First Time? Start Here.
Poor Richard's Almanack: Benjamin Franklin's Incredibly Popular Book of Aphorisms, Forecasts, and More
You will get one short email every three days for a month.
You can unsubscribe any time.
This is my book summary of The Making of The Godfather by Mario Puzo. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.
The Godfather was the highest-grossing film of 1972. It won 3 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola). The book and screenplay are considered literary masterpieces.
Which makes it all the more astounding that Mario Puzo admits: “I have written three novels. The Godfather is not as good as the preceding two; I wrote it to make money.”
Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather to make money. In part because he needed to pay back $20,000 in loans to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. As he wrote in The Making of The Godfather, “It was really time to grow up and sell out as Lenny Bruce once advised.”
The Making of The Godfather is Mario Puzo’s short essay on why he wrote the book, the trials and tribulations of getting it made, and why he was so unhappy with the process of making the film. It’s part reality television, part historical tale, part personal diary. And it’s great.
In the introduction of the book, Mario Puzo covers in a few short paragraphs why he wrote The Making of the Godfather. In just a few paragraphs, you get a taste for his ego, sense of humor, and charming writing style.
The real reason I decided to write the piece that follows was, I think, because the wheels at Paramount refused to let me see the final cut of the movie when and how I wanted to see it. I hate to admit I have that much ego, but what the hell, nobody’s perfect.
That incident as described also made me come to the decision that I would never write another movie unless I had final say. I so instructed my agent. Which in practical terms means I’m out of the movie business.
Before all this happened I signed to write two more movies, which at this time are almost done. So I think I’m qualified to say that the movie script is the least satisfying form for a writer. But like most everything else it’s fun to try one time.
Most movies are lousy, and they are lousy because the people who have final say really don’t 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 that of producer, director, and (dare I say it) studio chief.
In the last paragraph, Mario echoes a sentiment many writer’s echo today.
One incredibly important dynamic to the outcome of The Godfather was the Executive Producer on the movie Al Ruddy. The best insight I've found into this relationship is The Offer by Paramount Plus — an entire show dedicated to the making of The Godfather film. This exchange captures the nature of their relationship well:
“You just do what you want to do,” Ruddy said. “You’re the writer. But do me a favor. Start off with a love scene between Michael and Kay.” He still wanted Redford. “Al,” I said as I drank his whiskey and smoked his cigars, “you can’t start The Godfather off with a love scene. It ain’t fitting.”
That was Al Ruddy telling Mario Puzo that this was his film. And then telling him exactly how to start the film in a way he disagrees with entirely.
The Making of The Godfather continues powerful counterintuitive lessons including that making something to simple make money isn’t always a bad idea and that outlier success can typically he attributed to just a few factors amidst a myriad of many. Here are the lessons I took away from reading this mini-book by Mario Puzo.
Mario Puzo kicks off the book by explicitly wrote The Godfather to make money. In part to get out of constant debt and prove to himself that was capable of writing a best-selling novel.
I have written three novels. The Godfather is not as good as the preceding two; I wrote it to make money.
Mario is open about just how much money he owed and who he owed it to. He loved to gamble and was in debt to bookmakers. The Godfather marked Mario Puzo first real commercial success, changing his life forever.
I was forty-five years old and tired of being an artist. Besides, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was really time to grow up and sell out as Lenny Bruce once advised.
The Godfather was Mario’s push to put up a bestseller or shut up. As always, “Chips on shoulders put chips in pockets.” People with an axe to grind, especially with themselves, are often forces of nature.
I had never doubted I could write a best-selling commercial novel whenever I chose to do so. My writing friends, my family, my children and my creditors all assured me now was the time to put up or shut up.
“Subject matter rots like everything else,” is a great way to summing up why it’s important to pursue ideas when they’re fresh in our mind. Given enough time, everything decays and withers.
The thing is, I didn’t really want to write The Godfather. There was another novel I wanted to write. (I never did and now I never will. Subject matter rots like everything else.)
Despite the common perception that Mario Puzo was intimately familiar with life in the Mafia, he wrote The Godfather entirely from research. Which was probably helped by his gambling addiction and experience with bookies.
