Scroll Down to Watch Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo Discuss the Making of “The Godfather” and More
NYTBSL.org sums it up…
In this Interview
On why he’s an author: To pay the bills (often unfortunately large ones).
On what sells a book: If it’s good, people will read it.
On why people like Mafia books: Wishful thinking to be able to avoid the court system.
On someone who changed the course of his life: His counselor, Carol, who helped him with clinical depression.
Click here to read a review of “The Godfather.”
Mario Puzo on Larry King Live (CNN)
August 2, 1996
LARRY KING: The Godfather was the best selling novel in publishing history and one of the great movies, and had two other movies come out after it all of which were major factors – in fact, the trilogy may be the best thing ever done on film – the author of the screenplays, the author of The Godfather and now the author of The Last Don – there you see its cover, published by Random House, already way up on the best seller lists, I think number three and climbing, the hottest book in the country. Mario Puzo, a rare thing, Mario is doing interviews. You don’t do interviews.
MARIO PUZO: Well, I didn’t do them for 20 years.
LARRY KING: Why?
MARIO PUZO: I thought interviews don’t really help sell a book. If you write a good enough book people will read it.
LARRY KING: What changed your mind?
MARIO PUZO: Well, during that 20 years, marketing became more and more important in selling a book. So, I became convinced I had to do something so people would know the book was out.
LARRY KING: They know The Last Don is out.
MARIO PUZO: Yeah.
LARRY KING: Are you surprised at all by the way it’s climbing?
MARIO PUZO: A little, yeah. Yeah.
LARRY KING: Because, you know, the name Puzo hasn’t been around. I mean, you’ve written some books, but nothing like The Godfather, The Godfather was –
MARIO PUZO: Right.
LARRY KING: – a long time ago.
MARIO PUZO: Right. Yeah.
LARRY KING: What do you think has done it?
MARIO PUZO: Well –
LARRY KING: Aside from pretty good reviews.
MARIO PUZO: I think it’s because it’s the closest book to The Godfather that I’ve written since then. You know, I’ve written The Sicilian –
LARRY KING: The Fourth K –
MARIO PUZO: – and Fool’s Die, and you know, those were different books. I didn’t want to write the same book. This goes back to the family Mafia theme and I think people like that.
LARRY KING: Why do we like it so much?
MARIO PUZO: Well, because 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 – you know.
LARRY KING: A kind king.
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, a very kind king. You know, he commits a few murders, but –
LARRY KING: But basically he’s in the family.
MARIO PUZO: Right.
LARRY KING: Right. It is also about family, isn’t it?
MARIO PUZO: Right. The Godfather was really, to me, a family novel, more than a crime novel.
LARRY KING: Crime just happened to be their occupation, right?
MARIO PUZO: Right.
LARRY KING: Could have been suits?
MARIO PUZO: Anything.
LARRY KING: Is it true that you wrote it just for money. I remember that stories came out that Mario Puzo, a very serious writer, had written some wonderful books, fiction and non-fiction and someone came to you like on a bet to do like a Mafia novel?
MARIO PUZO: No, what happened – I’d published two novels for which I’d received very fine reviews – especially the second one, The Fortunate Pilgrim, and I didn’t make any money and –
LARRY KING: The Fortunate Pilgrim was a great book.
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, I thought – I think it’s my best book. So, I didn’t make any money and I looked around and I said ‘Gee, I’ve got – ‘ you know, I was working as a government clerk, and then I was working on the magazines, the adventure magazines and I figured – I had five kids and I thought, ‘I’d better make some money.’
LARRY KING: So you did this as a ‘let’s write a book that’s going to appeal to people.’
MARIO PUZO: Yeah. Yeah. Right. I tried to write a good book, but I kept an eye on – actually, it helped me in that, I think, before I wanted to be Joyce and I really more a story teller, you know, than an artist of language like Joyce, though I – I think, you know, I write pretty well –
LARRY KING: So, The Godfather was not anything beneath your quality?
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MARIO PUZO: Well –
LARRY KING: Or it was different.
MARIO PUZO: – I always wish I’d written it better, because I had – I went away to Europe and I left the manuscript with my publisher and I said, ‘I’ve got to do one more rewrite,’ but when I came back they had sold the book for $450,000 to a paperback publisher, I didn’t dare rewrite it. I figured they would take their money back, they wouldn’t like it.
LARRY KING: Did you – how did you get to do the screenplay? Most times guys who do novels don’t get to do screenplays.
MARIO PUZO: I didn’t want to do it and they asked me to do it and I said no. And then –
LARRY KING: Were you a friend of Francis Ford Coppola?
