RETRO: The Father of ‘The Godfather’

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

By M. J. Moore

“If only I could write as poorly as he does,” Norman Mailer once groused, while sipping drinks with author Bruce Jay Friedman at a party. The “he” at issue was Mario Puzo, who in that season had another bestselling novel on his hands. It was a remark typical of Mailer, whose competitive zeal turned to fury when others went ahead and actually did what he always promised, but rarely delivered. Mario Puzo was not the only fellow writer that ol’ stormin’ Norman had trashed. More than once, in gleefully spiteful ad hominem attacks presented as literary criticism, Mailer had tweaked, insulted, challenged, derided, dumped on and dismembered his peers.

If ever he heard about such a snarky remark—“If only I could write as poorly”—Mario Puzo would not have winced. Nor cared very much. Puzo had long since given up any dream of being welcomed or esteemed by the sparkling literati. And yet, when Gay Talese reviewed Mario’s new novel in 1984, singing the praises of Puzo and The Sicilian, he made it clear to readers that his admiration abounded.

But it wasn’t just Gay Talese who broke ranks and took Puzo seriously, in contrast to the highbrows who swatted him with pejorative summations and dismissive cant in the wake of his record-breaking commercial success with The Godfather. There were others who went against the grain. Camille Paglia asserted in her 1997 New York Times profile of Mario that…well, let her words be reprinted here: “As an Italian-American writer who reveres Mr. Puzo, I feel like a fortunate pilgrim myself in being invited,” she wrote, upon visiting his home for one of his rare interviews.

It’s no accident that Paglia echoed The Fortunate Pilgrim, which was the second of Puzo’s early literary novels. First published in 1965, its fate was then as doomed as 1955’s The Dark Arena, Puzo’s debut novel. Both books earned royal critical praise from important literary critics, failed to sell, and barely earned Puzo seven thousand dollars. The rest was history. With his 50th birthday looming (and with debts in the many tens of thousands burdening him), the next novel Mario wrote was The Godfather, which from the get-go (and for three years prior to the premiere of the first of the films induced by that work) not only sold millions of copies all the world over, but which (for reasons still debated) evolved into an entrenched cultural touchstone—our primary American myth.

In short, Camille Paglia’s adroit reference to The Fortunate Pilgrim was a reminder that Mario Puzo had once been a meticulous literary sculptor, poor and bloodied (but unbowed). And then, as his future Random House editor once explained: “He changed his approach and focused more on his skills as a storyteller.” In that way, author Puzo broke records more than once for the prices paid to issue his books as paperbacks; his most celebrated novel yielded two Oscar-winning films that he co-adapted for the big screen (thus earning for himself two Academy Awards). Yet for decades, ever since the first two Godfather films were released to record-setting box-office success and rhapsodies of critical acclaim, a perennial cliché has been that director Francis Ford Coppola deserves the lion’s share of the credit, and that Puzo’s novel—as source material—was, at best, a piece of mediocre commercial schlock. No matter how vehemently Coppola disavowed that notion, the cliché persists.

To understand the degree to which the work of Coppola and his filmmaking colleagues was entirely interdependent with Mario’s writing, one need only look closely at a single page of the massive “prompt book” assembled and annotated by Francis himself. As a former Hofstra University theater major (it was there that the Coppola’s whirlwind energy and take-charge personality first manifested), the use of a “prompt book” had been learned sedulously. What Coppola did for the making of The Godfather was to tear out each page of Puzo’s text from a hard-cover copy of the novel; then he pasted each page onto a blank scrapbook page that was large enough to accommodate notes, cues, reminders and ideas in regard to the details in Mario’s prose that needed to be replicated on the screen. The result is startling to observe: We learn quickly that Puzo’s text informs almost every frame of the film.

Coppola Annotation of Mario Puzo's book, The Godfather Coppola Annotation of Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather

Let’s cite one vivid, infamous example: The pivotal scene where Michael Corleone (aka: the Al Pacino character) shoots the crooked cop, McCluskey, as well as the drug-trafficking Virgil Sollozzo whose henchmen twice tried to kill Michael’s father, Don Vito) unfolds on page 152 of Puzo’s novel. Coppola’s annotations include . . .

Important: The audience knows he is not following Clemenza’s instructions,” Francis wrote in the top margin, right above the line where Puzo had reminded the readers that Clemenza had instructed Michael “to come out of the toilet and blaze away. But either out of some warning instinct or sheer funk he had not done so. He felt that if he had made one swift move he would have been cut down. Now he felt safe and he must have been scared because he was glad he was no longer standing on his legs. They had gone weak with trembling.” One word of advice to himself was penned by Coppola next to that passage, and his one-word cue was meant to indicate a plethora of elements regarding tone and mood. The one word was: Hitchcock.”

Again and again, deploying the word Detail! (often with multiple exclamation marks), Coppola took note of Mario’s precise observations. Next to the line reading “Underneath the table his right hand moved to the gun tucked into his waistband,” Francis cued himself to get this detail for the audience! And adjacent to the words “shoved the gun almost against Sollozzo’s head,” Coppola instructed: Really close.”

Similarly, wherein Puzo wrote that the “bullet caught Sollozzo squarely between his eye and his ear and when it exited on the other side blasted a huge gout of blood and skull fragments onto the petrified waiter’s jacket,” Coppola reminded himself at the bottom of the novel’s page to “Design!!!” and to be sure to catch something key: Image: Blood all over the waiter’s white jacket.”

Critical moments in the film that last merely seconds are made to feel eternal due to the ways in which Coppola and his cohorts zeroed in on the specifics Mario had written in his novel, especially the details that allowed Puzo to show off the best of his action-oriented magazine writing. For example, Mario had written this: “Only one second had gone by as Michael pivoted to being the gun to bear on McCluskey.” And Coppola cued himself about that line: Extend time.”

With laser-like focus on one single paragraph in Puzo’s book, a menu of telling details were annotated by Coppola.

Mario wrote: “His veal-covered fork was suspended in his hand,” and Coppola noted: “[McCluskey’s] fork frozen in mid-air along with “Frozen time.” And because the first shot to hit Captain McCluskey “was bad, not mortal” according to Puzo’s prose, “Michael fired the next shot through the top of his white-haired skull.” About which Coppola made these notes next to the paragraph: Hit hard and bloody!! and He chokes.”

Finally, where Mario had spelled out that “the air seemed to fill with a fine mist of sprayed blood,” Coppola followed by writing in the margin: Image: Mist of Blood.”

These “prompt book” illuminations were not limited to certain scenes. Coppola did this with every page of the novel. His “prompt book” is as fat as an old-time Sears Catalogue. And in latter-day documentaries about the making of The Godfather (the first of the three movies derived from Mario’s book), Francis freely admits that it was not the screenplay typed up in a traditional manner that he leaned on. Instead, what he did was to make the film with Puzo’s novel’s pages staring up at him, because his “prompt book” was always within reach, serving as a blueprint.

Puzo’s post-Godfather novels—published at wide intervals—usually made it to the #1 spot on the Best Sellers list, even though he shunned most publicity and avoided scandals of any kind. He never made a public spectacle of his ego or his distress.

No wonder Norman Mailer lambasted him. Mario Puzo had conquered the culture.

About M. J. Moore 15 Articles
M. J. Moore’s novel, For Paris ~ With Love & Squalor, will be published in October 2017, by Heliotrope Books. Moore is completing a biography of Mario Puzo.

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