Lunchtime at the Plaza: the hotel’s famous fountain flowed, the pianist played, the lobby was filled with ladies who lunch and tourists who gape. And there in the middle of this rich Manhattan tapestry was Al Ruddy, the newly anointed producer of The Godfather, sitting with his then wife, Françoise, when the man he was waiting for sauntered in.

Ruddy did a double take. The big cigar. The greased-back black hair. The enormous body sweating in an overcoat. No, it couldn’t be. But tucked beneath the man’s arm was a black-brick copy of The Godfather, and he was ambling toward the table, where he extended his fleshy hand in greeting.

“Mario Puzo,” he said.

Puzo had been surprised by the invitation to meet with Ruddy. His novel had been published a year earlier, and he believed Paramount had lost interest in The Godfather. Now, his agent, Candida Donadio, had gotten a call from Paramount, asking if Puzo would adapt his novel into a screenplay.

Producer Al Ruddy, who lured Puzo to L.A. to work on the film, celebrates its Oscar wins.

Puzo, flush with cash for the first time in his life, turned down their original offer—too low. But when they came back with more, and a percentage of the net, Puzo agreed to have lunch with Ruddy and hear him out. Even though Puzo had never written a screenplay before, and novelists were famously sensitive about cutting down their masterpieces for the screen—a serious consideration when the masterpiece in question is 448 pages long.

“My father was prepared to say no again,” said his eldest son, Anthony Puzo. Just then, Ruddy’s wife opened her purse and a miniature poodle emerged to “let out a yip,” Puzo wrote. “It seemed Al and his wife took the poodle everywhere.... At the end of the lunch, I was enchanted by them and the poodle and I agreed to write the script.”

As for any sensitivity about cutting down his novel, Puzo grabbed his copy of The Godfather and threw it on the carpeted floor. “You have my word of honor that I will never look at the book again,” he told Ruddy.

“Mario, you just got the job,” Ruddy said, extending his hand.

Puzo would, of course, have to write the script in Los Angeles, in an office on the Paramount lot, and he would, of course, be well compensated. There would be money up front, plus $500 a week for expenses and 2.5 percent of the movie’s net profits. (A sucker bet, as he learned the hard way, given how studios routinely used accounting tricks to claim a film had netted them nothing.)

But to seal the deal, Ruddy needed the approval of the one person who had veto power over Puzo’s affairs: his wife. Erika Puzo had long kept watch over her diabetic husband’s appetite, worried he would eat himself to death without her constant supervision. So Ruddy drove out to their home in Long Island to assure Erika that Mario would be safe in his care.

“Mrs. Puzo, I will pick him up in the morning, will have dinner with him at night,” Ruddy said amid the cacophony of the kids—the soundtrack of the world where Puzo had written his opus. “I will be with him every day, and I will make sure he stays on his diet.”

“Fine, Mr. Ruddy,” she replied. “I trust you.”

Famous Last Words

Puzo was soon headed to Hollywood, the family “chooch” flying first class. He was delivered to the door of the Pink Palace—the renowned Beverly Hills Hotel, with its endlessly long red carpet and its white-and-green-striped awning—where the author was immediately surrounded by a battalion of attendants, leading him to his $500-a-week suite, all arranged by Paramount.

Puzo arrives at the premiere, 1972.

Mario Puzo arrived at Paramount not merely as a best-selling author but as something of an emerging American hero. After so many years of failure and near-destitution, he was riding what could only be viewed as an absolutely unbelievable hot streak. He was rolling nothing but sevens, in a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

He had based much of The Godfather on a 1910 Western classic, “a book I read when I was a kid, Zane Grey’s Heritage of the Desert,” he said. His novel would represent a new form of Western with a new style of outlaw justice and at the perfect time.

The media scholar Robert J. Thompson noted in the 2002 reissue of The Godfather that the year of the novel’s publication, 1969, was a time when “the whole myth of America was up for grabs.” Traditional TV Westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza were still popular but fading, and that year’s crop of movies included Easy Rider (“counterculture cowboys who rode hogs instead of horses and did drugs instead of driving dogies”), True Grit (“featuring John Wayne as an over-the-hill marshal”), and The Wild Bunch (which “essentially pronounced dead the myth of the West”).