MARIO PUZO: I never knew him, until – I went out there to do the screenplay.
LARRY KING: Well, now, screenplays to novels are apples and oranges, aren’t they?
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, they are two different things.
LARRY KING: Why did you agree to do it?
MARIO PUZO: For the money. Well, I mean, it – and as I said before, you know, it’s – it’s – it – those screenwriters that are writing out there, they’ve got a tough job, you know, but they make a very good living. And to me, you know, if you are writing I think long novels that take four or five years – you sit down and write a screenplay and you do it in two or three months, and they give you enormous amounts of money and you can’t – you can’t say no.
LARRY KING: That was cast perfectly, too, wasn’t it?
MARIO PUZO: That was Francis Coppola more than anybody else.
LARRY KING: Brando turned out perfect.
MARIO PUZO: Right. But that was my suggestion. I had – I had read somewhere that – and it may be true that Danny Thomas wanted to play it, and no reflection on Danny Thomas but I got so scared that I wrote Brando a letter and he called me up. And he told me that no studio would take him, that I should wait until a director came on the film and he was right. I went back to Paramount and I said, ‘Brando’s the guy,’ and they all said no. And then when Francis came on the film, he finessed them into accepting his decision.
LARRY KING: You got to do both sequels, right?
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, yeah.
LARRY KING: Which is great. The whole trilogy is fantastic.
MARIO PUZO: They did well.
LARRY KING: You ought to be very proud.
MARIO PUZO: Oh, sure.
LARRY KING: How did you get to do Superman.
MARIO PUZO: They came to me, two young producers, and I said no.
LARRY KING: Then they told you how much they would give you.
MARIO PUZO: Well, what happened was that I got a letter from the IRS that I owed them $150,000 and that was so much money, so they paid me $300,000 up front for Superman I & II, which just fitted in nicely. I turned over the whole –
LARRY KING: You paid the Feds.
MARIO PUZO: – well, I paid the $150,000 I owed and I paid the $150,000 that was coming in that money.
LARRY KING: Mario’s new book is The Ultimate Capitalist.
We will talk about The Last Don in a moment. Our guest is Mario Puzo. He calls them as he sees ‘em. Don’t fool around with him.
We will be right back.
LARRY KING: Mario Puzo’s newest, a raging best seller is The Last Don. Is it a continuation of the Corleones?
MARIO PUZO: No, completely separate.
LARRY KING: New family?
MARIO PUZO: Completely separate.
LARRY KING: Hook of the story deals a lot with Hollywood, right?
MARIO PUZO: Right.
LARRY KING: And Vegas?
MARIO PUZO: Right.
LARRY KING: What is it? A family – two families or one?
MARIO PUZO: No, it’s the story of the Clericuzio’s you know, the –
LARRY KING: And rivalry within them, right?
MARIO PUZO: Right. And you know, it’s – I like to think of it as a Renaissance story, you know, because I had been doing research for a Borgia book and sort of a lot of the stuff got –
LARRY KING: Really?
MARIO PUZO: – the Borgia stuff came into The Last Don.
LARRY KING: How did you pick the name Clericuzio?
MARIO PUZO: Because there was – my – my mother married twice. The first time she married she married a man named Clericuzio, so my brothers and sister, my – their name was Clericuzio and I always loved that name. I mean, they’ve shortened it to –
LARRY KING: Great name.
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, they’ve shortened it to Cleri now, but when we were kids they were Clericuzio and even as a kid it struck me as just a marvelous name.
LARRY KING: All this Mafia intrigue that you wrote about, was all out of your head?
MARIO PUZO: From research. I never – really, I never – people still think I am connected to the Mafia, but I swear –
LARRY KING: Was it true or not Sinatra was very upset that he thought you were patterning the singer after him?
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, I guess he was. I – I guess so. I mean –
LARRY KING: Were you not patterning it after him?
MARIO PUZO: Not really. I mean, the superficial aspect, but I was trying to catch what does a man as famous and who has done so much as Sinatra, what does he really feel, you know, like you try and imagine how a guy like that really feels inside and that – that’s what I was trying to do.
LARRY KING: In this book, there is a lot of rapping of Hollywood, is there not? You are not a great fan as I read the reviews.
MARIO PUZO: Well, it’s not true. I’ve had a good time in Hollywood, I’ve made a lot of money in Hollywood. I’ve been charmed by, you know, they are very charming people and the way they come out in this book, I guess they look like villains, but I – I don’t feel like they are villains.
LARRY KING: You doing the screenplay for this, too?
MARIO PUZO: No, it’s – it’s going to be a TV miniseries.
LARRY KING: But you are not going to do the script?
