The dean of dons, dead at 78

Appreciation: Writer Mario Puzo, who put such phrases as `make him an offer he can't refuse' into America's lexicon and gave insight into a Mafia of his imagination, died yesterday of natural causes.

July 03, 1999|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

Mario Puzo, godfather of the Godfathers, died yesterday at home in Bay Shore, Long Island. His 78-year-old heart failed, those close to him said.

You might say it was business: He had suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1991 in Las Vegas, a city he loved for its gaming and its richer associated cultures. Quadruple-bypass surgery then sent him back to the keyboard. He soon began work on "The Last Don" (1996) his eighth novel. Shortly before he died, his agent and editors said, he completed a ninth, "Omerta," scheduled for publication in July 2000. Its release may be accelerated.

It's destined for success, of course. Puzo was immensely successful, if literarily controversial -- "The Godfather" has sold a reported 21 million copies worldwide. In terms of honors and professional acceptance, he was an even more towering screenwriter.

The unpublished book is "vintage Puzo," Jonathan Karp, his editor, told the Associated Press yesterday. "He was a vintage storyteller right up to the end." Karp said the book was about a Mafia-connected family on the edge of becoming thoroughly legitimate.

"Omerta," for anybody who has paid absolutely no attention, is the Sicily-rooted Mafia's term for its deeply traditional, sustaining code of silence.

In the broadest sense, Puzo did more to violate the spirit, at least, of Omerta than any man who ever died in bed. Tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of millions of people feel intimately familiar with the codes, passions and habits of American and Sicilian Mafiosi because of Puzo's books, and especially through the movies "The Godfather" (1972), "The Godfather: Part II" (1974) and then "Part III" (1990) -- for which Puzo wrote the screenplays as well.

In the process, Puzo etched the language immortally:

* "He's a businessman. I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."

-- "The Godfather"

* "A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns."

-- "The Godfather"

* "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer."

-- "The Godfather: Part II"

A man who worked very hard and had to struggle until he was 50 years old for his first commercial success as a writer, with publication of "The Godfather," Puzo greatly enjoyed playing a sort of cat-and-mouse game with interviewers and, for that matter, friends about the entire Mafia subject.

He was raised in New York City's Hell's Kitchen, one of seven children of Antonio Puzo, a railroad trackman who ultimately was institutionalized for schizophrenia, and Maria Le Conti Puzo, who like her husband, had come to America from the poor countryside not far from Naples.

Mario Puzo maintained, however, that he had never had any direct involvement with or experience-based insight into the actual Mafia, though its lore and legions surrounded him at least in his youth. Of the real mob, still an immensely powerful reality in New York, Las Vegas and many other parts of America, as well as in Southern Italy, Puzo had a trademark quote: "They're not my Mafia. My Mafia is a very romanticized myth."

"It might have been preferable to be in the Mafia," he told an interviewer in 1996. "I'm glad I'm a writer, but it's hard work. Nobody likes to work hard."

He might have fooled you. Few writers that come to mind have been as prolific or as commercially successful as Puzo was in the last three decades of his life. Altogether, he wrote nine novels, had a major hand in five other books, including writing "The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw," a children's volume published in 1966, and in five major screenplays. Before his success, he wrote almost ceaselessly for magazines of less than Olympian literary reputations -- Male and True Action, and the like.

"The Godfather" was his third and first successful book, published in 1969. It was an almost instantaneous success -- it was on the New York Times Book Review list for 67 weeks -- and rapidly led to the "Godfather" films, the first two of which became classics -- and earned him an Academy Award for screenwriting and a substantial number of other cinematic honors.

Neither that book nor his others won Puzo significant literary awards or much serious literary distinction. Critics, especially those in the upper literary atmosphere, tended to disdain his work as genre fiction, despite its immense popularity and the artistic power it generated in the world of film drama.

That was a pity and undeserved. There is richness of human insight, fidelity to character, exploration of eternal human truths -- as well as compelling narrative energy -- in the best of his work, especially in "The Godfather."

Critics often attacked that work and other of his writing as insufficiently condemning of the brutalities and conventional amorality of the Corleone clan and other Mafiosi. Puzo's response usually dripped with delicious irony.

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