Mario Puzo. “The Making of The Godfather.” 1972. Ed Falco. The Family Corleone. New York: Hachette, 2013. Print.
This fifty-page essay, with an introduction by author Ed Falco, is an appendix to Falco’s The Family Corleone. It was written by Mario Puzo after the success of The Godfather novel and after the film was produced but before it was released. Puzo writes that he was satisfied with the film but had no idea how it would be received. Now we can say that it was received pretty well to say the least.
Anyone interested in writing, producing, or acting ought to read this. Puzo shares his own struggles as a writer. He had been writing for about twenty years, mostly freelance articles because back then magazines and newspapers still paid something. He had had two books published. He got mostly good reviews, he says, but made very little on them. They did sell well later, after the success of The Godfather. That tells us that good reviews are worth something, but word of mouth and name recognition make the best salesmen.
Of course, word of mouth often means “rumor.” I can recall that when The Godfather novel became popular, rumors swarmed around it. Some even claimed it was more authentic than The Valachi Papers, which was an autobiography of an actual mobster. Yet Puzo confesses, “I’m ashamed to admit that I wrote The Godfather entirely from research.” (553)
He says that he was familiar with “the gambling world” but not much else. He was happy to say that when he was introduced to actual mobsters, “They refused to believe that I had never been in the rackets…But all of them loved the book.” (553) That has to be taken as a compliment. It reminded me of stories of Civil War veterans who said that The Red Badge of Courage was the most realistic book of any work written about that war, even autobiographies, though its author Stephen Crane was not born until after the war was over. Both Crane and Puzo had had serious writing experience before their masterpieces, and both knew how to do research.
One other rumor I recall floating around the novel was that the singer Johnny Fontane was based on Frank Sinatra. According to some sources, Sinatra’s first wife Nancy had a gangster cousin who got him out of a recording contract by threating his band leader. Puzo tells something similar, though more dramatic, about Johnny Fontane (horse head anyone?).
Puzo notes that Sinatra was really ticked off about that character. Puzo pleads that Fontane was a minor character—true enough—and that he had no one particular in mind. After all, there was a large number of Italian crooners popular in the forties and fifties besides Sinatra. Martin, Damone, Martino, Como, Dion, Lanza, Pinza, Darin are ones I can think of off the top of my head. There were hundreds. Sinatra was probably the best, and Johnny Fontane was no Sinatra in The Godfather stories. In the essay Puzo shares his personal encounters with Sinatra. They are amusing, and Puzo is able to relate them in a good-natured manner.
Puzo is clear about what a racket both publishing and film production are. It is clear that he got taken advantage of. One example, he said that the publisher of his second novel boasted in advertising that it had sold two million copies. He said that he was paid in royalties about thirty percent of that. And he mentions the well-known fact that film studio auditors are famous for massaging figures so that anyone getting a percentage—be they actor, writer, director—seldom gets anything. Still, he says, “…no one blames any businessman who hustles.” (564) Very charitable.
He notes especially how difficult it is for actors to get any kind of break. Most never get picked from auditions. Most who are picked, are cast in films or television shows that never get produced. Most films that are produced are unknown to most people. Even the few actors that succeed “are badly exploited by their producers, studios, and agents and assorted hustlers.” (568)
He tells of meeting an aspiring teen actress whose last name was Puzo. After some phone calls back home, he determined that they were not related. Still, she told people she was his niece. He did not mind. He wrote that her only mistake was saying that she was his niece. She should have said she was Coppola’s or Brando’s niece.
Puzo is grateful that compared to many writers, he did retain some control over the script. Still, he believes Hollywood’s biggest mistake is that they do not respect writers enough, nor do they hire the best writers.
Most movies are lousy, and they are lousy because the people who have final say really do not know how story and character work. Hollywood still hasn’t caught on that it’s money in the bank to promote a writer to a status equal to producer, director, and (dare I say it) studio chief. (549)
I recently read a review of a film that noted the film had five writers but apparently none of them communicated with any of the others. The review was not a positive one. Mr. Puzo, I am sorry to say that things have not changed. I could share some more personal knowledge, but I am reluctant to, other than to say that, if anything, things are worse.
There is a lot of good humor in the essay. A group calling itself the Italian American League objected to the characterization of Italians as leaders of organized crime. Coppola, the director, met with them and agreed to remove all mention of the Mafia in the final cut of the film. Puzo notes that nowhere in the script was the Mafia even mentioned.
Puzo admires the different specialists that filmmaking requires. He admits that writing the film is just one part. He says that if he had been directing the movie, he would have wrecked it. “Directing a movie is an art or a craft. Acting is an art or a craft…And though it is easy to make fun of studio brass, those who study miles and miles of film, year after year, have to know something.” (587)
I recommend this essay today, not only for fans of The Godfather stories, but also for anyone thinking of writing for publication or going into the entertainment industry. Sure, some things have changed. The Internet did not exist in 1972. Nowadays there are fewer markets for short stories and virtually none for poems. But Puzo’s realistic perspective can be both sobering and encouraging. I cannot say whether it would have changed anything, but for someone who has written a lot but only really ever got any pay for a couple of computer programs, I wish I had read this essay thirty-odd years ago myself.
- Note: “The Making of the Godfather” originally appeared in a collection of essays by Puzo entitled The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions. Besides as an appendix to the Falco novel, it is available as a standalone e-book at a minimum price from Amazon.