“It was into this contested cultural environment that The Godfather introduced another myth,” wrote Thompson. Puzo’s new American Western had “an unbreakable code, a solid sense of family, and an ability to bypass bureaucratic loopholes and inefficiencies,” Thompson wrote, and it “presented a seductive alternative world. These people could get things done, and while some of those things were horrible, most of their victims deserved what they got and were usually outlaws themselves.”

The literary gunslinger who created this brave new world—and this new outlaw reality—was now in Hollywood to create the same frenzy on the screen as he had done in his pages.

Ruddy tried his best to honor his promise to Erika Puzo and keep her husband on a strict diet. He picked the writer up every morning and drove him to the studio, where the two shared their meals: egg whites and raw tomatoes for breakfast, a hamburger patty and a broiled pear for lunch. Sometimes they would even meet for a low-calorie dinner.

But something curious happened: Ruddy lost weight, while Puzo continued to pack on the pounds. The mystery deepened until one night when Ruddy walked into a local pizza parlor with his family.

“Mario Puzo is a great guy,” the proprietor told Ruddy.

“How do you know Mario?,” Ruddy asked.

“I take a pizza to him every night at the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

When Puzo Met Coppola

Puzo had worked on the screenplay alone before the arrival of Francis Coppola in late September 1970. Coppola’s arrival was “a huge relief for Mario,” said Puzo’s assistant Janet Snow. Because Puzo quickly realized that Coppola had the perfect vision for transforming his novel into a movie. “When Mario heard Francis’s vision … he knew he really got it. And Mario was able to relax.”

Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola, photographed on set by Steve Schapiro.

“I immediately liked Mario; found him funny, wise, and lovable,” said Coppola. “He spoke in clear, short, wise statements. I must say, certainly after the entire term of my work with him, that I admired and respected him. And I loved him.”

Puzo’s script was a different matter. “I liked Mario much more than his script,” Coppola said of the author’s early draft. The director also recognized that Puzo had a few blind spots of his own. “He couldn’t speak Italian,” Coppola said. “He had taken most of what he knew about the Mafia from The Valachi Papers. He didn’t know that calling the character Don Corleone was incorrect—it would have been Don Vito.”

Puzo suggested that he and Coppola work on the script together. “Francis looked me right in the eye and said no,” Puzo wrote. “That’s when I knew he was really a director.”

The first four words of The Godfather are among the greatest opening lines in cinema history. They are spoken by an immigrant, Amerigo Bonasera, an undertaker whose first name is Italian for the country he has come to call home, a country that has both enriched him and betrayed him. The words speak not only to the bittersweet experience of Italian Americans but to all those whose faith in the nation’s ideals have been driven to the breaking point.

Coppola gives notes to Marlon Brando on set.

“I believe in America,” Bonasera says, his brooding, moonlike face peering out from the shadows after the title has rolled. “America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but—I taught her never to dishonor her family.

“She found a boyfriend, not an Italian. She went to the movies with him; she stayed out late. I didn’t protest. Two months ago, he took her for a drive, with another boyfriend. They made her drink whiskey. And then they tried to take advantage of her. She resisted. She kept her honor. So they beat her, like an animal.

“When I went to the hospital, her nose was broken. Her jaw was shattered, held together by wire. She couldn’t even weep because of the pain. But I wept. Why did I weep? She was the light of my life—beautiful girl. Now she will never be beautiful again.”

He breaks down in sobs. The camera pulls back, and the audience sees the hand of a man behind a desk, gesturing to his son to bring the sobbing undertaker a drink.

“I—I went to the police, like a good American,” Bonasera continues after regaining his composure. “These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison, and suspended the sentence. Suspended the sentence! They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, ‘For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.’”

The man behind the desk speaks for the first time, his voice a raspy murmur. “Why did you go to the police?” he asks. “Why didn’t you come to me first?”

The whisper scene.

“What do you want from me?” says Bonasera. “Tell me anything. But do what I beg you to do.”

“What is that?”

