Monday, April 16, 2012

A Family Courtesy - Mario Puzo

Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.

-Don Corleone to Sonny Corleone, The Godfather.  

Mario Puzo was born into an Italian immigrant family in New York City in the area known as "Hell's Kitchen". Both of his parents, Antonio, and Maria Le Conti Puzo were illiterate immigrants from Avellino, a town outside Naples.  
When Puzo was in his early teens, his father deserted the family and they moved to a housing project in the Bronx.  The discovery of public libraries and the world of literature led Puzo in the direction of writing.  
After graduating from Commerce High School, Puzo worked as a switchboard attendant for the railroad. During World War II he served in the US Air Force stationed in East Asia and Germany.  After the war, he stayed in Germany as a civilian public relations man for the Air Force. Puzo then studied at the New School for Social Research, New York, and at Columbia University. During this period, he took classes in literature and creative writing.  
His first published story, 'The Last Christmas', appeared in American Vanguard in 1950.  In 1946 he married Erika Lina Broske, whom he had met in Germany; they had three sons and two daughters. After Erika's death in 1978, her nurse, Carol Gino, became Puzo's companion.  
At the age of 35, Puzo published his first book, Dark Arena (1955). The novel dealt with the relationship between Walter Mosca, a tough and embittered ex-GI, and Hella, a German native, his mistress. Hella dies of an infection, denied the drugs that would have saved her, and Mosca avenges her. 
From 1963 on Puzo worked as a freelance journalist and writer.  His second novel, Fortunate Pilgrim (1965) followed one family of Italian immigrants from the late 1920s through World War II. 
Neither of Puzo's first two books gained financial success though both received good reviews.  Puzo's fourth work, The Runaway Summer of David Shaw (1966), was a children's book. 
After an expensive medical emergency – a gallbladder attack – Puzo decided to write a novel that would also be a commercial success. While working in pulp journalism, he had heard Mafia anecdotes and began to collect material on the East Coast branches of the Cosa Nostra.  

The Mafia, also known as Cosa Nostra (meaning our thing), is a criminal syndicate that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in Sicily, Italy.  It is a loose association of criminal groups that share a common organizational structure and code of conduct, and whose common enterprise is protection racketeering.  Each group, known as "family", "clan", or "cosca", claims sovereignty over a territory in which it operates its rackets - usually a town or village or a neighborhood of a larger city.  Its members call themselves "men of honor", although the public often refer to them as "mafiosi".  

The themes of love, crime, family bondage, Old World morals – including the concept of individual honor – were further developed in The Godfather (1969), Puzo's international breakthrough novel. Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth," Puzo said years later, "in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother."  The central character, Don Vito Corleone, is a sentimental bandit, individualist and ruthless scourged inside a tightly structured crime syndicate. His values are at the same anti-social and those of a bourgeois person; he is a conservative fundamentalist and his illicit activities spread corruption and violence. Puzo describes Don Corleone's struggle among the underworld bosses for power, and how family values are transferred from one generation to the next and how they change under social pressure.  
Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo may have written a half-dozen other novels and several screenplays, but his 1969 novel “The Godfather” and its film adaptation, which he co-wrote with Francis Ford Coppola, are the works for which he will be long remembered. After initial publication and for many years afterward, “The Godfather’s” familiar black cover with its depiction of a puppeteer’s hand was ubiquitous — the novel sold 21 million copies before the film version appeared. The film, too, was an unprecedented success — it broke box-office records and won several Academy Awards
Mario Puzo invented the term that Mafia dons now use to describe themselves.  He wrote so convincingly about Italian-American crime families that people frequently assumed he was somehow "connected" himself.  Puzo who also received screenplay credit for his work on Earthquake, The Cotton Club, and the first two Superman movies, died of heart failure in 1999, at the age of seventy-eight.  

Three Years before his death, Terry Gross, the voice of Fresh Air, had a perfect opportunity to ask fascinating questions to the author about the most famous Mafia character Don Vito Corleone and his Godfather saga.

Terry Gross: How did the Mafia become the theme of so much of your work?

Puzo: In my second novel The Fortunate Pilgrim, I had a minor character that was a mafia leader.  Everybody said, "Gee, you should have had more of that character."  It's really just telling stories about people in the neighborhood.  It was Hell's Kitchen in New York.