MARIO PUZO: No.
LARRY KING: Let’s take some calls for Mario Puzo. Los Angeles, hello?
7th CALLER, [Los Angeles, CA]: Good evening, Mr. Puzo. I was wondering why you sold the rights to your latest novel to CBS instead of making it into a feature motion picture?
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MARIO PUZO: Because they gave me a lot more money.
LARRY KING: Mario, so much deals in your life with money.
MARIO PUZO: Well, because I was very poor. Until I was 48 years old, I was very poor. I never took a vacation, I didn’t – you know, I just worked and so money became very important.
LARRY KING: So to quote the vernacular of my tribe: You are entitled.
MARIO PUZO: Right.
LARRY KING: Atlanta, hello?
8th CALLER, [Atlanta, GA]: Hello.
LARRY KING: Hi.
8th CALLER: Why didn’t the movie, Godfather III pick up right where Godfather II ended – I am speaking chronologically –
MARIO PUZO: Right.
LARRY KING: Why not?
MARIO PUZO: I don’t know.
LARRY KING: You wrote the screen play.
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, but it got changed.
LARRY KING: Oh.
MARIO PUZO: Yeah.
LARRY KING: You had picked it up.
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, because Francis wrote the screenplay with me. I wrote the first draft and then Francis rewrote and then I rewrote and so it evolved that way.
LARRY KING: Are you happy with the whole trilogy, though?
MARIO PUZO: Well, one and two, I am very, very – one, I think, especially, I think, is a classic. Godfather III, I think maybe we didn’t do as well. You know, sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you are not. And – on Godfather III, I don’t think it’s as good as the other two pictures, but still it got national – it got nominated for the academy. So – it couldn’t have been bad, you know?
LARRY KING: Nicholas Cage really wanted to be in it.
MARIO PUZO: Did he? I didn’t know that.
LARRY KING: Oh, yeah, he wanted the part that Garcia played.
MARIO PUZO: I didn’t know that.
LARRY KING: Yeah.
MARIO PUZO: And probably Francis didn’t take him because Nicholas is his nephew.
LARRY KING: I know.
MARIO PUZO: You know, it was really hard to get him to hire his sister in Godfather I.
LARRY KING: Because of nepotism.
MARIO PUZO: Yeah, and I remember, I thought her test was the best test and I told him, you know.
LARRY KING: Our guest is Mario Puzo, back at the top with The Last Don. We will be back with our remaining moments after this.
LARRY KING: In our remaining moments, Mario Puzo would like to tell us about his own counselor, Carol.
MARIO PUZO: Right. She was – my wife was terminally ill, this was 18 years ago and she was a nurse, and she was the best nurse I have ever seen, really a great nurse and then you know we got disease and we’ve been together for 17 years and she saved my life, we were in Los Angeles, gambling, New Year’s Eve –
LARRY KING: You mean, Las Vegas.
MARIO PUZO: – Las Vegas, and she noticed my fingers were blue and other signs, and she dragged me to LA and I immediately had heart surgery, a quadruple bypass, so she saved my life there and a couple of other things. But also the biggest thing was, I was very depressed after my heart operation, I couldn’t write. And she got me prozac and when I was writing the book, you know, when you are depressed – the toughest thing for a writer is to believe he is writing something good. And she kept encouraging me, you know, she said – I used to say ‘Gee, this is lousy, who wants to read it,’ and she’d say, ‘No, no, it’s good. It’s good.’ And then my editor, Jonathan Karp at Random House, he said the same thing, he cheered me up pretty much, too. But it was Carol that really brought me through.
LARRY KING: But you – you need that encouragement.
MARIO PUZO: Oh, absolutely do.
LARRY KING: Yeah. Lewiston, New York. Hello?
9th CALLER, [Lewiston, NY]: Hello. I enjoy Mr. Puzo’s writing very much and I was wondering when he wrote his first book and where did he get his journalistic experience, at what university?
LARRY KING: Did you go to – did you go to –
MARIO PUZO: I went to the New School for Social Research after the war and again money rears its head, because under the GI bill if you took a full course at night college, you got $120 a month, which was a lot of money in 1949.
LARRY KING: What was your first book?
MARIO PUZO: The Dark Arena, it was about World War II.
LARRY KING: Thank you Mario. Continued, long life, good luck.
MARIO PUZO: Thank you very much, Larry.
LARRY KING: The book is The Last Don. The author is Mario Puzo. He wrote The Godfather. Something tells me he is going to make it.
Thanks for joining us. Jerry Lee Lewis tomorrow night. From Los Angeles, good night.
© copyright 1996
Mario Puzo on “The Godfather”
Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola