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When he began to write The Godfather, Mario Puzo had realized he couldn’t survive on the minor acclaim and meager compensation his literary fiction had earned him. He wanted to make some money. And unlike most writers who set out with that goal, Puzo delivered. He wrote a wildly popular novel that became one of Hollywood’s greatest blockbusters.

Actually, to say Puzo wanted to make money isn’t quite accurate; he needed the money. “I was 45 and tired of being an artist,” he wrote in The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions. “I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks, and other assorted bookmakers and shylocks.”

Most of that went away when his agent got $410,000 (a record sum in the late ’60s) for the paperback rights to The Godfather. However, Puzo began to prove he was as bad with large sums of money as he was with small ones. Within a few months, he’d spent $100,000.

But he still had the film rights to sell so he could become a millionaire, right? Not exactly: Puzo had sold them before he’d finished the book. He’d gotten a whopping $12,500 from Paramount Pictures for The Godfather.

Mario Puzo’s agent advised against the $12,500 ‘Godfather’ deal with Paramount

Mario Puzo, with cigar in his mouth, pushes a shopping cart through the aisles of a wine store.
Mario Puzo walks through a market in Malibu in 1979. | Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Legendary film producers have a reputation for seeing a picture’s potential from just a few words (25 words or less, per The Player). So you might think that’s what Paramount production head Robert Evans saw in Puzo’s outline for The Godfather.

After all, Paramount had made the deal for the film rights when Puzo only had 100 pages of the book on paper. But Evans said it didn’t go like that in his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture. In his recollection, Evans agreed to buy the rights to Puzo’s book for an inconsequential $12,500 as a favor, from one gambler to another.

Evans said that Puzo came to him in a jam, with the writer owing $10,000 to connected loan sharks. “I looked at it as a gift, a chit,” Evans wrote. “One gambler helping another gambler out of a heavy muscle jam.” Then the book took off and Evans felt like he’d made the ultimate score.

“For 10 Gs and change, I sat owning the rights to the Hope diamond of literature,” he wrote. Evans was right, of course. But Puzo said that meeting never happened. And, anyway, his agent advised against optioning the film rights for that amount.

Puzo was completely broke when he agreed to the ‘Godfather’ deal

Salvatore Corsitto speaks in the ear of a seated Marlon Brando in a scene from 'The Gpdfather.'
Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera leans in to speak to Don Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather.” | CBS via Getty Images

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While mobsters might not have been threatening to break Puzo’s legs over his gambling debts, the writer himself admitted owing money to loan sharks. So it was certainly a possibility. The bigger reason was, he owed money to everybody.

And at the time Paramount made its miniscule offer for the book, Puzo didn’t know if it would turn out well. So he ignored his agent’s advice. “They advised me to wait,” Puzo wrote in The Godfather Papers. “That was like advising a guy underwater to take a deep breath.”

Puzo accepted, and it took a while for him to realize his folly. “The $12,500 looked like Fort Knox,” he recalled. The story has a happy ending, of course. Once Paramount made the picture, Puzo got another $50,000, plus a salary to work on the script. Then came a far more lucrative deal for the blockbuster sequel.