Clark Collis
May 04, 2012 AT 04:00 AM EDT

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.

In February of this year, Paramount filed a lawsuit in New York against Anthony Puzo, one of Mario’s children and the executor of the author’s estate. The suit claimed the Puzo family had no right to authorize a Godfather prequel novel, called The Family Corleone, which Grand Central Publishing is putting out May 8. The book, based on an unpublished screenplay for Godfather IV that Puzo wrote in the ’90s, was penned by novelist Ed Falco, uncle of The Sopranos star Edie. Set in the ’30s, The Family Corleone details how the young Sonny graduated from hijacking truckloads of booze with a group of Irish criminals to becoming a full-fledged member of the Corleone Mafia hierarchy.

The Puzo family’s response has been to “go to the mattresses,” at least legally speaking. In March entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, a longtime friend of Puzo’s, submitted an “Answer and Counterclaim,” which insisted the author had kept the literary rights to The Godfather in both the 1967 contract and a 1969 agreement that was struck between Paramount and Puzo once the studio decided to adapt the book. “[Mario] always said, ‘Book publishing is my world and I’m not giving any studio book-publishing rights,'” says Fields. The Puzos’ countersuit also argued that Paramount has breached the 1969 agreement with its legal action and asked for the ability to terminate the studio’s Godfather rights. “We’re not attempting to set aside ownership of the three movies that have been made, just to terminate any further Godfather rights,” says Fields.

And if that succeeds, there may be a Godfather IV, but it won’t be at Paramount. “[Mario] made so much money for them,” says Fields. “To my mind, [the lawsuit] is disgraceful.” Naturally, Paramount takes a different view. “The studio has tremendous respect and admiration for Mario Puzo, whose novel The Godfather was acquired in 1969 and helped spawn one of the most celebrated film trilogies of all time,” a Paramount spokesperson tells EW in a written statement. “We have an obligation to and will protect our copyright and trademark interests.” (A spokesperson for Grand Central Publishing declined to comment, pointing out that the company is not party to the litigation.)

In fairness, Puzo himself did very well from the deal with Paramount. (And he once wrote that he didn’t hold it against the studio that “they got The Godfather so cheap.”) Puzo was hired to co-write the first movie with Coppola — a gig that afforded him the opportunity to sweeten his deal by stealing Evans’ Cuban cigars when the studio chief wasn’t around. In 1973 Puzo and Coppola won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the movie and two years later took home the same trophy for Godfather II. Over the next decade, the perennially desperate-for-dough novelist enjoyed a lucrative Hollywood career as he worked on the screenplays for the first two Superman films — for which he was paid $300,000 — and Coppola’s 1984 gangster movie, The Cotton Club. The success of the Godfather movies also boosted sales of the original book.

Puzo and Coppola collaborated again on 1990’s The Godfather Part III. That movie proved much less of a commercial and critical triumph than its two predecessors and appeared to close the curtain on moviedom’s most infamous family of olive oil importers. However, Puzo had other ideas. The same year as the release of Godfather III, the author underwent quadruple bypass surgery and, like Brando’s Don Corleone following his attempted assassination, sought to secure the future of his family after his death. In a 2007 interview with MTV News, Coppola recalled that “Mario was very concerned to make money because he was getting older and he really wanted to leave his kids well-fixed.” The director had the idea of setting a movie in the ’30s, after the Robert De Niro sequences of Godfather II but prior to the start of The Godfather. “Mario called it the ‘happy years’ — when we killed them and they didn’t kill us,” Coppola remembered. “I said to Paramount, ‘Look, we have an idea of a structure of this thing. Pay Mario Puzo a million dollars to do this first draft, and I’ll help him and work with him.’ And they basically didn’t do it.”

Undeterred, Puzo set about writing a Godfather IV script. Jonathan Karp was Puzo’s editor from the early ’90s until his death and describes the screenplay as having “all of the wonderful flavor of the Godfather movies. Mario was not done with Sonny Corleone. He thought there was more to Sonny’s story and was interested in going back and writing about him.” Karp, now publisher of Simon & Schuster, says he repeatedly tried to persuade Puzo to write another Godfather novel, without success. But Puzo gave him permission to publish further Corleone books after his death. “He wanted to leave a legacy to his family,” says Karp, who hired Mark Winegardner to write The Godfather’s Return, which was published in 2004, and 2006’s The Godfather’s Revenge.

Although no trial date has been set, Fields says he is “very confident” the Puzo family will carry the day. “I represented Mario in many things,” says Fields. “We were good friends. I promised him that I would protect his kids. That’s what I’m doing.” In this matter, at least, the lawyer appears to be ignoring a famous Godfather axiom: “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

Karp, meanwhile, says the current imbroglio would not have surprised Puzo: “He frequently said there was much more honor among people in the Mafia than there is among people in Hollywood.”

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