How The Godfather saved Brando’s career – and enraged Sinatra

This year, Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal film, The Godfather, celebrates its 50th anniversary. Regularly hailed as the greatest picture ever made, it’s steeped in pop culture, from the dialogue (“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse”; “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than One Hundred Gunmen”) to iconic performances from Marlon Brando as the titular crime boss Don Vito Corleone, Al Pacino as his son and heir Michael, Diane Keaton as his girlfriend Kay and James Caan as his son Vito’s brash eldest, Sonny.

Many moments have been so imitated and parodied that they’re almost cliché (the horse’s head in bed, Sonny’s death at the toll, the massacres at the end) but it’s still a masterpiece that just does grow in stature and power over the decades. past.

Coppola is often credited as the author of the film, but this ignores the significant contribution of Mario Puzo, who wrote the bestselling novel on which it is based. Puzo was born in New York’s tough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in 1920, the son of Italian immigrants. It was a dark and scary place, full of noise, poverty and anger. As he would later write: “I have never heard an Italian sing. None of the adults I knew were charming, loving, or understanding…they seemed rather rude, vulgar, and insulting.

He was determined to escape this unsympathetic environment by becoming an artist or a writer – “Even as a child, I dreaded becoming like the adults around me” – and decided: “I would be rich, famous, happy. I would control my destiny. His mother believed that the height of his hopes was to become a railroad employee; it was not until he published The Godfather in 1969 that she admitted she might have been conservative in her aspirations for her son.

After a brief stint on the railroad (“I was thrown into hell,” he would later say), Puzo served in the army during World War II, before beginning to write in 1950. His first novel, The Dark Arena, appeared five years later. years later.

He then began a modestly successful career, but by the late 1960s Puzo was beginning to despair. As he said: “I still dreamed of future glory. I still knew I would be a good writer, but I was beginning to realize that accidents could happen and my second choice, to be a major criminal, was quickly presenting itself. Yet he did not embrace crime. Instead, he created perhaps the most iconic fictional criminal dynasty of the 20th century: the Corleone family.

He didn’t think the book was particularly accomplished. As he candidly puts it, “The Godfather isn’t as good as the previous two [novels]; I wrote it to make money. His first two books had been critically acclaimed but failed to sell, but one publisher remarked that while his second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, had placed more emphasis on the minor character of a mafia, he would have been popular. Puzo was in his forties, broke and bitter.

He decided he would sell, if that was what the market demanded, and wrote a ten-page plan to tickle his publisher. They weren’t interested, but Puzo saw that rejection as a defining moment. As he said, “I had been naïve enough to believe that publishers cared about art. They did not do it. They wanted to make money. »

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