted by Santopietro, “what Puzo delivered—brilliantly—was nothing less than a disquisition on the madness, glory, and failure of the American dream.”

        Marlon Brando parodied his own Don Corleone performance in The Freshman, a 1990 comedy film starring Matthew Broderick.

        The Godfather has been referenced or parodied no fewer than 30 times on TV’s The Simpsons.

        Rapper Snoop Dogg paid homage to the Godfather phenomenon with his 1996 album, Tha Doggfather. The cover art features the distinct Godfather typography.

Tha Doggfather

        Puzo explained The Godfather’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.”



One thought on “50 years of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather

  1. Pingback: Pastrami on Italian Bread - Cornell University Press

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