The entire genre of the Mafia in books, movies and its countless cultural spinoffs, from video games to pizza chains, originated from the powerful imagination of Mario Puzo. Puzo (1920-1999) gave few interviews, preferring to represent himself from behind the typewriter. A World War II vet, M.P.’s novels include The Dark Arena, The Fortunate Pilgrim, The Godfather and Fools Die; non-fiction books include The Godfather Papers, Inside Las Vegas; screenplays include the three Godfather films, Earthquake and Superman. The following interview was done for this series in 1984.
Question: When did you arrive and which titles did you work on?
PUZO: When I got to Magazine Management, I think it was ’60. I worked on Male and Men.
Q. Did you save any of your issues?
PUZO: I had some, but I don’t know where the hell they are now.
Q. Did you ever meet any authentic readers of the magazines back then?
PUZO: Naw. But I got letters, the magazines got letters. They would correct factual details, which was very funny, ’cause the whole piece was usually made up.
Q. How did it feel when you ran out of real battles and started making up new World War II battles?
PUZO: Oh, it was a lot of fun. I wrote “A Bridge Too Far,” that story of the Arnhem invasion. After you got through reading my story, you thought the Allies won the battle, not the Germans.
Q. Weren’t there any letters doubting this version?
PUZO: Never. I got the airborne division wrong and received a letter about that. The funniest time was when the FBI came up to investigate us on a story made up about Russia. We printed some photos from Russia of people on the beach, and identified them as a group from the underground, or one of those bullshit things, and the FBI came up to ask us to really identify them. They talked mostly to [associate editor] Bernie Garfinkel, but he wouldn’t spill the beans. Finally, just to get rid of them, he told ’em, hey, the story was all made up.
Q. Did you use any of your own World War II experiences in those stories?
PUZO: I used to love to do research—like when I wrote an adventure story about the Arctic, I would read all the Arctic books. I became an expert on the Arctic. Then I did an article on sharks, which was fascinating. It never occurred to me that sharks would make a novel or a movie. Doing research, I came across the story of The Sting in an old book, which I remember because it was such a good scam. But again, it never occurred to me it would make a movie.
Q. You used to have a lot of books around your desk.
PUZO: Yeah, well remember, I had to turn out three stories a month, and by doing all that research, it wasn’t that hard. I’ll tell ya, sometimes I would read 10 or 20 books to do one article. I’d go to the library and get ’em. I loved to read and I’m a very fast reader. I could read two books a day, so I just used to eat ’em up. I used to read them on company time and at home. We were always looking for stuff we could take off on, so part of our job was reading a lot.
Q. In recent years they’ve been digging out your old Mag Management stories and making what seem to be illegitimate movies out of them.
PUZO: Yeah, well the book bonuses, which were long stories, were very much like movie scripts. When I came to do movie scripts, essentially what I did was write a book bonus, which was broken up into dialog and description of scenes. You had to be economical, you had to cram as much action and plot as possible into a short space.
Q. Did you sense 25 years ago that it was so close to writing a movie script?
PUZO: No, because at that time, I was never interested in writing for the movies. It never occurred to me that someday I would be a guy who wrote movies. I didn’t think of those stories in movie terms.
Q. I remember a paperback with the “Mario Cleri” pseudonym.
PUZO: That was called “Seven Graves to Munich” in the magazine. Then I wrote it as a movie script, Seven Graves for Rogen. I made a lot of money on it, because I had it optioned about four times, and then finally it was made into a terrible movie. I had my name taken off the screenplay, but I got credit, you know, story by Mario Puzo.
Q. Don’t you have to keep a close eye on that today, if producers go scouring through old magazines for stories with your pen name?
PUZO: Yeah, but they’re so similar. Like, The A-Team on TV today. I wrote a story called “The Lorch Team.” I turned that into a movie script that’s been optioned. But they got the idea, I think, from that story I wrote.
Q. When did these stories start to get optioned?
PUZO: After The Godfather.
Q. Did you ever write a story at Magazine Management which was a direct predecessor to The Godfather?
PUZO: The funny thing is, I don't think I ever wrote anything about gangsters. They were usually pure adventure stories dealing with the war or some exotic locale. The magazines didn’t print gangster stuff, that wasn’t part of our repertoire, as they say.
Q. Did you ever write a story on Vietnam?
PUZO: Yeah, I did one or two, but they were absolute poison. The readers didn’t like to read about it. That was very early on in Vietnam. We used to emphasize that Vietnam only had poison sticks. How the Poison Stick Army Beat America’s Ultra-Modern Weapons, shit like that.
Q. But it never went over?
PUZO: Nah, they hated it. Also we weren’t the heroes. Just like the Korean War—we used to call that The No Fun War. World War II was The Fun War. And you could get some mileage out of the Civil War and World War I. World War II was a bonanza. But Korea and Vietnam were losers.
Q. Did you ever write a story about animals nibbling people apart?
PUZO: No, that wasn’t part of my repertoire. Just a shark story. We had specialists. I was the big specialist for adventure and war stories. John Bowers was the specialist on hot love stories, another guy was a factual reporter.
Q. How about the legendary, though untraceable, Walter Kaylin?
PUZO: He was great! He wrote these great adventures, but he couldn’t turn them out that fast. He was outrageous, he just carried it off. He’d have this one guy killing a thousand other guys. Then they beat him into the ground, you think he’s dead, but he rises up again and kills another thousand guys.
Q. Remember the illustrations of huge armies that accompanied your stories?
PUZO: Bruce used to scare me to death and say we got the illos, and I hadn’t even started the story yet. Sometimes you had to write a story because they had a good illustration, you’d build a story around it. You’d stray off a bit, but you wrote a scene that would correspond exactly with the action in the illo.
Q. They never ran abstract illustrations?
PUZO: They were literal. Bruce showed me an illo of American paratroopers dropping on the roof of a German prison camp. I wrote that scene, and worked the rest of the story around it.
Q. How many pages of a book bonus could you write in a typical day?
PUZO: I used to do a book bonus on the weekends, which was at least 60 pages. I never could write in the office, I had to work at home. When I was working on The Godfather, I was doing three stories a month, I was writing book reviews for The New York Times, Book World, Time magazine, and I wrote a children’s book [The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw]. All at one time. And I was publishing other articles. I had four years where I must have knocked out millions of words.
I tell ya, it’s absolutely the best training a writer could get, to work on those magazines. You did everything.
Q: There's no equivalent today.
PUZO: It’s a shame. If I had a son who wanted to be a writer, I wouldn’t even bother to send him to college. I’d get him a job up there as an assistant editor, leave him there for five years and he’d know everything. You’ve got to turn out a lot of copy.
Q. Now that men’s magazines have all gone the route of pornography, when you look back, do the Magazine Management books seem more special?
PUZO: They were innocent in a funny kind of way. We had cheesecake and the stories themselves were innocent. They were like Doc Savage and The Shadow brought up to date.
Q. Like comic books for grown-ups?
PUZO: Right. . . Walter Kaylin, come back!
© 1984, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman