Did Puzo Steal The Godfather's Most Famous Line?

"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."

Many phrases from The Godfather film (or book) are not only highly memorable, but are often articulated in daily affairs, I'd wager; perhaps mostly in jest, though it is not inconceivable that some lines also could be used occasionally against more formal backdrops.

I myself used an expression -- "It's business; nothing personal" -- during tense negotiations over certain revenue owed to me (and still owed to me) for services rendered: the writing of several  labyrinthine, tortuously dull financial news stories, coupled with the copy editing of many additional ones.

I was told "the check was in the mail" about three-four times before I made inquiries regarding said check. Such a thing had never happened to me before in my entire professional career.

I kept hearing: "I'm cutting the check now; it'll be in the mail this afternoon."

And responding: "Yes, but you've been telling me that every week for exactly one month so far..."

It was an off-the-record agreement with an Internet startup; would've been "free" cash, had I ever received it. I didn't and try as I may, I couldn't get anywhere with him. Now I know what Tony Soprano meant in that episode about Armagnac, in which Artie Bucco pretended to be a loan shark.

"If you don't get your arms around this thing, they start acting like they're doing you a favor," Tony told the hair-challenged, down-on-his-luck citizen restaurateur with connections from which he rarely seemed to benefit on even the most rudimentary level.

He did start acting like he was doing me a favor; like I was annoying him. He actually seemed to have convinced himself that the payment was for work not yet done, rather than work already completed back in the ever-receding past. I stopped writing for the site, telling him I would only get back to work once I was paid what I was owed.

But it's that first line, the one I used to kick off this story, that I believe has been most deeply absorbed into the American mindset.

The Godfather was published in 1969; the 1972 film, based on only parts of the book--other parts were used in GF2; still others were dropped entirely, thank God. Puzo was an odd fabulist; the book is stuffed with dispensable secondary characters, one of whom is a woman obsessed with finding a surgeon capable of repairing a most peculiar medical condition that tormented her: a too-large vagina!

The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the greatest films in world cinema—and as one of the most influential, especially in the gangster genre. It is currently ranked as the second-greatest film in American cinema (behind Citizen Kane) by the American Film Institute and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1990. (Data courtesy of Wikipedia, which footnoted each fact.)

Readers must be familiar with the famous line: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." It was used twice and alluded to a couple of other times. The first and most prominent time it came out of Marlon Brando's voice (he was channeling Frank Costello, supposedly, who earned his gravelly, cigarette-seasoned manner of speech thanks to faulty throat surgery) was when he told Frank Sinatra--um, make that Johnny Fontane-- that he, the Godfather himself, would free his godson of Woltz's mephistophelean contract which the studio chief was using to kill the ambitious film career that the crooner was trying to build for himself.

I have been reading "The Italians," by Luigi Barzini and came across a passage that stopped me cold... I thought, "Puzo, you dirty dog." (The name Barzini should ring a bell, if you've seen the film. "Tatalia's a pimp. He never could've outfought Santino. But I didn't know until today that it was Barzini all along..." Interesting. Read on.

Published in 1964, five years before Puzo's novel, here is the text in question, which runs on page 255 of my Simon & Schuster Touchstone  edition: 

"Everybody, of course,  knows... that the trouble the Mafia defends one from is almost always contrived and controlled by the Mafia itself... But the relationship between the Mafia and its victims is not limited to the collection of money. A day always comes when the Mafia also needs some favor in return. On that day, a man discovers he can no longer refuse...."

Whatya think?


More to come: Luigi Barzini compares traditional Sicilians to Mafiosi--and why doesn't John Dickie read "The Italians"?

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