Following the commercial failure of Mario Puzo’s second novel, 1965’s The Fortunate Pilgrim, the author found himself desperately short of cash — and turned to the Mafia for help. The son of illiterate Italian immigrants, Puzo had once dreamed of following in the literary footsteps of his hero Dostoevsky, and his first two books had been high-minded “literary” affairs. Together, they had taken him more than 10 years to write and earned him a mere $6,500. With five children to support — and a gambling habit to finance — Puzo began work on a much more commercial novel, a saga about a New York Mob family. He originally intended to call it Mafia, but the book would ultimately be published under a different name: The Godfather. “I was tired of being an artist,” Puzo once recalled. “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.”
After Puzo had written 100 pages, the William Morris Agency hawked the novel’s film rights. Paramount offered $12,500 for the option, an additional $38,000 if the movie got made — and more if it proved a box office hit. In 1967 Puzo signed on the dotted line against the advice of the agency. Paramount’s then chief Robert Evans later described the deal as “one gambler helping another.”
Evans’ gamble paid off. Puzo’s tale of Mafia boss Vito Corleone and his offspring had spent 67 weeks on the best-seller list by the time Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version hit screens in the spring of 1972. Coppola’s film was, for a period, the highest-grossing movie of all time and helped save Paramount from financial ruin. By the time The Godfather Part II started making serious coin following its release in December 1974, Paramount’s contract with Puzo was looking like one of the deals of the century.
Today, 13 years after the author died of heart failure, that deal has provoked a legal battle between Paramount and the Puzo estate over who has the right to continue the saga of the Corleones. It is a battle that, if the Puzo estate wins, could result in Vito, Sonny, Michael, Tom Hagen, and many other characters returning to the big screen in a fourth Godfather film.