TG: Who did you hear stories from?

Puzo: Oh, members of the family.  Like the rig stealing scene and keeping of the guns from the police.  That happened in the family.

TG: Tell the story the way it was told to you.

Puzo: Well, this guy threw his guns across the airshaft, you know, the space between apartments.  My mother took the guns and held them for him.  When he came and got his guns, he said, "Would you like a rug?"  She sent my brother, who's older than me, over to get the rug.  But my brother did not realize the guy was stealing the rug until he took out his gun when the cop came.  That story is almost entirely in tho book and in the movie.   

TG:  How did your mother feel about protecting this guys guns?

Puzo: Oh, in those days when I was a very little kid, that was thought of as nothing.  He was a neighbor and he wanted you to do it, and you did it because you were afraid of him; because you hoped that he would help you out.

TG: Do you think that your mother looked at the mob figures in your neighborhood as people who could protect your family, or as people who were more likely to harm your family?

Puzo: No, protect.  For instance, the business about the dog being committed to stay in the apartment-- that happened in my family.  My mother didn't want to get rid of the dog, so she went to the local guy of respect.  I don't think they even think of them as criminals.  They were people who had influence.

TG:  So tell the dog story.

Puzo: Like it happened in the movie: the landlord wanted my mother to get rid of the dog, and she didn't want to get rid of the dog.  he was going to kick her out and the local whatever he was, I never really understood what he was, told the landlord not to do it.

TG: Did she owe anything in return?

Puzo: No, she was the cousin, or the niece of somebody, who knew the Mafia guy.  You know, one of those family things.  A family courtesy.

TG: Did she do anything to pay respect to the local organized crime figures who controlled the neighborhood?

Puzo: Well, you have to remember that those figures are usually related by blood and were members of a family, so you gave them presents.  If you had a family member who was powerful, you made sure that you gave them a present at Christmas or a special occasion.  Which was not regarded as a payoff in any way.
Author Mario Puzo at his typewriter
   For Instance, my parents grew up in Italy, and since they were mostly illiterate when they had a letter that had to be read they would go to the local priest to have the priest read it for them.  But they would automatically bring a gift.  They would bring three or four eggs, a chicken, or something like that.  It's a whole different relationship.
   It wasn't a bribe; it's a mark of respect.  It's not like  they said, "You got to give me a piece f chicken", or "You got to give me an egg, and I'll read it for you."  It was understood.

TG: How did you envision your character Don Corleone when you first created him?

Puzo: He was like a brother who was much older than you, who would always protect you, who would always stick up for you.  He was somebody who was a protector.    

TG: When Marlon Brando was cast in the film, and you saw Marlon Brando inhabit the character, did your idea of Don Corleone change?

Puzo:  No. No, I'm the guy who picked Brando.

TG:  You picked Brando?

Puzo:  Oh sure.  I wrote him a letter, and he called me up, and we had a chat.  Then I tried to get Paramount to take him and they refused.  When the director, Francis Ford Coppola, came on the picture, he managed to talk Paramount into letting Brando play the role.  But it was my idea to cast Brando, which caused me a lot of trouble before it got done.  

TG:  What did you say in your letter to Marlon Brando when you were inviting him to play the part?

Puzo:  It was something like, "Help, they're going to kill me.  I think they're going to cast Danny Thomas as the Godfather!"

TG:  Danny Thomas?  Wow!

Puzo:  Yeah.  Well, Danny Thomas was very rich off television, and I read an item that he was going to buy Paramount Pictures so he could play the Godfather.  That scared me so much I wrote a letter to Brando.  He gave me very good advice.  He said, "No studio will hire me.  Wait until you get a director and then talk to the director."  And he was quite right.  When I talked to the studio they swore they would never hire Brando.

TG:  Why were they so opposed to the idea?

Puzo:  Well, Brando had built up what to them was a terrible reputation for being a troublemaker on his Mutiny on the Bounty, where he cost them a lot of money.  He was a rebel.  And his movies has been flops.  

TG:  Did he cause any trouble for you on the set?

Puzo:  I was never on the set, but they tell me he was perfect.  Every actor just loved the idea of working with Brando; he was their idol.

TG:  What were the difficulties of adapting your first Godfather novel into a screenplay?

Puzo:  It was a cinch.

TG:  Yeah?

