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Saturday, July 3, 1999 Published at 07:46 GMT 08:46 UK

World: Americas

Godfather creator dies

Marlon Brando as mobster Vito Corleone (right)

The best-selling American writer Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, has died at his home in Long Island, aged 78.

The BBC's Susan Flory reports on the man who brought the Mafia to the big screen
Puzo also wrote the screenplays for the three Godfather films, for which he was awarded two Oscars.

The Godfather, the saga of the fictional Corleone Mafia family, became one of the best-selling books of all time, selling more than 21 million copies worldwide.

Puzo, who is reported to have died from heart failure, had just completed his latest organised crime book, Omerta, which is due out in July 2000.

One of the first to pay tribute to Puzo was actor James Caan, who played Sonny Corleone in The Godfather.

"His talent was obvious," he said. "I had the good fortune of working with him on The Godfather and the misfortune of not knowing him better."

After the book's phenomenal success, Puzo was often asked if he had ties to organised crime - and his answer was always no.

[ image: Puzo had just completed his latest book]
Puzo had just completed his latest book
"It might have been preferable to be in the Mafia," he once said. "I'm glad I'm a writer, but it's hard work. Nobody likes to work hard."

Puzo said his portrayal of the Corleones, with their emphasis on honour and family, was ''a very romanticised myth".

He charted the family's rise in the early years of 20th century America, its slide into organised crime, links to Sicilian traditions and the ultimate downfall of its leaders, destroyed by the very power they sought out.

But some gangsters disagreed with Puzo's own protestations that it was all fiction.

Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, an "underboss" with the Gambino family once said he had been flabbergasted when he saw the film.

"I left that movie stunned," he remembered. "I floated out of the theatre. Maybe it was fiction, but for me, then, that was our life.''

Puzo also wrote several other novels chronicling organised crime families, including The Sicilian and The Last Don.

Pulp fiction

The son of illiterate Italian immigrants, Puzo was born in the New York neighbourhood of Hell's Kitchen.

[ image:  ]
After serving in World War II, he began his writing career by penning pulp stories for men's magazines.

In 1955 he published his critically-acclaimed first novel The Dark Arena.

His next book, an autobiographical piece about the Italian immigrant experience, The Fortunate Pilgrim, was hailed by The New York Times as "a small classic". But it sold fewer than 5,000 copies.

But 45 years old, $20,000 in debt and with a wife and five children, Puzo opted to forgo literature for a best-seller.

''The Godfather is not as good as the preceding two (novels)," he once said. "I wrote it to make money."

He also said he wished he had "written it better".

Puzo enjoyed what he called a "bourgeois life" with homes in Los Angeles and Long Island and frequent gambling trips to Las Vegas. He was also a keen tennis player.

He is survived by his companion of 20 years Carol Gino and five children.

A private family service is planned for Monday.

His works of fiction included:

  • The Dark Arena (1955)
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964)
  • The Godfather (1969)
  • Fools Die (1978)
  • The Sicilian (1984)
  • The Fourth K (1992)
  • The Last Don (1996)
  • Omerta (expected July 2000)

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