I’m ashamed to admit that I wrote The Godfather entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster. I knew the gambling world pretty good, but that’s all.
The Godfather was so good that many believed Mario Puzo was pie by the Mafia to write the book.
In different parts of the country I heard a nice story: that the Mafia had paid me a million dollars to write The Godfather as a public relations con. I’m not in the literary world much, but I hear some writers claim I must have been a Mafia man, that the book could not have been written purely out of research. I treasure the compliment.
Mario Puzo sold the book rights for The Godfather for $410,000 after his agent turned down the second-highest offer for $375,000. $410,000 was $10,000 over the highest price ever paid breaking the record. In dollars, $410k in 1980 translates to over $1M today.
When we finally got home, I owed the credit card companies $8,000. I wasn’t worried. If worse came to worse we could always sell our house. Or I could go to jail. Hell, better writers had gone to jail. No sweat.
I went into New York to see my agent, Candida Donadio. I was hoping she’d pull a slick magazine assignment out of her sleeve and bail me out as she’d often done in the past. She informed me that my publisher had just turned down $375,000 for the paperback rights to The Godfather.
Mario reflects on finally graduating from being the chooch in his family and abdicating that role.
The reason for this was because every Italian family has a “chooch,” a donkey. That is, a family idiot everybody agrees will never be able to make a living and so has to be helped without rancor or reproach. I was the family “chooch” and I just wanted to tell them I was abdicating the family role.
Once the book started selling, Mario Puzo made even more. But he never quite got comfortable being out of debt.
The Godfather to date had earned over $1,000,000, but I still wasn’t rich. Some of the money was diverted to trust funds for the kids. There were agents’ commissions and lawyers’ fees. There were federal and state income taxes. All of which cut the original million to less than half. But before I grasped all this I had a great time. I spent the money as fast as it came in. The only thing was that I felt very unnatural being out of debt. I didn’t owe anybody one penny.
Incredibly, the film rights were sold off to Paramount for just $12,500 before the book became a bestseller.
A bigger mistake was made long before publication when I had the first one hundred pages of The Godfather done. The William Morris Agency approved a contract with Paramount for the book for a $12,500 option payment, against $50,000 with “escalators” if they exercised the option. I had already switched to Candida Donadio as agent, but William Morris had signed the initial book contract and so represented me in the movie deal. They advised me against taking it. They advised me to wait. That was like advising a guy underwater to take a deep breath. I needed the cash and the $12,500 looked like Fort Knox. Let me say now that the fault was mine. But I never held it against Paramount that they got The Godfather so cheap.
The fact that I feel that the William Morris Agency might have sold me down the river to Paramount Pictures does not mean that I disapprove, condemn, or even am resentful. I consider it perfectly reasonable business behavior on their part.
Mario Puzo reflects on why his book succeeded — thanks in large part to the central mythic figure of Don Vito Corleone. And wishes he did a better job writing it.
The book got much better reviews than I expected. I wished like hell I’d written it better. I like the book. It has energy and I lucked out by creating a central character that was popularly accepted as genuinely mythic. But I wrote below my gifts in that book.
Mario on his weekly expense money while writing the script and how Hollywood studios make profits disappear to avoid paying net profit shares on their films.
The deal for the script was agreeable: $500 a week expense money, nice money, up front (sure money), plus 2½ percent of net profit. A fair deal in the marketplace of that time, especially since Al Ruddy had gotten his job by saying he could produce the picture for only a million.
But the deal was not as good as it sounded. For one thing, a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel was $500 a week, so that wiped out the expense money right there. Plus the fact that my 2½ percent was worth zero unless the picture became a big block-buster like Love Story. The way it works is that the studio usually legally snatches all profits from anybody working on a percentage of net profit. They do this with bookkeeping. If the picture costs $4,000,000, they add another million for studio overhead. They charge advertising department costs to pictures that make money. They have accountants who make profits disappear like Houdini.
Mario Puzo on producers and directors proposing edits to screenplays and helping write them. “They believe words come out of a pen. And again it’s not stupidity. Simply innocence. They have no concept of how writing really works.”