Puzo:  Yeah.  I mean it was a cinch because it was the first time I had ever written a screenplay, so I didn't know what I was doing.  And it came out right.  The story I tell is that after having won two Academy Awards for the first two Godfathers, I went out and bought a book on screenwriting because I figured I'd better learn what it's about.  The first chapter of the book said, "Study Godfather I as the model of a screenplay."  So I was stuck with the book.  

TG:  It's interesting to me that the characters wield power are very euphemistic in their language.  They could be giving you the message that they're going to kill you unless you follow their orders, but they say it in the nicest way; killing would never be mentioned.  Everything is between the lines, beneath the surface.  What made you write the dialogue for these powerful, violent people in that coded way?

Puzo:  Well, it does come from the way the Sicilian Mafia operated.  In fact, there was a funny story that an Englishman came to live in Sicily and he got a kidnapping note, because they liked to collect the money for kidnapping you before they kidnapped you-- so they didn't have to the bother of kidnapping you.  That was the way they operated.  But the Sicilian Mafia wrote this Englishman such a flowery note that he really didn't understand what they were saying.  He had to get an interpreter.  He thought they were paying him some sort of compliment.  He didn't realize they wanted something like fifty grand off him before they kidnapped him.  So it saved everybody the trouble of going thru the kidnapping.  But it was very flowery: "Your eminence, we love you.  We'll do anything.  If you're having trouble give us a call."  You know, and meanwhile, "Just send us fifty grand and you'll never have any trouble with anybody."
   But that is how they talked.  That's where I got it from, you know.  That horse's head thing was strictly from Sicilian folklore, only they nailed the head of your favorite dog to your door as their first warning if you didn't pay the money.  They were great believers in collecting the money before doing the job.  

TG:  The most famous line you came up with was about making "an offer you can't refuse."  Does that line have its roots in mob lore?

Puzo:  No, I made it up.  I wrote memos on how we could plant that line because I was sure it would become a famous line.  I recognized that it would become one of those lines that people would always be using.  That was carefully constructed.  

TG:  Did you come up with the expression "Godfather"?

Puzo:  Yeah.  That was an accident.  Of course, before I used it no Mafia man ever used the word "Godfather" in that sense.  Nobody used it.  In Italian and for the most part Latin family culture, when you're a little kid, you call the friends of your family "godfather" and "godmother" the way in American culture you call family friends "aunt" and "uncle," even though they're not your aunt and uncle.  That was the only way in which it was used, except in a religious sense.  So I remembered it, and the more I used it in the book, the more it became what it was.  Now the Mafia uses it.  Everybody uses it.  

TG:  You said that your parents were nearly illiterate.  How did you become a reader and a writer?  Were your parents rpud of you for being able to read and write?

Puzo:  No.  I wrote a line somewhere where my mother regarded my library card with the same horror that present-day mothers look at their son's heroin needles.  Reading didn't help you make a living, you know.

TG:  What did your mother think you should be doing instead of reading?  

Puzo:  Oh, you know, a good clerical job indoors.  If you could avoid hard labor, that was the big thing.

TG:  How did you react to criticism from those Italians who complain that Italians are always depicted as mob figures in American popular culture?  And how do you respond to people who criticize the Godfather movies for being so violent, and for having increased the amount of violence in American popular culture?

Puzo:  It sounds like some of my relatives.  But to me it's a completely irrelevant thing.  For one thing, there was a time when Italians ran crime in America.  So I'm not maligning them in any way.  In fact, I present them as very lovable people that have to make a living-- unfortunately, in a way that society doesn't approve.  But also, I know that most Italians that I grew with were so law- abiding that getting a traffic ticket was terrible.  

TG:  Your novels and the Godfather movies have had a huge impact on American popular culture.  What do you think it is about the stories that make people connect with them in such a powerful way?

Puzo:  Well, it's a story with a warm personal family feeling, and I think it's everybody's wish to have somebody they could go to who would correct all their injustices without the problems of going to court, hiring a lawyer.  You know, somebody fixing up your world for you.

TG:  And if you crossed them, you'd be dead.

Puzo:  But that's okay, because why would you want to cross them if they did everything for you?

TG:  Of course, but there is always a bloodbath.

Puzo:  People are not perfect.

Terry Gross Interviewed Mario Puzo on July 25, 1996