The undertaker rises and whispers in Don Corleone’s ear. The camera pulls back, and the old man’s face is seen for the first time: the greatest actor in the world, Marlon Brando. Not the youthful Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire or On the Waterfront, nor the aging Brando of his recent string of box-office bombs. This is a Brando reborn.

The jowly, jaw-jutting face of a bulldog. The tuxedo. The vagabond cat that had wandered onto the set on his lap. A Mafia don who can deliver what the state has failed to provide: justice. As he rises to console the undertaker, his unmistakable power establishes the tone and trajectory of everything to follow, a dark and brutal descent into the American Dream.

It was not an obvious place to begin. In Puzo’s book, the scene doesn’t appear until well into the first chapter: after the novel’s opening, with Bonasera awaiting justice in New York Criminal Number 3. Others might have overlooked the short, solitary sentence buried deep in the middle of an overstuffed paragraph on page 29.

But Francis Ford Coppola saw its potential. The line, he realized, represented “the real appeal of The Godfather, that you could go to someone if you weren’t being treated fairly, and the Godfather would make it right.”

Coppola had always been able to see things others couldn’t, conjuring up entire worlds from thin air. In the first of his many moves to gain artistic control over the film, Coppola had taken over the screenplay. Sitting in Caffe Trieste, a legendary Italian institution in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, day after day, he would draw from his notes and Puzo’s draft, typing on his yellow Olivetti Lettera 32 manual typewriter.

Coppola sets up a dinner scene.

Then he would send what he had written to Puzo, who would make corrections and offer his thoughts. “Frankly,” Coppola said, “I felt he had done the hard heavy lifting by writing the novel, which yielded tons of great stuff, as evidenced by the notebook I prepared. So I did the heavy lifting of the screenplay, and he commented and revised by adding comments and crossing out things. This work was nonetheless crucial and greatly improved the script.”

In the scene where Clemenza tells Michael how to make spaghetti sauce, Coppola had written, “First, you brown some sausage, and then you throw in the tomatoes.”

In his notes on the line, Puzo scribbled, “Gangsters don’t brown. Gangsters fry!”

Coppola’s draft, which eventually expanded to encompass five acts and 50 scenes, was soon sprinkled with Puzo’s terse, precise observations.

“Mario loved to gamble, so I suggested that we go and stay at a gambling casino in Reno to work on the emerging script,” said Coppola. It was a process they would repeat for both Godfather sequels.

“A casino is the perfect place for writers to collaborate,” Coppola wrote in his introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of the novel. “There are no clocks, so you can order up bacon and eggs (or anything) at any hour. When you reach a snag, you can always go downstairs to play roulette, which Mario loved to do. And then if you hit big losses—which Mario hated to do; he was a truly terrible gambler, despite knowing tons about it—you could escape back upstairs to continue working.”

Puzo at home on Long Island with his Oscars.

Like all gamblers, Puzo trusted that the math would work itself out. “I’m losing thousands down here,” he told Coppola, “but making millions upstairs.”

Money couldn’t buy the glory the movie bestowed: resuscitating the career of Marlon Brando, saving Paramount, revitalizing and revolutionizing the entire film industry, and turning its once downtrodden author into a legend.

Out on the South Shore of Long Island, Mario Puzo lived in the big house he bought soon after his novel became a hit. Just beyond the bedroom, with its purple carpets, was his office, painted his favorite color—pink. He published six more novels, all best-sellers, and became a multi-millionaire screenwriter, not only of The Godfather and its sequels but also Superman, in 1978, and its sequel two years later.

He died of heart failure on July 2, 1999, at 78. At his funeral, laminated cards were passed out with a quote from his novel Fools Die: “Merlin, Merlin … Surely a thousand years have passed and you must be awake in your cave, putting on your star-covered conical hat to walk through a strange new world.”

It was a reference to Puzo’s favorite mythological character, Merlin, and the magic that transformed a dead-broke, middle-aged writer who once lay in a gutter into a prince of Hollywood and the envy of the literary world.

Mark Seal is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and the author of many nonfiction books, including The Man in the Rockefeller Suit and Wildflower, the tragic story of slain Kenyan wildlife activist and filmmaker Joan Root