During World War II I was attached to the British Army, and at one point we met elements of the Russian Army in a northern German town. It seems this Russian division, recruited from some wild Asiatic province, had never seen plumbing. They were fascinated by water running out of a copper faucet. One fur-hatted Russian ripped the faucet off the wall and nailed it on a fence post. He was astonished when he turned on the faucet and no water came out. He assumed that water just came out of the faucet. The concept of plumbing had never been revealed to him. You can laugh at it, but it wasn’t native stupidity, it was simply innocence.
When a director, or a star, or a producer picks up a pen, I think the same thing happens. (There are exceptions of course.) They believe words come out of a pen. And again it’s not stupidity. Simply innocence. They have no concept of how writing really works. So writers shouldn’t get mad. They should just get the hell out of the movie business.
On working with Francis Ford Coppola and their approach to writing the final screenplay together.
”The one thing Francis and I want you to understand,” Al Ruddy told me, “is that there is no intention of his rewriting your script. Francis just wants to direct and everybody is happy with your work.”
I knew immediately that I had a writing partner. Sure enough.
He rewrote one half and I rewrote the second half. Then we traded and rewrote each other. I suggested we work together. Francis looked me right in the eye and said no. That’s when I knew he was really a director.
I like him. And he earned his half of the screen credit. And I was glad to see him get it. I could blame all the lousy dialogue lines on him and some of the lousy scenes. He was never abrasive; we got along fine; and finally there was a shooting script.
On how Al Ruddy overcame the objectives of the Italian American League, who were opposed to the The Godfather because they thought it was a “mafia movie” that would harm the perception of Italians.
Now the Italian American League began to make noises. Ruddy asked me if I would sit down with the league to iron things out. I told him I would not. He decided he would and he did. He promised them to take out all references to the Mafia in the script and to preserve the Italian honor. The league pledged its cooperation in the making of the film. The New York Times put the story on page 1 and the next day even had an indignant editorial on it. A lot of people were outraged as hell. I must say Ruddy proved himself a shrewd bargainer because the word “Mafia” was never in the script in the first place.
Editing and writing are two sides of the same coin.
The cutting of the film had always struck me as primarily a writing job. It is very much like the final draft of a piece of writing. So I really wanted to be in on the cutting.
Like Mario, Francis Coppola agreed to direct The Godfather in part because he thought it would help him get the capital he needed to make the movies he really wanted to make.
One interview I have to admit depressed me. Francis Coppola explained he was directing The Godfather so that he could get the capital to make pictures he really wanted to make. What depressed me was that he was smart enough to do this at the age of thirty-two when it took me forty-five years to figure out I had to write The Godfather so that I could do the other books I really wanted to do.
After writing the screenplay for The Godfather with Francis Coppola, Mario Puzo focused solely on novels for the rest of his career. In part because he liked having full control and knowing that the book was his.
I have resumed work on my novel. The thought of spending the next three years as a hermit is sort of scary, but in a funny way I’m happier. I feel like Merlin.
In the King Arthur story Merlin knows that the sorceress Morgan Le Fay is going to lock him in a cave for a thousand years. And as a kid I wondered why Merlin let her do it. Sure I knew she was an enchantress, but wasn’t Merlin a great magician? Well, being a magician doesn’t always help and enchantments are traditionally cruel.
It sounds crazy to go back to writing a novel. Even degenerate. But much as I bitch about publishers and publishing, they know it’s the writer’s book, not theirs. And New York publishers may not have the charm of Hollywood movie people, but they don’t demote you down to partners. The writer is the star, the director, the studio chief. It’s never MY movie but it’s always MY novel. It’s all mine, and I guess that’s the only thing that really counts in an enchantment.
Mario Puzo was born in New York and, following military service in World War II, attended the New School for Social Research and Columbia University. His bestselling novel The Godfather (1969) was preceded by two critically acclaimed novels, The Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965). He is the author of seven other novels, including The Sicilian (1984) and The Last Don (1996). Puzo also wrote many screenplays, including those for Earthquake, Superman, and all three Godfather movies, for which he received two Academy Awards. He died in July 1999 at his home on Long Island, at the age of seventy-eight.
Mario Puzo with Francisco Ford Coppola, who co-wrote and directed The Godfather.
If you enjoyed The Making of The Godfather, you might also like:
You can find other books like The Making of The Godfather in these collections: